News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

April 8, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Despite receiving comprehensive findings on 38 civilian deaths five months ago, CENTCOM has yet to respond says human rights group.

The Yemeni human rights group Mwatana has accused US Central Command of being “very disrespectful to victims”, after it emerged that CENTCOM has still not publicly responded to a major investigation into civilians killed by US airstrikes and ground raids. Given five months’ advance notice of the findings of the investigation, which comprehensively detailed the deaths of at least 38 civilians in twelve likely US actions in Yemen during the Trump presidency, Mwatana says that CENTCOM has still not responded.

The 124-page report from Mwatana, ‘Death Falling From The Sky’, was eventually published in late March without input from CENTCOM. It presents a grim view of an intensive campaign by the US military under President Trump to target alleged Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen, part of a long-running counterterrorism effort begun by Barack Obama in 2009.

In total according to Airwars monitoring, a record 327 US airstrikes and ground actions in Yemen were alleged during the Trump presidency, of which 181 were officially declared. As many as 199 civilian deaths were locally alleged, with Airwars presently estimating that, based on the available public record, between 76 and 152 civilians were likely killed by the US in Yemen under Trump in 26 incidents.

Mwatana’s own report focuses on just twelve of these events – recording in meticulous detail the devastating effects of some US actions on local communities. Dozens of family members, survivors and eyewitnesses were interviewed in person. Comprehensive paperwork including hospital records and university and workplace documentation was gathered, confirming the civilian status of victims. Photographs and videos detail injuries to victims and damage to homes.

“The standard of information, and what we were able to get from the ground, is built on years of Mwatana work,” says Bonyan Jamal, an accountability officer at the Yemeni human rights organisation. “Thanks to our incredible researchers, and high quality work, we are able to speak directly to families and gain their trust.”

All twelve events documented by Mwatana were already publicly known – though civilian casualties have only been admitted by CENTCOM in one case. A detailed review by Airwars of ‘Death Falling From The Sky’ found it to be meticulously researched and documented; and conservative in its estimates of civilian harm from US actions. Victims were only identified, for example, after being explicitly named by witnesses and surviving family members. In any case where the combatant status of a casualty was less than clear, they were excluded from the potential civilian tally.

A disastrous US raid on the village of Yakla in late January 2017 killed up to 12 civilians, CENTCOM itself has confirmed. Others have placed the toll far higher. In its own estimate, Mwatana conservatively says that at least 15 civilians died that day. “For the Yakla event, we respect that others have reached different findings,” says Kristine Beckerle, legal director, accountability and redress at Mwatana. “We never say ‘these are all the people killed that day’. What we can say is that we are confident in those victims that we name.”

That conservative approach makes the investigation’s conclusion all the more damning. “This report raises serious concerns about the extent to which the United States is complying with international law in its use of lethal force in Yemen,” Mwatana asserts. “It finds that the United States is failing to investigate credible allegations of violations, to hold individuals responsible for violations to account, and to provide prompt and adequate reparations.”

Mwatana’s list of fifteen named fatal victims of a US raid on Yakla, Yemen in January 2017.

US silence on deaths of women

Each of the twelve events detailed in the Mwatana investigation provides such compelling evidence of civilian harm that CENTCOM’s continued silence appears inexplicable.

More than three weeks after the incident itself, a public US Central Command statement had for example confirmed that a US strike had taken place in the Yemeni province of Bayda on December 15th 2017, which it indicated had resulted in the death of Miqdad al-Sana’ani, described in the press release as an “external operations facilitator” for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). CENTCOM made no mention of civilian harm.

The only locally reported action in Bayda that December day was again in the village of Yakla – where all local sources agreed that a likely US drone strike had killed Hajera Ahmed Saleh Al Taisi, 33 years old and pregnant, and her 63-year old aunt, Dhabia Ahmad Al Taisi.

According to Mwatana, “On the day of the strike, Dhabia was visiting Hajera’s home, about 90 meters from Dhabia’s own small house. At about 6pm, as Dhabia was leaving the house, the strike occurred. The strike hit right next to the entrance of the house, killing Dhabia, who was standing by the door. Hajera was in her kitchen. She was hit by shrapnel in the neck, which ripped through her back. The surrounding homes suffered varying degrees of damage from the strike.”

