News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

May 27, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

On the final day of Protection of Civilians Week, eleven civil society organisations request to meet the UK Secretary of State for Defence to discuss improvements on the way the UK mitigates, accounts and investigates instances of civilian harm.

As the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians report welcomes steps by the United States to develop new civilian harm mitigation and tracking mechanisms, a coalition of civil society organisations specialised in the subject call on the United Kingdom to follow suit.

After devastating revelations published in The New York Times late last year revealed critical failures by the US-led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in the prevention of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria, the Biden administration has launched a review to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence’.

These revelations add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years.

Developments in the US have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm, as the UK played an important role in CJTF-OIR. The UK must now engage with civil society on these issues and implement urgent reforms.

The use of explosive weapons, with wide area effects, in urban areas continues to be a cause of immense human suffering – with nine out of ten casualties being civilians.

“We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues” – Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), Airwars, Amnesty International UK, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Crisis Action, Every Casualty Counts, Iraq Body Count, Reprieve, Save the Children, and War Child call for Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace MP to act urgently.

Read our full letter here and below:

Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace Secretary of State for Defence Ministry of Defence Whitehall SW1A 1HB

27th May 2022

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: Protection of Civilians Week – time to address UK policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and oversight 

On the occasion of UN Protection of Civilians Week, the undersigned civil society organisations are writing to you to develop a constructive dialogue and request a meeting with you to discuss the UK’s policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency and oversight. As some of our closest allies have begun to reform their approach to civilian harm in military operations, we believe there is an urgent need for the UK to learn from developing practice on this issue.

Revelations published in the New York Times in 2021 about critical failures by Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to prevent, respond to, and be held accountable for civilian harm caused in Iraq and Syria add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years. This public disquiet partly spurred, as you will know, the US Secretary of State of Defense to direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence.’

Given the important role of UK forces in combined operations as part of CJTF-OIR, these developments clearly have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm.

All states participating in CJTF-OIR, including the US and UK, should ensure that all instances of reported civilian harm are investigated and accounted for. We urge for constructive dialogue around the hundreds of civilian-harm claims from local communities that indicate that large-scale civilian harm occurred as a direct result of CJTF-OIR operations.

We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues. We would like to discuss the following with you:

● Engagement with civil society on these issues and involvement of civil society in implementing improvements

● Implications from the reviews of US practice and the CHMRAP for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm mitigation and response

● How the UK could contribute to developing the knowledge base on civilian harm mitigation and response

● How civilian protection concerns are included in UK support for partner forces, lessons learnt from civilian harm incidents and standards set for best practice.

● How the UK can play a leading role in ensuring historic instances of civilian harm allegations resulting from CJTF-OIR actions are properly accounted for.

● How the UK can lead the strengthening of NATO’s Protection of Civilian preparedness.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) Airwars Amnesty International UK Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (CIVIC) Center for Civilians in Conflict Crisis Action Every Casualty Counts Iraq Body Count Reprieve Save the Children War Child

▲ The UK Ministry of Defence, Whitehall

Published

March 31, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

In news widely welcomed by team, Emily Tripp to take over as organisation's second leader this summer.

Emily Tripp will be the next Director of Airwars, the organisation’s Executive Board announced today, and will succeed the present head of the organisation Chris Woods in the summer.

Emily is presently Airwars’ Research Manager, where she has strongly led on recent projects including the team’s monitoring of the conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2021 – which was recently shortlisted for an Amnesty Media Award.

Emily has previously worked in the humanitarian sector, managing monitoring and evaluation departments in Syria and assessment teams in Libya. She brings to the Director’s role technical expertise in data collection in volatile conflict environments, as well as leadership experience overseeing large teams across different countries and regions.

“We are beyond thrilled to know that Emily will lead Airwars into its next iteration, in which civilian harm monitoring, archiving of open-source data, and research and advocacy on behalf of affected communities will continue to form the heart of our work,” the Board noted in a statement. “Emily’s talent, strategic vision and collaborative approach make her the ideal leader to build on the outstanding work done by Chris and the rest of the Airwars team.”

Emily Tripp will be the organisation’s second Director, succeeding Chris Woods who co-founded Airwars in 2014. He saw the organisation through a strong growth phase in which civilian casualty monitoring was introduced across multiple conflict situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. His work at Airwars also helped set the bar for accountability for military action in air-dominated conflicts around the world.

