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For the families and communities of civilians killed and injured by the U.S. military, it can be very difficult to find out why their relative was harmed, and what – if anything – the military may do to acknowledge, explain, or compensate their loss. The military can never fully remedy the death of a loved one or the destruction of a family’s livelihood. Yet effective military investigations into civilian harm can help answer important questions for affected civilians, provide a basis for appropriate redress, promote accountability, and allow the military to learn valuable lessons for avoiding or mitigating similar harm in the future.

The U.S. military has the capability to investigate thoroughly. Military leaders have publicly acknowledged the value of investigating allegations of civilian harm, and official military doctrine clarifies the benefits of investigations. However, over the last eighteen years, examples of good practice in investigating civilian harm have been overshadowed by the inconsistency – and, too often, inadequacy – of the overall record of military investigations. Impacted civilians and civil society organizations, both in the United States and in countries where the U.S. carries out military operations, have repeatedly called for more thorough and transparent investigations.

This report seeks to move the practice forward, by thoroughly analyzing the U.S. military’s standards and procedures for investigations into civilian harm. It aims to identify both the factors that are most important to ensure effective investigations and the obstacles or challenges that may prevent a successful investigation. The report also makes recommendations to improve investigations of civilian harm.