According to one report, a man was also killed in the attack who may have been the AQAP suspect al-Sana’ani. Yet there is no dispute locally that two women died that day. As Hajera’s husband told Mwatana, ‘My wife was expecting a child; the shrapnel killed her and her fetus … The life of people and their movements are almost paralyzed by fear.”

Kristine Beckerle says this was one of the events she had expected CENTCOM to concede: “Maybe, I thought, they would admit the case of these two women – one pregnant, killed in their house. There is no advantage I can see to their not engaging on this case. Yet we have had no response until now.”

The #UnitedStates has never fully investigated the civilian cost of its operations in #Yemen, and has never taken sufficient steps to review the efficacy of these operations.

Read #DeathFallingFromTheSky report: https://t.co/ASqTtoyYlZ

— Mwatana for Human Rights (@MwatanaEn) March 31, 2021

CENTCOM: lack of accountability

US Central Command was first provided full details of the Mwatana investigation on November 4th 2020, says accountability officer Bonyan Jamal. “They have had more than five months to respond. We even delayed publication several times to give them the opportunity to respond. That CENTCOM didn’t even take the time to write a proper response to express their position on these findings is very disrespectful to victims.”

This echoes other recent experiences with the US’s largest combatant command. As this organisation recently noted in its own recent Yemen study Eroding Transparency, “Despite Airwars providing CENTCOM with its complete civilian harm findings on Yemen during the Trump presidency nine weeks prior to this report’s publication, officials unfortunately failed to provide any event responses.”

CENTCOM also had to issue an apology in late 2020 as a result of what it described as an “administrative error”, after conceding it had forgotten its own earlier public admission of the killing of up to 12 civilians during the raid on Yakla village in early 2017.

Accountability for civilian harm at CENTCOM appears to be in decline across several theatres under current commander General Kenneth ’Frank’ McKenzie, who took up his post in March 2019. As Airwars recently noted in its annual report, 2020 saw an unexplained 80 per cent drop in the number of civilian harm allegations deemed ‘Credible’ by CENTCOM assessors working with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria. And in Afghanistan, US forces have taken an increasingly robust stance against UN data which continue to flag concerns about civilian harm from international actions.

“The great majority of alleged civilian deaths and injuries from US military actions each year are within CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. And we need to see significant improvements in its identifying, reviewing and reporting of those claims,” says Chris Woods, director of Airwars. “Mwatana’s investigation is scrupulously researched and offers compelling evidence of at least 38 civilians likely killed in recent US actions in Yemen. It is not good enough for CENTCOM apparently to ignore that evidence for more than five months.”

▲ Villagers in Jaeir, al Bayda, protest a reported US strike in January 2019 that killed a 67 year old civilian man, according to Mwatana investigators and local sources

Published

March 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

US accountability for civilian casualties declines sharply during Trump's final year, as CENTCOM 'forgets' deaths of Yemen civilians.

Tracking by Airwars across multiple conflicts during 2020 shows that the number of locally reported civilian deaths from the use of explosive weapons was down by two thirds compared to the previous year. Of these fatalities, around half were in the first two months of 2020.

Comprehensive new data released by Airwars in its Annual Report 2020 suggests a possible ‘Covid effect’ – a significant reduction in conflict violence, as communities locked down during the global pandemic.

Other factors were at work too. Truce deals in Syria and Libya had a major impact in reducing civilian casualties. And the United States significantly scaled back its targeted strikes campaign in Yemen – though counterterrorism actions in Somalia continued at a high tempo. Meanwhile, limited Turkish military actions continued in both Iraq and Syria, sometimes with associated claims of civilian casualties.

“Any fall in reported civilian casualty numbers from their desperately high levels of recent years has to be welcomed,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Yet concerns remain that some of these wars will re-ignite as the impact of Covid recedes. Declines in US accountability for civilian deaths are also very worrying, and require urgent attention from the incoming Biden administration.”

US accountability challenges

Reported US actions declined steeply for the second year running – with no known US strikes in Pakistan or Libya, and significantly fewer in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. However US counterterrorism strikes remained at a high level in Somalia – with uncertainty about how many US actions in Afghanistan were conducted. In total, an estimated 1,000 US airstrikes took place during Donald Trump’s last full year as president – down from around 13,000 during Obama’s own final year in office.