“Chris has been an invaluable asset to Airwars since its founding in 2014. He has been the driving force in building a unique organisation dedicated to the monitoring of civilian harm that has become recognised globally as the gold standard for accountability and transparency for belligerents in conflicts,” read a statement from Airwars’ Executive Board.

In further news, Dmytro Chupryna – Airwars’ Deputy Director since 2018 – decided to step down at the end of March. During his time with Airwars, Dmytro led on organisational, fundraising, and civil advocacy issues – and has been a critical contributor to the organisation’s ongoing success.

“We are all incredibly sad to see Dmytro move on – though his positive legacy will be with us for many years to come,” noted outgoing Director Chris Woods. “We wish him every success in his future career.”

Today was my last day at @airwars. I'd like to thank all the amazing Airwars team and our large POC family for unbelievable four years. It was an absolute honour and pleasure to working with all of you 💙💛 and thanks for wonderful flowers and gifts ☺️👐 will miss you a LOT! pic.twitter.com/O0SihF1DZX

— Dmytro Chupryna (@ChuprynaDmytro) March 25, 2022

▲ Emily Tripp will be Airwars' new Director

Published

February 22, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

As tensions mount over risks to civilians from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, Airwars examines lessons from Moscow's seven year Syria war.

On February 21st Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would recognise the independence of two separatist regions inside Ukraine, with Russian troops reportedly moving there – steps widely seen as edging towards a full conflict. If Russia does, as has been predicted, invade part or all of Ukraine in the coming days, there are reasons to believe it will be a particularly bloody conflict for civilians – as well as an opaque one.

Russian actions in Syria, which Airwars has tracked since they began in 2015, suggests the country’s military does little to mitigate civilian harm. And should any conflict intensify in Ukraine, local and international civilian harm monitoring is likely to be deeply challenged, an Airwars assessment has found.

Russia in Syria: bleak record on civilian harm

Moscow’s record in Syria offers insights into what to expect from any Russian intervention in Ukraine.

Since the first of tens of thousands of airstrikes in support of President Bashar Al-Assad’s government in September 2015, Airwars has recorded 4,621 incidents in which Russia is alleged to have caused civilian deaths or injuries.

From these, Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of at least 4,172 civilians have been killed by Russia alone – with at least 16,000 additional claimed civilian deaths occurring in events contested between both Russian and Syrian regime actions.

Overall, Russia has been linked to as many as 23,400 alleged civilian deaths in Syria. And more than 41,000 civilians have also allegedly been injured.

Russian involvement in Syria has been characterised by a heavy reliance on unguided munitions, including cluster bombs and thermobaric missiles. Videos uploaded by the Russian Ministry of Defence in the early years of the conflict demonstrated the low levels of accuracy achieved when using unguided munitions.

Moscow has also faced persistent and well-substantiated allegations that it deliberately targets health workers and medical facilities throughout Syria. Amnesty International has called this a “strategy of war” to push back rebels. Markets, civilian-only neighbourhoods and even refugee camps have also reportedly been targeted by Russian strikes.

More recently, Russia has been criticised for targeting civilian infrastructure, such as poultry farms and water treatment facilities in Idlib, which is the last opposition-held region in Syria. Rights groups say this may amount to war crimes. And Human Rights Watch has already raised concerns about the shelling of residential areas in Ukraine by Russian-backed groups, a tactic Russia has been repeatedly accused of pursuing in Syria.

Denial of casualties

Russia is far from the only foreign power that has killed civilians in Syria’s decade-long war – in fact four of the five permanent United Nations Security Council members continue to bomb the country.

Yet while there are deep flaws in the civilian harm policies applied by the United States, Britain, France and others, they do at least have known policies.

To date, Russia has not publicly accepted responsibility for a single civilian death during six and a half years of war in Syria. It is currently unclear if Russia has any comprehensive mechanisms in place for either preventing civilian harm from its air and artillery strikes, or for accounting for civilian casualties. Extensive reports of Moscow’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure and hospitals suggests the opposite.

As #Putin maneuvers into position for serious hostilities in #Ukraine, let's bear in mind the recent record of the Russian military. As a baseline is one factoid:

– Russian 'actions' in #Syria since 2015 have killed 23,000+ civilians.https://t.co/JsrTI8kJKK pic.twitter.com/rL5duc9XqL

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) February 22, 2022

Airwars has tried multiple times to engage with Russian authorities on civilian harm concerns, with no success. In 2018 President Putin was asked by Fox News about civilians killed by Russian airstrikes.  “You know, when there [is] warfare going on — and this is the worst thing that can happen [for] humankind – [victims] are inevitable, and there will always be a question of who’s to blame. I think it is the terrorist groups who are to blame who destabilized the situation in the country,” he noted.

