News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

April 22, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Civil society consortium cautiously welcomes Ministry's letter to Dutch Parliament - but also urges bolder stance.

The Dutch Ministry of Defence, Defensie, has finally outlined to Parliament the steps it expects to take in both the short and long term, to address civilian casualties from Dutch actions.

Since late 2020, Airwars has been part of a consortium of civil society and academic organisations working with the Defensie to help improve the Dutch approach to civilian harm tracking and mitigation. This process was launched in response to revelations that the Dutch MoD was responsible for an airstrike in the Iraqi town of Hawija in 2015, which killed between 70 and 85 civilians. There was then a four-year cover-up of Dutch involvement in the deadly incident.

On April 7th, Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren wrote to Parliament outlining the expected route forward for Defensie. According to the Minister, “These steps go further than just transparency. It also involves tightening up internal (military) procedures, decision-making processes, monitoring, evaluation and accountability.”

Ollongren said that the Ministry recognises that preventing civilian harm “is a responsibility that arises not only from international humanitarian law, but also from a moral obligation” and within her letter to Parliament, the Minister laid out ways that that Defensie must act to improve its systems.

These include five thematic short steps concerning the processes of decision-making, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability in future deployments. According to the Minister, these steps aim to ensure that Defensie improves the ways it considers risks to civilians; more clearly communicates transparency, and commits to periodically review the way this is done. Ollongren also highlighted the importance of transparency as a way to improve civilian harm accountability both for affected communities, and in providing more Parliamentary oversight in the Netherlands.

The plans also suggested that future mission evaluations will focus more on civilian casualty concerns. And Ollongren also promised in the letter that Defensie will be more involved in policy making on protection of civilians concerns, alongside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example through follow-up training and exercises.

While there are positive developments and promising commitments in the letter, several significant gaps remain and vital opportunities were missed. the consortium believes. Below is our joint response to the policy announcement.

 

▲ Hawijah, Iraq in 2021. Six years after the Dutch airstrike, parts of the town remain destroyed (Image courtesy of Roos Boer, PAX)

Published

December 3, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Official Sorgdrager Commission is reportedly not functioning as intended - with doubts over a planned trip to Hawijah

More than six years after much of the Iraqi city of Hawijah was devastated following a Dutch airstrike against ISIS, fresh revelations point to major ongoing problems for those seeking answers to the disaster in which at least 70 civilians died.

Speaking at the annual PAX for Peace conference on the protection of civilians in conflict on December 1st, the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, gave a moving talk on the continued lack of recovery in the city. He also revealed that there is so far no sign of the Dutch Government’s promised recovery fund and that he was not aware of the Sorgdrager Commission – the official Dutch review expected to learn lessons from Hawijah.

“The disappointment is great,” Mayor al-Jabouri told delegates. Aid has been promised via two UN agencies, yet there appears to be little contact with city authorities: “I don’t know who they are in touch with, but it’s not with us. I don’t know what they’re going to do either.”

Mayor of #Hawija: My expectations are the same as my people. We want an ethical conversation with the Dutch government. And an official apology.

Join the conversation: https://t.co/aU0qqskGMN#PAXPoC2021 #Hawija #Iraq #CivilianHarm pic.twitter.com/iksxsqX5HG

— PAX Protection of Civilians (@PAXPoC) December 2, 2021

 

In the same week, Dutch news organisation NOS revealed that the Sorgdrager Commission is experiencing major challenges in fulfilling its own mandate, with two out of three members of the commission apparently no longer able to give time on a regular basis. There are major doubts too about whether a proposed Commission trip to Hawijah in January might go ahead, with the Dutch defence ministry saying it is concerned about safety.

The head of the commission, Winnie Sorgdrager, has herself acknowledged the importance of speaking to Hawijans directly. In response to the Dutch MoD apparently refusing to allow members of the commission access to Hawija, she told NOS: “If you want to investigate something closely, you must also have spoken to people there. But if it’s said ‘it’s too dangerous there,’ we need to reconsider our request.”

In June 2015, the Royal Netherlands Air Force launched an airstrike on an ISIS IED factory in Hawijah. The huge explosion that followed killed more than 70 civilians, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and deprived thousands of civilians of their long term livelihoods. Six years on, Hawjiah remains a shadow of what it once was. Take the wrong turn at the roundabout at the entrance to the city, and you will face a crater several meters deep.