Locally reported civilian harm was also sharply down. But as the Annual Report  shows, so too was US public accountability. In Iraq and Syria, there was an unexplained 80 per cent fall in the number of events assessed as ‘Credible’ by the US-led Coalition. And in Yemen, US Central Command had to apologise after forgetting that its own forces had killed up to a dozen civilians in a 2017 raid – despite CENTCOM’s former commander having publicly confirmed those deaths to the US Senate.

Limited respite for Syria, Iraq

Russia and the Assad government began 2020 with a ferocious campaign targeting rebels in several governorates, including Idlib. However of at least 398 civilian deaths allegedly resulting from Russia’s actions in Syria last year, all but 34 occurred before a major ceasefire was enacted on March 5th. That pause in hostilities – which still mostly holds – was prompted both by Covid concerns, and as a result of military pressure by Turkey on Assad’s forces.

Turkey also continued its ongoing campaigns against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, and the PKK in northern Iraq. During 2020, Airwars tracked a total of 60 locally alleged civilian harm incidents from Turkish-led actions in Syria, resulting in at least 37 alleged deaths and the injuring of up to 152 more civilians. And in Iraq, 21 locally alleged incidents were tracked throughout the year from Turkish actions, resulting in between 27 and 33 civilian deaths and up to 23 injuries.

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm from US-led Coalition actions against ISIS in Syria during 2020 was down by an astonishing 96% – with at least 18 civilians alleged killed, versus more than 465 likely civilian fatalities the previous year. Iraq saw just three locally reported civilian harm claims from US or Coalition actions – including during the US targeted assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport.

Most civilian deaths from Russian strikes in Syria were reported prior to a March 5th ceasefire

‘Forgotten’ civilian deaths in Yemen

Ongoing monitoring by Airwars of counterterrorism actions in Yemen indicated a continuing if limited US campaign against Al Qaeda – despite US Central Command (CENTCOM) not having publicly declared a strike since summer 2019. Confirmation of several actions by US officials suggested control of the long-running campaign may have been passed to the CIA.

Meanwhile, following publication of an Airwars Yemen report in October, CENTCOM had to admit that it had forgotten its own recent admission of the killing of civilians during a 2017 raid on a Yemeni village.

Previous commander General Joseph Votel had told the US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) during in-person evidence that he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and twelve” civilians in a botched raid. But three years later, CENTCOM was claiming only that there “may have been casualties” at Yakla. A senior official later apologised to Airwars for “Our failure to provide an accurate assessment [which] was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bucking a global trend of reduced conflict violence, US airstrikes against al Shabaab continued at near record levels during 2020 – although reported civilian deaths halved in number. That may have been a reflection of AFRICOM’s increased emphasis on assessing and reporting civilian harm under new commander General Stephen Townsend.

Advocacy team engages with militaries, governments and parliaments

As well as providing comprehensive data on locally reported civilian harm across multiple conflicts, Airwars works hard to ensure that the voices of affected communities are properly heard. During 2020 productive meetings were held with Dutch, British, US and NATO military officials – often alongside our partners – with the aim of reducing battlefield civilian harm.

Our advocacy team also briefed parliamentarians and media in several countries, offering expertise and insights on issues ranging from the perils of explosive weapon use in urban centres, to the benefits of public transparency for civilian harm claims.

In October 2020 Airwars also launched a new investigations team, aimed at building on its recent study looking at the challenges faced by newsrooms when reporting on civilian harm. Our first investigation – taking a critical look at Libya 2011 – will launch in mid March.

Read our Annual Report 2020 in full.

Locally reported civilian deaths declined across all conflicts tracked by Airwars during 2020.

Published

October 28, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Despite at least 84 likely civilian deaths from US actions in Yemen under Donald Trump, public accountability peaked just 12 days into his presidency.

A new Airwars investigation into the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen has identified at least 86 civilians likely killed by US actions during Donald Trump’s presidency – though the US military has admitted to no more than a dozen deaths.

Eroding Transparency, researched and written by Mohammed al-Jumaily and Edward Ray, examines US air and ground actions against both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State in Yemen, since 2017. More than 230 declared and alleged US military and CIA actions are identified – among them 41 reported strikes in which Yemenis have alleged civilian casualties.