Ukraine casualties: a challenge to track

Should war again come to Ukraine, a comprehensive review by Airwars suggests that ensuing civilian casualties risk being poorly documented.

A relatively low level conflict began in 2014, when Russia seized the Crimea Peninsula, and pro-Russian separatists later took over parts of the eastern Donbas region – areas internationally recognised as being within Ukraine’s borders.

Since then, even while fighting has continued at a low intensity, the quality of data about civilians killed and injured on both sides has remained poor. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights releases regular reports on human rights in Ukraine, it is not a comprehensive dataset. Estimates of civilian casualties are fragmented, and also do not focus on civilian harm resulting from both sides. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) also documents and reports periodically on casualties. Its most recent report covers the period from February 1st – July 31st 2021.

Every Casualty Counts has also published a helpful update on Ukraine resources – including Summary versions in both Ukrainian and Russian of its important Standards for Casualty Recording.

Currently, official Ukrainian government sources only provide data on military casualties. Unfortunately, Ukrainian media and international organisations often then rely on UN and OSCE data in their reporting on civilian harm.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union – a network of 28 human rights NGOs in Ukraine – has been identifying and recording information on all casualties of the hybrid armed conflict in Ukraine since January 2014. This includes both Russian and Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. The data is available online in database and map format, at The Memorial Map.

The civilian death toll of the conflict since 2014 remains somewhat opaque. International media reports suggest that at least 10,000 people may have died to date, with some estimates as high as 50,000. Yet the latest OHCHR report counted only 3,092 civilian deaths up until July 31st 2021.

Overall casualty tolls include widespread reports of ongoing civilian harm in the Russian-backed separatist regions, resulting from Ukrainian actions. These have come via Donetsk Public Republic (DPR) Ombudsman on Human Rights reports; and Luhansk Public Republic (LPR) Ministry of Foreign Affairs updates. The latest aggregated data from DPR/LPR official sources was reported in November 2021 with estimates of nearly 9,000 civilians killed within DRP/LPR territory since April 2014.

Urban casualties

With dire predictions that tens of thousands of civilians could be killed in a full-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine – particularly with its likely focus on urban areas – this would quickly overwhelm the capacities of casualty monitors at the United Nations and OSCE, as well as within Donbas, Airwars believes.

Other recent city battles – such as Mosul, Raqqa, Gaza and Tripoli – have seen sometimes extreme civilian casualties, even where some belligerents attempted to reduce harm.

John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at West Point’s Modern War Institute, said he was concerned about large numbers of civilians potentially being killed in urban environments.

“Basically any possible Russian invasion route that has been discussed goes through heavily populated areas,” Spencer told Airwars.

“Hitting any target, no matter how important, in heavily populated neighbourhoods is likely to result in civilian harm”

Updated on February 23rd to include additional civilian harm monitoring sources.

▲ Russian and Belarus forces hold a joint live fire exercise, February 2022 (via Russian Ministry of Defence)

Published

February 9, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

Header Image

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“For two decades, U.S. operations overseas have killed tens of thousands of civilians around the world – primarily from Brown, Black, and Muslim communities.”

On February 8th, Airwars joined its voice with 104 other organisations – including human rights, humanitarian, protection of civilians, peacebuilding, civil liberties, social and racial justice, government accountability, veterans, and faith based NGOs – to call for President Joe Biden to act urgently to overhaul US civilian harm policies and practises.

Recent New York Times investigations have documented significant shortcomings in how the US government – and its allies – monitors, investigates, and accounts for civilian harm as a result of its own military action. These have shown how the US military has routinely rejected civilian harm incidents, with decisions often riddled with basic errors, translation problems, or a lack of judgement and oversight. The Times reports echo years of similar findings by casualty monitors and human rights investigators.

There is now renewed attention within Congress and the Department of Defense on the vital changes needed, for example with the announcement of a Pentagon inquiry into how the military covered up civilian harm in Baghouz, and during recent sessions of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As an organisation committed to reducing civilian harm in the battlefield, we join our many partners in urging President Biden to publicly recognise systemic and structural flaws in the US military’s approach to civilian casualties,” says Airwars advocacy officer Georgia Edwards. “Fulfilling his earlier pledges on human rights and moral leadership, he must now set a new course for the US government and military which opens up pathways to justice and accountability for civilians affected by US military actions.”