While the Sorgdrager Commission continues to prevaricate about visiting the city, a joint research project by the University of Utrecht and PAX For Peace has done just that. The independent Hawijah investigation has now revealed some of its own provisional field findings at the recent PAX conference.

New PAX/ University of Utrecht research undertaken this year in Hawijah, expected to be released in full next year, interviewed 119 civilians in the city who either lost their loved ones or sustained injuries or material damage; and looked at the reverberating effects of the strike. The study also examines how – six and a half years later – civilian lives are still impacted heavily, with chronic issues from physical injuries to psychological trauma and damage to livelihoods. When the PAX/ UU team asked civilians on the ground what they most wanted, the response was clear: “Everybody wanted an apology from the Dutch – a formal apology by the Dutch government and by the parties who carried out the strike”.

“This is neither meaningful transparency nor accountability and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, the Parliament and the Sorgdrager Commission know it. Everyone involved must do better in the name of the 70 civilians the Netherlands killed more than six years ago in Hawijah – and take meaningful lessons forward centring civilian protection in future missions,” says Jessica Dorsey, the chair of Airwars Stichting.

The long string of cities destroyed by Western militaries in recent years, with great human loss as a result, are not unusual mistakes, Professor Lauren Gould from the University of Utrecht asserted at the recent PAX conference. They form a pattern, which undermines the very premise of remote warfare as being “[the most] precise and careful campaign in the history of warfare on this planet.” Yet instead, “War is inherently about destruction. There will never be such a thing as clean, precise war.”

Hawijans meet with PAX investigators during a recent visit in 2021 (Image courtesy of Roos Boer)

▲ PAX team view wreckage and destruction still affecting the city of Hawijah in 2021 (Image courtesy of Mustafa Aljanaby Al Ghad)

Published

November 4, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards and Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Airwars speaks to PAX about their recent visit to the still-devastated city of Hawijah in Iraq, and interviews with 119 survivors.

Airwars’ Netherlands-based advocacy partner, PAX for Peace, is currently undertaking research in the Iraqi city of Hawijah, where a 2015 US-led Coalition strike against ISIS led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and the injuring of hundreds more. On the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an ISIS Vehicle-Borne Improvised Devices (VBIED) factory in Hawijah. Secondary explosions then destroyed a large area of the city. After withholding its role in the deadly event for more than four years, the Dutch government eventually took public responsibility in November 2019.

PAX’s new research will examine many of the questions that came from the joint report that Airwars and PAX released in October 2020, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. We conducted a Q&A with the PAX team to hear more about their recent visit to Hawijah and upcoming report.  As you’ll read from eyewitness reports in this article, the Dutch must urgently hold themselves truly accountable to civilian harm caused from their tragic actions in Hawijah, and other incidents with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria.

The Airwars’ Advocacy Team spoke to Roos Boer, Project Leader for Humanitarian Disarmament at PAX, and Saba Azeem, Project Leader for the Human Security Survey (Iraq). 

Airwars: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. To start off, can you describe for someone who doesn’t already know the details of the story, what happened in Hawijah on June 2nd, 2015?

Roos: So on this particular night, a Coalition airstrike targeted an ISIS munitions factory in Hawijah, which was located in the industrial area. The strike was conducted by the Dutch. In this factory, a very large supply of TNT [dynamite] was stored, which detonated after the first impact. When we were talking to people there, people described that it felt like a nuclear attack in terms of the destruction.

Saba: It is also important to understand that there is no clear demarcation such as ‘this is solely an industrial area’, and ‘this is solely a residential area’ – they are often quite intertwined. So to say that it only targeted the industrial area and that there were no residential areas around would also be a very narrow description of the context.

Secondly, there was about 18,000 kilos of TNT in the munitions factory which exploded. It left a crater 11 meters deep and 20 meters wide. And apparently in Kirkuk, which is 50 kilometers away, the shock was measured at 4.3 on the Richter scale. That’s how big it was.

What were the immediate consequences for the local population, and how did the Dutch government and military initially respond to the high number of civilian casualties resulting from this strike?

Roos: The explosions directly led to at least 70 civilian deaths and hundreds of civilians being injured. In addition to that direct impact on civilians, 400-500 buildings were reportedly destroyed; this includes homes and schools, factories and shops.  The electricity transmission station was located in the area, but also many damaged roads, et cetera. So there was a lot of immediate harm but it’s also leading to longer term impacts where services are disrupted.