An accompanying public database details every alleged US action in Yemen since 2017 under President Trump. Employing its highly-effective all source monitoring approach, Airwars has significantly reoriented research towards Yemeni voices and experiences. There are some 4,400 unique sources in the new public database, sixty per cent of these in Arabic. More than 140 alleged or confirmed US actions have also been geolocated by Airwars to village-level accuracy.

Read our full report, Eroding Transparency: Trump in Yemen

Eroding Transparency shows that US operations in Yemen – already on the rise during the last two years of the Obama administration – significantly escalated under Trump, with dire consequences for civilian harm. US operations too often lacked both the transparency and accountability standards of other recent US military interventions, and the report identifies a worrying emphasis under Trump of both clandestine and covert activity in Yemen, obscured from public scrutiny.

Initial spike under Donald Trump

Airwars’ new research tracks a precipitous increase in alleged and confirmed US counterterrorism actions in Yemen during 2017. Indeed, the first year of the Trump presidency saw the highest reported US counterterrorism actions in Yemen since 2002.

This escalation was accompanied by a significant loosening of restrictions on how the US military could operate in Yemen: “It seems what happened was that the Trump administration was keen to take the gloves off, as it were, to be what they perceived was tougher on terrorism, and this was one of the first ready-made concepts of operation available,” says Luke Hartig, previously Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

When compared with available data on US actions during Barack Obama’s presidency (2009 – 2017), it is clear this initial spike under Trump in 2017 represented a distinct departure from the previous administration. That one year saw a record 133 officially declared US airstrikes and ground actions in Yemen. To put this in context, the total number of publicly declared actions in Yemen during the full presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, over a 14 year period, amounted to 150 events.

More recently however, Airwars research shows that US counterterrorism activity in Yemen has declined to its lowest reported levels since 2012.

Poor US response to civilian casualty concerns 

The expansion of US activity during the early Trump presidency resulted in a corresponding increase in likely civilian harm, Eroding Transparency reveals. Of the 86 minimum likely civilian deaths tracked by Airwars, some 93 per cent (80 deaths) arose from reported US actions in Yemen between January 2017 and April 2018. Reported civilian deaths tracked by Airwars in 2017 significantly outstripped alleged deaths in any year during the Obama presidency, as previously tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The estimated minimum civilian deaths from Trump strikes in Yemen include at least 28 children and 13 women, resulting from some 25 declared and likely US actions. At least 63 likely civilian deaths resulted from twenty actions that US Central Command has itself publicly declared. Eroding Transparency emphasises in particular the considerable risks of US ground actions to civilians; alleged or confirmed US ground actions, though accounting only less than three per cent of likely US actions, were responsible for at least 40 per cent of the minimum confirmed or fair civilian harm tracked by Airwars.

Airwars’ new analysis further highlights the extent to which small Yemeni communities have borne the brunt of US counterterror actions. One area of Bayda governorate, roughly 25km in radius, has been the site of almost a fifth of the total likely and declared US actions tracked by Airwars in the past four years – reportedly killing at least 38 civilians.

Yet these likely deaths have gone largely unrecognised by the US military. The US Department of Defense has conceded just four to twelve deaths from a single action – the disastrous US special forces raid in Yakla, Bayda governorate, on January 29th 2017. Just twelve days into the Trump presidency, the admission of civilian harm in that raid constituted the high watermark of accountability for the administration. Yet even this concession was a considerable underestimate, In that same ground raid, Airwars and others assess that at least 20 civilians were in fact killed.

Though President Trump removed civilian harm reporting requirements for the CIA, the Department of Defense is still obliged to report civilian harm from its own actions annually to Congress. Yet apart from the Yakla concession, the Pentagon has admitted to no further civilian deaths or injuries arising from US military actions in Yemen under Donald Trump. In its 2018 and 2019 annual civilian casualty reports to Congress, the DoD instead asserted that it had found “no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from US military actions in Yemen” for the years in question.

During those same years, Airwars assesses, at least 30 civilian deaths were likely incurred by US actions, including events reported by local advocacy NGOs such as Mwatana for Human Rights.

US Central Command did not respond substantively to Airwars’ comprehensive submission, nine weeks prior to the publication of Eroding Transparency, of more than 1,000 pages of archived source materials, in both English and Arabic, relating to all 41 declared and alleged US actions which had led to local claims of civilian harm in Yemen under President Trump.

