The US’ proclaimed support for accountability faces tests both at home and abroad. Within the United States, the beating death of Tyre Nichols by police officers in Memphis earlier this year has called into question the commitments to police accountability made by federal, state, and local governments in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests of 2020. Abroad, the Biden administration is struggling with how to hold Russia accountable for its blatant aggression in Ukraine without appearing too hypocritical in the context of the 20th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Yet, Americans recognize that accountability matters — and the demand for it is growing.
Recent research by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Stimson Center found that the United States should embrace a comprehensive approach to accountability in line with the needs and perspectives of communities harmed by its security activities. And the good news is that the American public agrees. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by YouGov as part of the CIVIC and the Stimson Center’s research, Americans believe that accountability for harm is critical for achieving US domestic and foreign policy priorities, including strengthening democracy.
A DEMAND FOR ACCOUNTABILITY
The predominantly Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Muslim, and low-income communities harmed by US security activities — whether through law enforcement domestically or military actions abroad — have long demanded various forms of accountability and justice for harm. CIVIC and the Stimson Center’s research found that, across this domestic-international divide, peoples’ visions for accountability shared common elements, including acknowledgment, explanation, and apologies; taking responsibility and making amends; legal liability and disciplinary action; and non-repetition. Notably for US policymakers, the YouGov survey found that Americans agree with these varied approaches to accountability.
54% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that for the United States to play a credible leadership role in the world now and in the future, it must own up to the harms it has caused in the recent past.
Survey participants were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements related to security accountability based on a scale of strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Responses to these statements indicate that a majority of Americans support greater accountability for civilian harm during military operations. Americans also support defining accountability broadly to include public acknowledgment, apologies, and monetary amends. For example, 63% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that government accountability is important when civilians are killed, injured, or otherwise harmed as a result of US military conduct that occurs in the course of official duties, even when no laws are broken. Over three-quarters of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that the US government should express regret or apologize to civilians who are unintentionally harmed as a result of military operations. And 54% agreed or strongly agreed that the US government should provide support such as monetary payments, medical care, or the rebuilding of a home to civilians incidentally harmed or the families of those killed during military operations.
Americans shared similar attitudes when asked about harm committed by US law enforcement domestically: 66% agreed that government accountability is important when people are killed, injured, or otherwise harmed as a result of law enforcement conduct that occurs in the course of official duties, even when no laws are broken.
Contrary to common assumptions, Americans do not necessarily consider punishment as the primary — or even the most important — element of accountability. When asked to consider the relative importance of different elements of accountability, 75% of Americans pointed to “transparency in how situations are handled” and “changes to policy or procedure that prevent a similar act or failure to act” as “very important.” In comparison, 64% identified punishment as “very important.” However, the survey did not use any examples to illustrate these options.
Majority of Americans recognize security accountability as key to advancing US foreign policy goals and safeguarding democracy at home: 54% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that for the United States to play a credible leadership role in the world now and in the future, it must own up to the harms it has caused in the recent past. The survey also showed that 68% agreed or strongly agreed that accountability for law enforcement officers in the United States makes it a more credible leader in human rights and democracy abroad. A further 73% agreed or strongly agreed that the strength of American democracy depends on holding law enforcement officers accountable for their actions.
WHY ACCOUNTABILITY IS NECESSARY
As the survey results demonstrate, demand exists among the American public for an approach to security accountability that embraces a comprehensive framework and does not solely rely on punishment for legal violations. Further, the American public recognizes the clear benefits accountability brings not only to people harmed by US security policies and practices but to achieving foreign policy objectives and strengthening domestic democracy.
As implementation continues for the August 2022 Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (that aims to strengthen the Department of Defense’s ability to prevent, mitigate, and respond to civilian harm during operations) and President Joe Biden’s May 2022 Executive Order on effective, accountable policing (that intends to enhance public trust by promoting accountability, transparency, and the principles of equality and dignity in policing and the larger criminal justice system), Congress would do well to take heed of these demand signals.
CIVIC and the Stimson Center’s research identified three steps that the federal government can take to advance a comprehensive accountability framework in line with community priorities. The first is prioritizing non-repetition as a key facet of accountability. Non-repetition should incorporate both upstream and structural changes to prevent harm and efforts to identify, document, implement, and institutionalize lessons learned. The second step calls for conducting independent, comprehensive, and transparent investigations into alleged harm or misconduct — including reopening cases that have been dismissed due to shortcomings in past investigatory practices. And the third step consists of recognizing and taking responsibility for harm through public acknowledgment and apologies as well as tangible actions to repair harm where possible, including but not limited to monetary amends, compensation, and/or reparations.
While not exhaustive, these recommendations focus on actions that US policymakers can take to reorient US security accountability policies and practices toward a comprehensive approach that better reflects public sentiment.