It’s also very important to mention that it was a really big chaotic event. People didn’t know what was going on, they couldn’t see anything, there was dust everywhere, bodies and body parts everywhere, and this led to a lot of trauma for people. The psychosocial harm has been immense.

You also asked how the Dutch government responded and that is a very interesting question because they didn’t. It was not until 2019, so that’s four years after the attack, following publications by the NOS and the NRC, who are part of the media in the Netherlands, that the Dutch Ministry of Defense publicly took responsibility for the air strikes. So there has been a big lack of transparency. They assessed in their CDE [Collateral Damage Estimation] that the secondary explosions would not extend beyond the industrial area, which was not purely an industrial area, as was already mentioned.

After the attack in September 2015, it was announced that they will increase the scrutiny of targets in populated areas which have the expected potential for secondary explosions.

It sparked, of course, a very intense debate in the Netherlands because the Parliament also was not informed about the events. So there were a lot of questions being asked in Parliament about transparency and accountability. As a result, the then-Dutch Minister of Defense, [Ank] Bijleveld, announced greater transparency in informing Parliament about investigations into civilian casualties. The Dutch government also announced that they would contribute $4 million US dollars to rebuilding the infrastructure. They very clearly were not interested in giving individual compensation, but just in giving a more general contribution to the reconstruction of Hawijah. This was promised 10 months ago, and we understand the money is being contracted through the UNDP/FFS [United Nations Development Programme’s Funding Facility of Stabilisation] , and the IOM [International Organization for Migration]. However, we haven’t seen much of the money being spent – yet – or contributing to the people we spoke to in Hawijah.

Saba: And linking to what Roos already said, the Dutch have claimed responsibility, but they have not apologized, which is quite appalling. In terms of the destruction, we have seen eight car showrooms completely destroyed, the Hawijah municipality department building, the electricity department building, the civil defence department [building and vehicles], four ice factories, at least five or six brick factories, one flour mill all have been destroyed. An estimated 1,900 people have lost their livelihoods. Also the [Dutch] scope of calculating the casualties has been very narrow. The area was besieged, and the general hospital was under ISIS control. So they were not treating any civilian injuries or deaths. So where does this number come from?

Large areas of civilian infrastructure are still destroyed (Image via Roos Boer)

You mentioned that the Dutch government only started talking about this in 2019 after journalists exposed the story. But do you have a sense of when they knew about the civilian harm that had occurred?

Saba: From what we’ve heard, the Minister of Defense knew within a few weeks. We did see that after the strike quite a lot of news channels reported it, even the ISIS news channel at the time, released footage which European channels then used. There was also a press conference by a US General saying that there was a munition factory in Hawijah that was hit. So I think it was within days of this happening, the Coalition and the international community knew of the airstrike. Whether the Dutch knew that they were behind it, that’s a different question.

Roos: Regardless of whether they did or didn’t know; if they knew, then it’s rather problematic that they didn’t report it, if they didn’t know, to me that is very problematic too because they are responsible for assessing the impacts of their weapons. So just as a separate remark about this.

In October last year, PAX and Airwars released our report, ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’. What were the main findings from this report?

Roos: ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’ was a joint report of Airwars and PAX. We examined the longer term effects on civilian populations of the international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa, and Hawijah. We especially looked at the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, because we know there is a worldwide pattern of how these weapons in populated areas impact civilians. The longer term effects and reverberating effects are often under-reported. But we know that when explosive weapons are being used in populated areas, nine out of 10 casualties are civilians. So that’s a very alarming number.

And [‘Seeing Through the Rubble’] painted a rather grim image of how the destruction was still there, how difficult it is for people to pick up their lives if their cities are destroyed by our militaries. And then I think it was a good snapshot of the situation. But when we started researching, it only created more questions, so I was very happy that we could continue our research into Hawjiah, and visit the location. And now Saba is leading on a much more in-depth piece of research interviewing many of the survivors in Hawijah. I am sure she can tell you more about it.

Roos Boer presents the PAX/ Airwars report ‘Seeing through the Rubble’ to Subhan Al Jabouri, the Mayor of Hawijah (Image via Roos Boer)

You’ve recently been engaging in this research on the ground in Hawijah. It would be great to hear about what you’re currently researching and how you’re going about investigating this, in a bit more detail.