Precise location by the Airwars team of houses reportedly damaged as a result of an April 11th 2020 alleged drone strike (via Google Earth)

An effective counterterrorism approach?

Throughout the US’s lengthy counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, the key focus has been an almost exclusively militarised approach to degrading the Jihadist presence and influence in the country. This began in earnest in 2009, with the US taking the lead in containing AQAP as a result of what it saw as the Yemeni government’s inability to effectively counter terrorism in the country.

Since the inauguration of President Trump, Airwars has tracked a minimum total of 460 militant deaths from alleged and confirmed US actions in Yemen – the overwhelming majority belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A small cluster of strikes are also known or suspected to have targeted so-called Islamic State in Yemen, in October and November 2017. Approximately 60% of the total minimum militant deaths tracked by Airwars, amounting to 242 AQAP or ISIS fighters, were killed in 2017.

Airwars research suggests a subtle focus by both CENTCOM and the CIA on targeting “high-value” targets, with the possible exception of the October 2017 attacks on ISIS-Y training camps, which appear to have been aimed at significantly degrading the group.

According to Yemen expert Dr Elisabeth Kendall, the US’s primary focus on high-value targets has “put al-Qaeda under pressure because they end up being concerned about holding meetings to discuss strategy and iron out disputes… this means that the seeds of doubt and suspicion, both naturally occurring and sown by spies… and are left to fester and you end up with defections and splintering”. Additionally, while previously the group would have had programmes including “educational training, military training, management training,” the recent US campaign had made it almost impossible to run these programmes, says Dr Kendall.

However, the US’s militarised approach may also have thwarted local efforts to control and contain militant groups in Yemen. Given the often porous relationship between AQAP and tribes, the sometimes indiscriminate nature ofsUS strikes has actively undermined efforts by tribal elders to convince their members who have joined AQAP to leave the group in exchange for immunity.

Additionally, deadly US ground raids in 2017, in which dozens of civilians and tribal members were killed, have reportedly alienated local communities and further entrenched distrust and hostility towards US involvement in the country. Eroding Transparency highlights several cases where US actions may have had such unintended consequences.

IS-Y fighters training at the Abu Muhammad al Adnani training camp, which was targeted in October 2017 by a US action (ISIS propaganda image)

The future of US actions in Yemen

Though reported US actions have declined in frequency in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, there has also been a marked shift towards covert or clandestine US actions, shielded from public accountability. As Eroding Transparency shows, while CENTCOM itself asserts that it has not conducted any airstrike in Yemen since June 24th 2019, during that same period Airwars tracked 30 allegations of US strikes in Yemen.

Of these 30 incidents, 15 have been assessed by Airwars as likely US strikes based on local reporting. And in three events, all during 2020, admission of responsibility for actions by US officials has in turn indicated those attacks were conducted either by the CIA, or were clandestine US military actions.

At this juncture, the future of US counter-terrorism in Yemen remains unclear. Though Airwars has monitored a clear decline in the apparent frequency of US actions since 2018, Eroding Transparency also highlights a corresponding weakening of public accountability for those actions.

Read our full report, Eroding Transparency: Trump in Yemen

▲ Mabkhout Ali al Ameri with his 18-month old son Mohammed, shortly after a botched US raid on al Ghayil in January 2017 had killed at least 20 villagers, including Mohammed's mother Fatim Saleh Mohsen. © Iona Craig

Published

October 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Examining the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS

Airwars and PAX have published a new joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble, examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report calls upon States to develop and support an international political declaration to better protect civilians against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report was launched at a virtual event on October 26th. Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, which is spearheading efforts to create an international consensus on limiting the use of explosive weapons in cities, told participants: “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not because of the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process.”

The new report concludes that ‘precision’ when using explosive weapons in urban areas is not the key determinant of civilian harm. “Rather”, write the authors, “it is the wide area effect of an explosive weapon in relation to the proximity of civilians in populated areas.”

The PAX and Airwars report furthermore concludes that the cases of Mosul, Raqqah and Hawijah show that States acting in accordance with International Humanitarian Law is not enough in itself to prevent immense civilian harm and civilian suffering when explosive weapons are deployed in populated areas.

Co-author of the report Roos Boer, programme leader of the Humanitarian Disarmament programme at Dutch peace organisation PAX, states: “Large aircraft bombs and heavy artillery are intended for open battlefields. When bombing and shelling take place in towns and cities, civilians are killed and suffer life-changing injuries, and vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools are destroyed. We need to see states agree to stronger rules that will stop these urban attacks.”