▲ President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Published

January 12, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

The longstanding Chair of Airwars Elizabeth Minor has stepped down due to ill health.

Elizabeth Minor, the longstanding voluntary Chair of Airwars, has sadly stepped down due to ill health, the organisation’s Board has announced.

Since joining the Airwars Board in summer 2016, Elizabeth has been a critical driver of the organisation’s many successes.

A leading conflict casualty recording expert, Elizabeth was a key contributor to Every Casualty Counts’ world first Standards for Casualty Recording; is a co-recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with ICAN in helping galvanize successful negotiations of a global treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; and is a key adviser with Article 36, the international NGO focused on reducing harm from weapons.

Elizabeth Minor: stepping down due to ill health

Among many accomplishments during her time chairing Airwars’ volunteer Board, Elizabeth led on the development of the organisation’s secondary trauma reduction policy in partnership with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma; and was a champion throughout of the highest ethical and research standards. She also chaired the Airwars Advisory Board.

“I’m very proud to have been able to contribute to Airwars’ Boards as the organisation has developed from a very small startup to the established, professional and widely respected organisation it is today,” Elizabeth said this week.

“Of the work we have done together, I’m particularly proud of our establishing procedures for trauma risk management within the organisation – which no similar NGO had comparable policies on at the time we did this work.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where Airwars goes next and collaborating in other capacities, and wish the team and Boards all the best. It has been wonderful to work with such an excellent group of people.”

Speaking about Elizabeth’s departure, Airwars’ outgoing Director Chris Woods described her as “a wonderful, passionate and expert Chair who along with her volunteer colleagues has made an immeasurable contribution to our successes as an organisation. Elizabeth will be very much missed, and we wish her the very best.”

New Board member announced

A new Chair is expected to be appointed at Airwars’ next Annual General Meeting in the Spring. In the meantime, Aditi Gupta has been seconded to the Board with the warm support of staff, volunteers and other Board members.

Director for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict, Aditi is also Deputy Director for the UK Chapter of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. She previously managed the Freedom Online Coalition Secretariat, through her role at Global Partners Digital where she worked on strengthening civil society advocacy in cyber policy processes.

“I’ve closely followed Airwars’ vital work since their inception, and I’m so proud to work with them officially as a member of the Board. Over the years, the team at Airwars has built an unignorable evidence base of allegations, putting the experience of and impact borne by civilians in conflict firmly at the door of those who need to take accountability,” Aditi said this week.

“I wholeheartedly support this important work, and hope my experience in parliamentary engagement, organisational management, and efforts working on intersectional justice and equality issues will bolster their strength further.”

Aditi Gupta has now joined the Airwars Board

Update on Director recruitment

In a further update this week, the Board said that it has unfortunately not yet been successful in its efforts to appoint a successor to Chris Woods, the founding Director of Airwars who announced he would be stepping down after more than seven years in the role.

Brexit and COVID between them have made for a very challenging UK jobs market at present, and the Board says it is determined to ensure the best possible appointment as Director to take the organisation forward. In the meantime the Board has asked Chris Woods to stay on temporarily as Director.

“The Board is immensely grateful to Chris for agreeing to delay his departure for a few months while we complete our process to find the right leader to build on his incredible work, and ensure a smooth transition once they are appointed,” notes Airwars Treasurer James Hirst.

Further updates on the recruitment process are expected in the weeks ahead.

Published

December 9, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Population density is greatest driver of civilian casualties from strikes in Gaza, Israel and Syria, new study shows.

In just eleven days in May 2021, Israeli air and artillery strikes on Gaza killed up to 10 times more civilians than the country’s eight-year bombing campaign against Iranian-linked forces in Syria, new Airwars research has found. The study raises critical concerns about the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report – ‘Why did they bomb us?’ Urban civilian harm in Gaza, Syria and Israel from explosive weapons use’ – comprehensively documents the civilian toll of recent Israeli actions in Gaza and Syria, as well as from Palestinian rocket fire into Israel during May. Published jointly in Arabic, Hebrew and English, the 16,000 word report employs Airwars’ standard methodology to examine how, when, and where civilians are killed in urban conflicts.