Saba: The research, which started in February this year, is being done by a consortium led by PAX, with the Intimacies of Remote Warfare at Utrecht University and al-Ghad League for Woman and Child Care as partners.

Out of the 119 civilians interviewed thus far, 62 lost their loved ones, whereas the rest either sustained injuries or material damage.  The research is looking at these reverberating effects and examining how – six and a half years later – civilian lives are still impacted heavily by the airstrikes. Because this was a besieged area, those who were injured were either not treated in a timely manner or not treated properly, which have resulted in very, very chronic issues.

The psychological trauma cannot even be measured. For instance, there is a gentleman we met, who lost seven members of his family including five of his children. How do you rebuild your life from there? Or the child who has had his face burned off and he is being bullied in school and has been forced to drop out because of this bullying – how can you even compensate for that? So it was heartbreaking hearing these individual stories, and meeting the people in person was quite overwhelming. But it also showed us how we failed as the humanitarian community in actually addressing these issues, which were caused by Dutch actions.

Roos: One of the interviewees asked me directly, “Are we less human than you are? If this factory was located in a Dutch city, would you have done it in the same way?”  And those, I think, are very spot on questions and very rightfully asked.

Saba: And to say that civilians are not aware, that is a complete understatement. Every person we met, whether they were authorities or civilians on the ground knew exactly what happened. We were asked how long it took for victims of Srebrenica to get their compensations, so they could calculate how long it would take them. So these are very well-informed people. Everybody wanted an apology from the Dutch – a formal apology by the Dutch government and by the parties who carried out the strike, as well as individual compensation.

Thank you for that. So did your findings confirm the conclusions from ‘Seeing Through the Rubble’?

Saba: This research confirmed the findings and then also added a very direct civilian voice to it. I think so far, most of the studies that have been taking place are usually looking at data from a distance, or maybe interviewing three to five civilians. But now we have the voices from over 119.

Does Hawijah continue to be affected by the strike, and is it still obvious when you visit the city today?

Saba: For us, that was one of the most appalling, for lack of a better term, aspect; that six and a half years later, you still see the rubble on the ground, which until now has not been cleared. You see that the hospital is still – a very major part of it – in prefabricated containers. We met a woman whose daughter was injured in the attack. She was 14 then, so about 20 now. And she was also worried that now that she has these prominent scars because of the injuries, who would marry her? Children, because their parents died or were injured, now can’t go to school, because they have to earn a livelihood. We got reports, which are yet to be confirmed, of children in primary schools, who are suffering from chronic diseases, like heart issues, high blood pressure and diabetes, because they’re so stressed by their trauma that happened six and a half years ago. So the city is very much completely at a standstill and it is still suffering from these aftershocks of what happened in June 2015.

Roos: You see a wounded city. It’s not like a huge city, but it’s a city with this roundabout, and if you take the wrong turn, you are in a pile of rubble. If you take the other turn, you see so many small commercial activities taking place. It is a wounded city with multiple faces. And the people that were affected, that were injured, they sold everything that they still had, to be able to pay for this first [medical] treatment [after the strike], including shelling injuries or amputations. They had nothing before, then they sold their jewellery or whatever they had to pay for this treatment and after that they were left with nothing. And they basically live off what other people are giving to them. It’s a very hopeless feeling if you talk to these people.

Saba: Like the hospital, for instance, it used to have a surgical wing, and now they don’t have the capacity for conducting surgeries anymore. They do not even have medicines for chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. People now have to travel 50 kilometers to Kirkuk, or have to spend their own money to get medicines [from private hospitals or pharmacies] that they need on a daily basis. They had 5,400 teachers before, and now there’s only 3,200 left. So you see these, these very visible sort of things as well. Giving numbers is one thing, but then when you meet the humans and you can paint a very clear picture of how these civilians feel. We met this gentleman who tried to commit suicide twice, because he used to be one of the richest people in Hawijah and then he lost everything.. And when we asked him, so all of this has happened and how would you like to sort of address it all? And he said, “All I want is death because I am done living.” How do you respond to that?

PAX are shown around the wreckage and destruction still affecting the city of Hawijah (Image via Roos Boer)

Thank you for depicting these long lasting effects and very human tragedies. So finally, I know you’ve touched on this a little bit, but I thought maybe you could just tell us about how the people of Hawijah think of the way that the Dutch have held themselves to account over this incident.