Explosive weapons in populated areas

According to data monitoring by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), 92 per cent of the 19,401 civilian deaths and injuries tracked by the organisation from the worldwide use of explosive weapons in 2019 occurred in urban areas. Furthermore, AOAV concludes that when explosive weapons, such as artillery, grenades, missiles, rockets and aircraft bombs, are used in towns and cities, nine out of ten casualties are civilians.

Explosive weapons are a major driver of forced displacement of civilians – not only because of fear of death and injury and the destruction of homes, but also because of their devastating impact on critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.

Cities in rubble

Two nations particularly affected by recent urban fighting are Iraq and Syria. While a variety of actors have caused major civilian harm and widespread destruction in both countries, the report focuses on military operations by the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. Using publicly available sources, the report analyses the short- and long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah.

These cases illustrate that the effects of explosive weapons continue long after the bombs have exploded. In Mosul, the costs of the 2016-17 campaign to drive ISIS out of the city were high: at least 9,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting. Around 700,000 Moslawis were displaced; and city officials have stated that 80 per cent of the inner city’s buildings were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

A federal Iraqi recovery team removes a body from the ruins of west Mosul, May 2018. (Image courtesy of Mosul Eye).

New details on Hawijah disaster

Seeing Through The Rubble also adds fresh information on the current situation in Hawijah. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after a devastating 2015 Dutch airstrike on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more injured.

The report estimates that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines.

According to the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, less than 40 per cent of the buildings have been rebuilt and much rubble remains. The industrial area in Hawijah still suffers from a shortage of water and electricity.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars and a co-author of the report along with Laurie Treffers and Roos Boer, notes: “In highlighting the negative consequences for civilians of recent Western military interventions at Mosul, Hawijah and Raqqa, our new report demonstrates why militaries can’t rely simply upon compliance with the laws of war when trying to reduce civilian casualties during urban fighting. Large scale civilian harm during city battles is a terrible reality – and greater international safeguards are urgently needed.”

International political declaration 

Since 2019, Ireland has been leading a series of consultations in Geneva, aimed at drawing up an international political declaration to ban the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network of NGOs, urges states to take immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. “These case studies show once again the unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and destruction as a result of bombing and shelling in cities and other populated areas,” says Laura Boillot, coordinator of INEW, responding to the new report.

“Every year we see tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, that suffer psychological trauma, and are forced to flee for safety. Cities are being torn apart – housing, hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure is destroyed which has disastrous consequences for the survival and wellbeing of the people that live there”, continues Boillot.

“This pattern of civilian harm should not be considered an inevitable consequence of war. Using heavy explosive weapons such as heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and large bombs and missiles in populated areas – even against military targets – is not acceptable and must stop.”

▲ An airstrike targets a civilian neighbourhood in Mosul in March 2017 operations to drive out so called Islamic State (Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Open letter from 11 Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

On October 1st 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to Iraq and Northeast Syria for a period of 12 months, to once again participate in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Yet Belgium has been one of the least transparent countries in the Coalition, refusing publicly to concede any civilian harm from its own actions and with no additional accountability mechanisms being put in place during the new deployment. despite the urgings of the Belgian parliament.. 

Airwars, together with our Belgian and international partners, is today publishing a joint open letter recently sent to Minister of Defence Philippe Goffin, which urges the Belgian government to take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text is reprinted below. 

 

Dear Mr Goffin,

On October 1st, 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve. As a collective of civil society organisations, we have concerns about the limited levels of transparency and accountability of this military deployment. Belgium’s past participation in Operation Inherent Resolve still remains highly secretive. As a result, Belgian members of Parliament cannot thoroughly exercise democratic oversight, while the Belgian, Syrian and Iraqi public are kept in the dark about possible cases of civilian harm as the result of previous Belgian airstrikes or other activities in support of airstrikes in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Previous comparative research by Airwars has highlighted that Belgium remains one of the least transparent countries in the US-led International Coalition. As a joint investigation by Airwars, BBC, De Morgen and Liberation revealed in March 2020, Belgium refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties from its actions, even where the US-led Coalition has conceded these same cases as credible. In response to this investigation, the Belgian Ministry of Defence stated only that the Belgium Armed Forces (BAF) were “certainly not involved in all events”, without providing any more details or proof for such a bold claim.