The report chronicles civilian casualties from two very different military campaigns by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Among the report’s key findings are:

    Across the three conflict areas, both the targeting approach and the population density of those areas bombed were critical drivers of civilian harm, leading to profoundly different outcomes for civilians. In Gaza between 151 and 192 civilians were likely killed as a result of IDF actions in May 2021, mostly in densely populated areas. At least a third of those killed were children. Between 15 and 20 civilian deaths in Gaza were additionally likely to have resulted from Palestinian misfires. 10 civilians were directly killed in Israel in May 2021 resulting from Palestinian militant actions – with most casualties occurring when rockets penetrated Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ defence system and reached cities and towns. In Syria, an extensive IDF air campaign since 2013 has had a far smaller impact on civilians. Israeli strikes have likely killed at least 14 and up to 40 Syrian civilians, with attacks mostly focused on exclusively military targets, away from population centres. Airwars has produced an interactive map showing its findings for Gaza, which can be viewed here. The map allows users to navigate through 128 individual assessments of civilian harm in Gaza, and provides a lasting testimony to the civilian victims of the conflict.

 

Israel’s longtime rival Iran has been active within near neighbour Syria since civil war erupted a decade ago, with Tehran helping to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Beginning in January 2013, Israel has periodically carried out attacks within Syria to counter Iranian entrenchment. Strikes have targeted Iranian and Syrian troops, as well as militias from multiple countries aligned with Tehran.

Airwars has tracked Israeli strikes in Syria for several years as part of its long running monitoring of actions there by all foreign actors. It has now published interactive mapping of all locally reported allegations against Israel in Syria. It’s believed to be the first comprehensive assessment of the civilian toll of an extensive but secretive air campaign.

Airwars researchers also recorded civilian harm from Israeli military strikes during the May 2021 eruption of violence in Gaza, alongside harm caused by rockets fired into Israel by Palestinian militants.

An image from Airwars’ interactive map of civilian harm in Gaza

Choice of targets

Since 2008 Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have fought four major combat operations. Airwars researchers looked at the latest conflict in May 2021 in order to provide comparative data with the more limited civilian harm events being reported from Israeli strikes in Syria.

After compiling all community-reported civilian harm events in the conflicts in Syria and Gaza, Airwars researchers found that one of the critical explainers behind the dramatically different outcomes for civilians was where the IDF chooses to bomb.

According to local reports, the great majority of Israeli actions in Syria have targeted military assets such as air bases, troop convoys and weapons stores, away from major cities and towns. Hundreds of militants were killed in these operations, for the most part in military settings.

In Gaza, the picture was very different. Strikes routinely hit residential neighbourhoods, and militants were frequently targeted in non-military settings: Airwars identified 17 locally reported incidents in which militants were targeted in residential buildings and in which civilians were killed or injured nearby. In those incidents, local reports found that between 27 and 33 civilians were killed, with more than 100 injured. One third of those killed in the Gaza Strip were children.

Airwars also identified between 56 and 68 civilians killed when the IDF targeted what they said was a Hamas militant tunnel network beneath heavily populated areas in Gaza City, leading the buildings above to collapse. Most of the deaths came from a single incident: in the early morning of May 16th, at least 41 civilians were killed in strikes on the residential al-Wahda street, of which up to 18 were children.

Riyad Ishkontana, 42, lost his wife and four of his children in the al-Wahda street attack. He had spent the days leading up to the bombing reassuring the young family they were safe: their building was in an area of professionals and shops, he told them. But in the early hours of the morning, as Ishkontana was out getting snacks, the building was hit. Only one of his children survived. “I wish I never left,” he told The New York Times.

Population density mapping

Airwars also mapped all civilian harm allegations in Gaza, Syria and Israel against population density, and found a second clear driver of civilian harm: the more heavily populated an area, the more civilians were killed.

Airwars’s new landing page comparing Israeli actions in Syria and Gaza

In Gaza, one of the most heavily populated places in the world, more than 1,500 declared Israeli air and artillery strikes hit the territory in just 11 days. This dramatically increased the likelihood of civilian harm. Even within Gaza, there was a clear trend – the more heavily populated a neighbourhood, the more civilians died there.