Saba: Well, as Roos already mentioned one of the questions we were asked was if the Dutch had different definitions of human rights? They were saying that you expect things like that from ISIS, which is a terrorist entity, but you don’t expect things like this from the Dutch, who are champions of human rights.

We have also had statements saying that they do not trust the Dutch government, however they do trust the Dutch justice system. So if they’re not given the justice that they deserve, then they will go to court and they will try and get their rights through the formal legal system. But then, across the board, whether it is authorities or whether it’s civilians, they do name the Dutch very outwardly and very clearly.

For instance, in the debate in the Netherlands, we heard that the intelligence was given to the Dutch by the Americans. So when I asked them why not blame the Americans and they actually had a very interesting answer, which we do not disagree with: They said the American intelligence was flawed during the Gulf war, the American intelligence was proved wrong in 2003, when they said there were weapons of mass destruction. So why are the Dutch still trusting the Americans? The person or entity carrying out the airstrike, they also have their own own minds and their own eyes. So why aren’t they trusting their own facilities for that measure?

Thank you very much for sharing this incredible research with us. Those are all our questions. Do you have anything final to add before we end?

Saba: The research report will hopefully be out in January. Hopefully we can add a lot more to the debate and also show multiple entities around the world, whether it’s NATO states or other nations joining international coalitions, or take part in this kind of warfare, to not only take the direct casualties or the direct harm into account. These reverberating effects often are even worse [and longer lasting] than the direct effects. So in the targeting process we firmly believe that this also needs to be integrated.

It will be on our site and on the Intimacies of Remote Warfare website. And there will also be a public launch.

And we will definitely share it widely on our social media as well. So it should be readily available to anyone looking for it. Thank you very much both of you for your time!

Saba: Thank you for, for touching on this important subject. Thank you.

The PAX team vist the destruction in Hawijah (Image via Mustafa Aljanaby, Al Ghad ©)

▲ Six years after a Dutch airstrike devastated Hawijah, damage and destruction remains widespread (Image via Roos Boer, PAX)

Published

October 1, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Header Image

A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

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

October 1st marks the anniversary of Belgium relaunching its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Throughout its engagement in this coalition, Belgium has been one of the least transparent – and least accountable – countries when it comes to acknowledging civilian harm. In fact, the Government has refused to publicly concede any civilian harm from its own actions. While the Parliament called for changes last year, urging the Government to introduce transparency and engage with civil society organisations, we have seen no tangible improvements. 

Together, we are publishing a joint open letter to Minister of Defence Dedonder with our Belgian and international partners. We ask the Belgian government to urgently take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text of the letter is reprinted below.

 

Dear Minister Dedonder,

October 1st marks one year since Belgium re-joined Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, while Belgium has made significant contributions to this conflict for more than 7 years, conducting well over 1,000 missions, there remains a severe lack of transparency over the harm to civilians from Belgian actions; in fact, Belgium stands out among allies in its blanket refusal to acknowledge casualties. This refusal persists even when the US-led Coalition have conceded Belgian involvement in specific strikes which killed and injured civilians.

On June 25, 2020, the Belgian Parliament adopted resolution 1298. Among other things, it asked the federal government to ensure; “maximum transparency (…) with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military deployment”. In addition, the government was asked to enter into a dialogue with its counterparts in the Netherlands about the lessons learned from the disaster of Hawija, in which dozens of civilians were killed as a result of a bombing raid carried out by the Dutch army. Finally, the resolution also called for public communication about possible civilian casualties and active cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations.

Yet it is unclear to us whether (and if so, how) these recommendations were implemented in any way during the deployment of the last year. No interim mission reports were published and the MoD continues to fail to provide data on the number of strikes and civilian casualties in a meaningful way.

Engagement with civil society

Since Belgium relaunched its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve, we have had some promising engagements with the Ministry of Defence. In May 2021, for instance, some of us were able to meet with officials and shared key lessons from the last decade of counting civilian harm. Nonetheless a more sustained approach is needed. We would encourage Belgium to draw inspiration from the processes set up by some of Belgium’s allies, in particular those in the Netherlands and the US. We stand ready to engage and share our lessons and key findings in a constructive way, to ensure that past civilian harm can lead to improvements in future protection of civilians.