Belgium’s focus thus far in the debate on civilian harm and accountability has been on the legality of airstrikes. As long as the Belgian Ministry of Defence does not consider civilian harm incidents to have breached international humanitarian law, it refrains from engaging in exercises or lessons learnt, or in evaluations that are publicly available.

We believe that this position is not sustainable. As we have seen in the Netherlands, where media uncovered in October 2019 that the Netherlands had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, in which at least 70 civilians died, once the truth about civilian harm incidents inevitably comes to light, it can lead to major national blowback and severely harm the trust of both Parliament and the public in its government.

Call for greater transparency 

So far, the Belgium Ministry of Defence has given few signs that it is committed to improving its transparency and accountability practices during the coming deployment of four F-16s, even while there has been a clear message from Parliament that more transparency is required. We, therefore, urge the Ministry of Defence to fully comply with a parliamentary resolution of June 25th, 2020. Specifically, Amendment number 4, 6 and 17 of this motion request the federal government to do the following (unofficial translation):

4. To demonstrate militarily responsible maximum transparency vis-à-vis the Chamber of Representatives, with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military efforts, in particular through strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of the national Red Card Holder.

6. To actively consult with the Dutch government in order to take note of all the lessons learned from the Hawija tragedy, to understand them and to subsequently report to the Chamber of Representatives on how these lessons will be used during the Belgian military deployment, in order to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible.

17. To communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations (emphasis added).

Currently, consultative processes are ongoing [with militaries] in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to improve transparency and accountability for civilian harm and to implement policies to better protect civilians in armed conflict. These processes are taking place in consultation with various civil society organisations, including academics and NGOs, such as Airwars, CIVIC, Amnesty International and local civil society organisations.

We believe that it is crucial that Belgium commits itself to improve its poor transparency and accountability track record. We hereby wish to inform you that we, as a collective of civil society organisations, stand ready to actively work together and share our expertise and knowledge with the Ministry of Defence in order to make concrete progress towards improved transparency and accountability of Belgium’s upcoming military deployment in Iraq and Syria.

Recommendations

The undersigned organisations call upon the Belgian government to, at the minimum:

    Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS; Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the data, location, targets and number of civilian casualties of military action – even if the Ministry of Defence’s own investigation concludes that there has been no violation of international humanitarian law; Draft guidelines for proactively publishing this information (in the future) as open data in a machine-readable overview that enables control by independent parties; To work together with external parties, including NGOs, by drawing up standards for the minimum criteria that external claims for civilian victims must meet in order for the Ministry of Defence to be able to assess them; Provide capacity at the Ministry of Defence so that officials can focus on monitoring and actively publishing data on airstrikes and civilian casualties in armed conflict, including in future military interventions so that the consequences of military intervention are systematically monitored and published; Introduce or support a mechanism where potential victims of Coalition bombardments can come forward and report issues of concern; Adopt a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

While the Belgian military has decided to use precise small diameter bombs during the coming deployment period, we believe that it is crucial to emphasise that protecting the lives of civilians and civilian infrastructure, in particular in urban areas, requires more than using precision weapons.

The undersigned organisations are preparing to publicly communicate on this matter and share a copy of this letter with the Belgian press by the end of September, as we believe this discussion concerns the Belgian public. We hope that you will respond positively to our call for cooperation and exchange on this important matter, and we are happy to enter into dialogue with the Ministry of Defence for further discussion of our recommendations.

Signed,

11.11.11

Agir pour la Paix

Airwars

Amnesty Belgium

CNAPD

GRIP

Humanity & Inclusion

Oxfam Belgium

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ Library image: The F-16s of the Belgian military have been deployed to Iraq and Syria several times since 2014. Picture via Belgian Ministry of Defence.

Published

September 22, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars adds voice to partners calling on the US government to end its targeting of the ICC

The United States Government recently applied sanctions to senior officers of the International Criminal Court – a court of last resort established by treaty, and endorsed by a majority of countries including most of the US’s closest allies. In partnership with a number of organisations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, Airwars is calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials. The public statement also calls on both Presidential campaigns to publicly commit to rescinding an Executive Order passed by President Trump in June, which formed the basis of the ICC sanctions.