The trend was also noticeable in Syria. While the scale of civilian harm from IDF strikes was much lower than in Gaza, it is still overwhelmingly located in heavily populated areas. Around 45 percent of estimated civilian casualties from Israeli strikes since 2013 occurred in the capital Damascus. In Israel, 17 of the 33 reported civilian harm incidents resulting from Palestinian rockets also took place in more densely populated areas, Airwars found.

Population density in Gaza may have given some a false sense of security. On May 12th in Gaza, airstrikes killed Reema Saad, who was four months pregnant, alongside her two children and husband. The family had decided to stay in their apartment because they believed the densely populated neighbourhood would be immune from targeting, Reema’s mother Samia told Middle East Eye.

Airwars mapping of population density and reported civilian harm for Gaza, May 2021

Urban deaths part of a global trend

The new findings support what Airwars has found across all conflicts it monitors: that using wide area effect explosive weapons in populated urban areas leads to high levels of civilian deaths and injuries.

This phenomenon is certainly not restricted to actions by the IDF, or by Palestinian militant groups. Indeed, the Gaza campaign in particular can be seen as part of a profoundly worrying trend in which nations and others conduct intensive military actions in urban areas, often with devastating results.

High civilian casualties in Gaza are symptomatic of an escalating and troubling global military trend in the use of wide area effect weapons in populated areas (sometimes known as EWIPA) – seen from Gaza to Mosul, Aleppo to Raqqa, and Tripoli to Kabul. These latest findings lend further urgency to an ongoing international push to restrict their use in a United Nations-brokered Political Declaration by nations, expected to be finalised in early 2022.

“Our latest study corroborates what we have found with other large scale conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: even technologically advanced militaries kill large numbers of civilians when attacks focus on urban centres,” Chris Woods, director at Airwars, said. “Despite repeated assurances to the contrary, it’s clear that ‘precision warfare’ cannot sufficiently mitigate civilian harm.”

“Stark differences in civilian deaths and injuries from Israeli actions in Syria and in the Gaza Strip clearly illustrate that the most significant driver of civilian harm remains the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The single most effective way to reduce the number of civilians dying in warfare would be to restrict the use of such dangerous wide area effect weapons on urban centres.”

How the new research was carried out

The Airwars report is the result of months of meticulous research carried out by a team of local language researchers, geolocators and specialist assessors.

Thousands of local media, social media and official sources documenting civilian harm as it happened were identified and archived by Airwars’ team of Arabic-, Hebrew- and English-language researchers in relation to the May 2021 conflict in Gaza and Israel. Researchers also continue to monitor and archive all civilian harm allegations in Syria resulting from Israeli strikes since 2013.

Airwars has then assessed the civilian harm from each incident in Gaza, Syria and Israel using the same standard methodology it applies across all conflicts it monitors. Its approach can best be described as remote, original language hyperlocal monitoring of casualty claims by affected communities – along with a review of broader reports and claims by belligerents, media and other investigators. All assessments are viewed as provisional – that is, any credible new information relating to an event will be subsequently added, potentially affecting our understanding of the incident.

Full resource list

The full report available in English, Hebrew and Arabic

Interactive mapping of civilian harm in Gaza

Video documenting key findings

Full dataset for civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Gaza and Syria

Full dataset for civilian harm from Palestinian rocket fire in Israel

▲ A child uses his mobile device in the ruins of a building in Beit Lahia, Gaza Strip on May 26th 2021. © Mohamed Zaanoun

Published

October 14, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Header Image

U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Last week marked twenty years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began, following which the UK, Netherlands and other NATO members began their own presence with the declared aim to install “security, stability and the rule of law.”

This anniversary happens after last month saw a wave of resignations by senior Ministerial staff and frank debate across Parliaments in Europe, including in relation to the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Airwars and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urge the new ministers to take a frank look at the mistakes of their predecessors, and understand what could have been done differently. The public and political criticism surrounding the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, sends a strong message about the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation, transparency and accountability policies in future military operations.

We encourage the new ministers in the Netherlands and in the UK to learn about the risks to civilians caught in armed conflict in planning phases for any military operations, so they may work towards their protection. We also call on them to commit to improving transparency and accountability for civilian harm, including by consistently tracking, investigating, publicly acknowledging, and amending harm through compensation payments, apologies, and other offerings in accordance with victims’ needs and preferences.  We extend the same call to the United States and other NATO nations. This is especially important because the risk to civilians in Afghanistan is not unique. In fact, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have seen risks to civilians multiply and deepen in many parts of the world. War is now increasingly fought in urban environments with long-lasting and lethal effects. NATO members, increasingly hesitant to deploy “boots on the ground,” have relied instead on supporting local forces through air support – even when local partners may lack the capacity to protect civilians. And multiple countries have claimed the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones and including through the use of armed drones, sometimes devastating civilian communities in the process.