We understand that recent events in Afghanistan may have delayed follow-up to our concerns. Those same events, however, should make it abundantly clear that a sustained, institutional, and consultative discussion about how to prevent civilian casualties is needed. We urge the minister to react to this, and relaunch discussions with civil society groups on this topic. We further urge the minister to do so with urgency so that experts from  civil society organisations may feed into Belgium’s update of the Strategic Vision 2030:  the need to address civilian harm and the protection of civilians in this document is crucial.

Recommendations

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

–      Engage in a sustained, systematised debate with civil society organisations in Belgium, who hold specialist knowledge on lessons that can be learned on how to best protect civilians and which are keen to share such knowledge;

–      Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS;

–      Launch an evaluation of claimed civilian harm that has occurred from suspected Belgian strikes in Iraq and Syria over the last year, including strikes which were IHL compliant, covering lessons which can be learned from this, and how civilians can better be protected in the future;

–      Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the date, 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 use by independent parties;

–      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;

–      In line with the clear wishes of the Belgian Parliament, support a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas – with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

Signed,

11.11.11

Airwars Stichting

Amnesty Belgium

Agir pour la Paix

CNAPD

Humanity & Inclusion

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Published

August 27, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Assisted by

Georgia Edwards

As the international war against ISIS enters its eighth year, the UK must urgently improve its approach to the protection of civilians and civilian harm monitoring, reports Airwars' advocacy team.

Over the last decade, warfare has undergone significant changes. Countries such as the UK and US have increasingly done their best to avoid large-scale ground deployments of their own troops, focusing instead on supporting local forces, for instance by providing air power.

Through the monitoring of nearly 60,000 locally alleged civilian deaths caused by belligerents across multiple conflicts, Airwars has documented the risks to civilians that this form of engagement can pose in nations like Iraq and Syria, with heavy uses of explosive weapons in urban environments often leading to very significant civilian casualties and major destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Despite acknowledging the potential risks from recent actions, which saw “the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II”, the UK has failed to improve its approach to the Protection of Civilians (POC). In fact, the UK remains hesitant to openly acknowledge harm from its own actions. Leaving behind this current approach, by introducing public transparency and accountability for identification, review and admissions of casualties is vital to reduce present and future civilian casualties.

This article will assess current UK government action with regard to developing and updating its protection of civilian policies.

The Ministry of Defence

One of the most comprehensive reviews of UK military action in recent times, the 2016 Chilcot report, repeatedly emphasised that the MoD has failed to accurately estimate possible civilian harm that would arise from the 2003-2011 war in Iraq. In fact, the report states the MoD mistakenly estimated the war would ‘only’ cost civilian lives in the “low hundreds”. In reality, Iraq Body Count estimated that more than 114,000 civilians died as a result of violence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

The Chilcot report called for the UK to improve how it reaches pre-conflict estimates of civilian harm, declaring that a ‘government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.’ It also said governments should make ‘greater efforts in the post-conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties’ and to understand the broader impact of these actions.

In response, MoD officials pledged to improve the protection of civilians in the future. Nevertheless, the key challenges to effective POC identified in the Chilcot report persist to this day, including a lack of accountability; a lack of understanding of the impact of British airstrikes on the ground; and a false belief that the use of ‘smart’ guided munitions might automatically lead to fewer casualties.

This is highlighted by the MoD’s continued claim that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its ongoing seven-year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This does not mean, as the MoD has repeatedly emphasised, that they believe their actions have only caused a single civilian death, but only that they claim to have the evidence of one casualty.

However the US-led Coalition has itself concluded that fifteen additional civilians were killed in at least three actions in Iraq and Syria which are known to have been British airstrikes.

Airwars, along with other monitoring organisations, humanitarian organisations, and news outlets, have demonstrated that their own mechanisms to capture civilian harm reports are often far more accurate than those of militaries. For the past two years for example, the majority of officially declared civilian harm reports by the US-led Coalition originated with Airwars, rather than internal military reports. The UK government must therefore reflect on why it has consistently failed to incorporate adequate civilian casualty monitoring mechanisms into all recent operations.

As Airwars’ ‘Europe’s Shame’ investigation highlights, the UK’s allies are often better able to understand and report on the harm that comes from British actions than the UK itself. This was reaffirmed by the recent publication of a Pentagon report to Congress in which they detailed civilian casualties known to have been caused by allies, including Britain.