We the undersigned, representing human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, write in opposition to United States sanctions against named senior personnel within the International Criminal Court (ICC).

We call on President Trump to revoke these harmful sanctions immediately and to rescind Executive Order 13928 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court.” We also call on the Presidential campaigns of both major parties to publicly commit to reversing this harmful Executive Order. The United States should support the rule of law rather than punish those seeking to provide redress to victims of harm.

The ICC exists as a court of last resort to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute the most serious international crimes. The Court has secured successful prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary beneficiaries are the many civilian victims who can secure no justice elsewhere and the communities subject to cycles of violence fuelled by impunity. They include many victims and survivors of violence for whom the United States has been a strong, vocal advocate for justice and accountability.

We understand that the United States takes issue with some of the ICC’s jurisprudence and assertions of jurisdiction. However, we believe that concerted diplomatic efforts and engagement with the ICC will enhance its effectiveness more than punishing individuals who have dedicated their careers to delivering justice to victims of egregious crimes.

As condemnatory statements from close U.S. allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice. 

The United States should recommit to an independent and credible domestic process of investigating and holding to account U.S. citizens for alleged abuses, free from executive interference and consistent with U.S. and international law. That is the best way to ensure that U.S. service members are afforded due process of law in a domestic forum for any alleged wrongdoing and that the U.S. is recognized as a leader in the pursuit of global justice and accountability.

Signed,

Action on Armed Violence

Airwars

Amnesty International USA

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Human Rights First

Oxfam America

Oxford Research Group

Saferworld

▲ A recent appeal hearing at the International Criminal Court (Image via ICC)

Published

August 19, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation follows recent study showing challenges of mainstream media coverage of civilian casualties.

A new Senior Investigator will be joining the Airwars core team in the coming weeks, thanks to a two year grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation – a Chicago based family philanthropic fund.

Over the past six years, Airwars has consistently shown that its groundbreaking work has a powerful impact on the public understanding of civilian harm – and can lead to positive changes in both policies and practices among militaries. However, systemic challenges in many newsrooms can result in the issue being poorly reported. Our recent study News In Brief, authored by US investigative reporter Alexa O’Brien and also funded by the Logan Foundation, explored the many obstacles to good reporting of this critical issue.

Responding to this deficit, new funding will enable Airwars to majorly enhance its own capacity for much-needed investigations into civilian casualties and their causes, in particular with the appointment of an in-house Senior Investigator – who will be supported by a wider team of geolocation, research and design professionals.

Airwars will then seek partnerships with key US and international media on the most vital and controversial cases and stories. In doing so, it aims to bridge a critical gap in the mainstream reporting of civilian harm from war – and bring many more stories to public awareness. A key focus will be to explore innovative approaches to engaging new audiences on civilian harm issues.

Major investigations

Since its founding, Airwars has published several major investigations into civilian harm. In 2017 our then-inhouse reporter Samuel Oakford revealed with Foreign Policy that, according to senior US military officials, more than 80 civilians had been killed in non-US international airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. That investigation still serves as a key point of engagement for our advocacy work with individual belligerents.

In June 2019, Airwars partnered with Amnesty International on a major project War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality – which found that at least 1,600 civilian deaths had likely been caused by the US-led Coalition during the battle of Raqqa. More recently, Airwars has played a prominent role in reporting the scandal surrounding Dutch responsibility for a 2015 airstrike in Hawijah, Iraq, in which 70 or more civilians likely died. And in early 2020 – in partnership with the BBC, Liberation, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands – Airwars revealed that European militaries were failing to declare civilian deaths from their own actions in the war against ISIS, even where US military personnel had concluded otherwise.

“Airwars is unique. There are few organisations that shine a light so intensely on the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians caught up in the fury of war. The Airwars team has developed groundbreaking methodology to track these horrors and has delivered their consequent findings with authority to governments, the military and the public,” commented Richard Logan, President of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

“Their work has consistently brought changes in perceptions and in the conduct of war. It has contributed to a significant reduction of non-combatant battlefield deaths and injuries. For these and other related reasons, it is crucial to magnify Airwars’ investigative capacity to ensure that the plight of the most vulnerable stays at the forefront of all our minds. We are honoured to support their efforts.”

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).