As risks to civilians have increased, transparency and accountability for harm is diminishing.  In Iraq and Syria, the UK still only admits one civilian death over the course of its operation, despite declaring thousands of UK airstrikes and despite Airwars’ own assessment showing that at least 8,300 civilians have likely been killed by the US-led Coalition.

We urge all NATO nations to take heed of these past mistakes, which had devastating and continuing consequences on the lives of civilians. As Liz Truss starts as the new UK Foreign Secretary, and as the new Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, and Foreign Minister, Ben Knapen, begin their tenure, we urge them to immediately take the following steps:

    Recognise publicly and through a revision of doctrine, the imperative of civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability in all aspects of defence and foreign affairs, including in their nations’ own operations as well as “train, advise, and assist” missions. Prioritise resourcing for the monitoring and tracking of civilian harm in current and future military deployments. Commit to investigating, publicly recognizing, and amending legacy civilian harm from Afghanistan and other operations over the past 20 years, including by issuing compensation or solatia payments; and commit to applying these policies and practices in all future operations. Adopt and implement clear policies for civilian harm tracking, mitigation and response through consultation with civil society experts, which are adequately resourced at all areas of deployment. Incorporate open-source information from civil society, the media, and other external sources into civilian harm assessments and investigations. Publish the specific date; location; munition type used; and nature of target for all weapon deployments in the anti-ISIS Coalition from 2014 to the present day and in all future operations. Publish regular reports on civilian harm allegations from past and current missions. Engage with conflict-affected civilians (including civil society groups and communities) on issues pertaining to civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation, both at the capital level and in countries of deployment. This includes the establishment of a regular dialogue with civil society, as well as establishing safe channels of communication with conflict-affected civilians to discuss protection concerns. As part of all lessons learned processes around the war in Afghanistan, withdrawal, and evacuation, identify gaps in civilian harm mitigation as well as gaps in civil-military coordination that may have hampered the capacity of civil society and at-risk Afghans to access safe and secure air evacuation options.
▲ U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Published

July 1, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Coalition of civil society organisations issues joint recommendations to Defence Minister, for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation

Airwars and our Dutch partners, who are involved in ongoing discussions with the Dutch military on practicable improvements in the protection of civilians, have published a Joint Statement outlining the progress so far, and our collective hopes and expectations moving forward.

In October 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch military had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike in Iraq on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more being injured. The Government had then withheld that fact from the public for more than four years.

As PAX and Airwars later noted in our joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble,  estimates are 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. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after the devastating Dutch airstrike.

As a result of the national scandal and numerous Parliamentary debates on the issue, in June 2020 the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, promised to Parliament improvements towards transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm as a result of Dutch military actions. Coupled with other steps taken in the months after the Hawijah scandal, the Netherlands appeared to be shedding its reputation as one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State.

One measure adopted by Defensie had recently been proposed by Airwars, Amnesty Netherlands, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Open State Foundation, PAX and the Utrecht University Intimacies of Remote Warfare Program. This called for a “Roadmap for the Ministry of Defence to review the way in which the Netherlands deals with, reports on, evaluates and accounts for civilian harm as a consequence of Dutch military efforts”.

The starting session of the Roadmap Process took place virtually on November 12th 2020, attended by senior Dutch defence officials, including the Deputy Chief of Defence Lt General Onno. In 2021, a consortium of civil society organisations then participated in four interactive sessions with the MoD. The key objective of these sessions was to share joint perspectives and expertise on how to enhance military transparency and accountability, while also creating conditions for a stronger integration of civilian harm evaluation and mitigation approaches into Dutch military deployments.

MoD staff have committed to using the outcomes of these sessions to inform policy recommendations to be presented to the Minister of Defence. The recommendations centred around improving transparency, as well as aiming to improve broader Dutch policy and practice in order to achieve better protection of civilians in future military deployments generally.

The civil society consortium has welcomed the open manner in which Defensie has engaged during the “Roadmap“ process, and has now issued a joint statement laying out our own thoughts on the way forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The statement includes recommendations to the Minister of Defence for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation when engaging in military missions.

Read the statement in full here