Library picture: A RAF Typhoon lands in Cyprus hours after UK voted to extend airstrikes to Syria (UK MoD)

This is not to say that there has been no progress at the MoD since the findings of the Chilcot report. When it comes to responding to requests for information regarding specific alleged civilian harm events during the war against ISIS, the MoD has been quick and responsive – at least compared to allies. Yet a number of key changes are required within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the UK consistently and effectively protects those on the ground when it goes to war, and is transparent when things do go wrong.

Improving the MoD approach

To improve the UK Defence Ministry’s approach to POC, the following key steps must be taken. Firstly, the UK must learn from its allies and independent organisations by establishing a permanent civilian harm tracking cell within the Ministry with strong local understanding and relevant language skills, while conducting site visits and witness interviews for assessments where possible.

The UK must also review the exceptionally high bar it sets for determining civilian harm. Senior British defence officials have confirmed to both the BBC and to Airwars that the UK presently requires what it calls ‘hard facts’ when assessing civilian harm claims – an apparently higher standard even than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ used by UK courts. Civilian casualty assessors within the US military instead use a ‘balance of probabilities’ approach, Airwars understands – allowing them to consider local credible reports of civilian harm in their own investigations.

Transparency must then follow. Information about incidents that may have harmed civilians should be publicly disclosed, investigated and fed into internal lessons mechanisms to inform broader approaches to civilian harm mitigation. As outlined by Mike Spagat from Every Casualty Counts: “Transparency about operations can help build positive relations with the public, improve the quality of field data and, ultimately, improve military performance.”

By better understanding the negative impact of its military actions on the ground and communicating the findings in clear ways, the UK will become more accountable both to its own citizens and to those who live where the UK’s armed forces or close partners engage overseas. This would also place the UK in line with allies like the US, which have made a conscious effort to acknowledge at least some instances of civilian harm, as seen for example in Airwars’ investigation of  “The Credibles”.

As a key step towards this, we urge the British government to follow many allies, primarily European, who are increasingly implementing presumptions against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) in the planning and conduct of operations. As Rachel Hobley from Humanity and Inclusion emphasises: “When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas, 90 percent of those killed or injured are civilians. This compares to just 25 percent in non-urban areas.

“These statistics, which have remained the same for the last 10 years, show the systematic humanitarian harm that arises from these practices. Not only are people killed and injured – families’ homes are also destroyed, health clinics decimated, and key services like water and electricity wiped out.”

The aftermath of a confirmed Coalition airstrike two years on. (via Amnesty)

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The MoD is only one actor among many within the UK government which is responsible for protecting civilians on the ground. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is also vital, as it leads on the UK’s official Approach to the Protection of Civilians.

It is particularly concerning that commitments made in the UK’s 2020 Approach to the Protection of Civilians policy, to “investigate any credible reports that UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, have yet to lead to any tangible changes in the UK’s approach.

At the same time, there is a lack of guidance on how the UK will respond when harm does occur. This reflects a broader trend in which cornerstone policies for the UK’s engagements abroad too often fail adequately to address the importance of protecting civilians. For example, while the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published earlier this year, is broad in its scope – covering everything from cyber warfare to terrorism – it fails to mention the protection of civilians once. This reveals a significant lack of prioritisation of POC, despite such protections being identified time and time again as a key to obtaining strategic goals in wars.

In collaboration with partner civil society organisations, Airwars has held positive discussions with Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, in attempts to better understand how the FCDO intends to improve its approach. At the same time, several statements from government officials, including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have promised to create a ‘conflict centre’. Yet, despite concerted efforts to gain more information, we are left with a long list of questions on what this will focus on; to what degree it will allow for engagement with civil society actors; and how much it will prioritise the protection of civilians.

Finally, in addition to changes that both the MoD and FCDO must implement to be accountable and protect civilians, we urge the Government to ensure that these departments also coordinate with each other as they are jointly responsible for delivering protections on the ground. As it stands, the two departments often do not even use the same terminology, with the MoD focusing on ‘Human Security’ and the FCDO pursuing ‘Protection of Civilians’. While the two agendas are implicitly connected, it remains unclear why the departments have chosen different approaches, and how they will work together to ensure delivery.

Making the UK’s approach to the protection of civilians more accountable and transparent is not going to be a quick or simple process. Yet it is a vital one; not only for the sake of the civilians who find themselves caught in conflict, but also to ensure that UK actions abroad contribute to stability.

▲ Ministry of Defence Main Building, Horse Guards Avenue.