News

News

The Dutch Ministry of Defence in the Hague.

Published

December 22, 2023

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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The Dutch Ministry of Defence in the Hague.

In a major step forward, the Dutch Minister of Defence has announced a new mechanism for civilians and NGOs to report harm to civilians from Dutch airstrikes.

The announcement follows several years of advocacy and detailed discussions between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Protection of Civilians team and a consortium of NGOs including Airwars, Pax, Utrecht University, and CIVIC, in the so-called ‘Roadmap process’.

In the letter to parliament, the Dutch format for setting out policy, the Minister of Defence, Kajsa Ollongren, outlined two major commitments; one for operations that have already finished and one for future engagements. To the former, the Minister acknowledged current gaps in the MoD’s approach, emphasising; “At present there is no specific counter for NGOs and victims/next of kin to report suspicions of civilian casualties to the Netherlands. The Defense Department will therefore set up a counter where these parties can report suspicions of civilian casualties in relation to [military deployments] that are already terminated”.

The Netherlands was one of several nations who contributed with air support to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019. Our evidence suggests that at least 8,199 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition airstrikes. The Dutch have admitted to some of these deaths – though often only after major international investigations have exposed Dutch involvement. This includes a strike on the Iraqi city of Hawijah in 2015, in which more than 85 civilians were killed, which prompted an independent inquiry and a major court case with a verdict expected in January 2024.

By establishing a dedicated civilian harm reporting mechanism, the Netherlands is following in the footsteps of the US and setting itself ahead of the other allies which contributed to OIR. This announcement comes shortly after Airwars took the UK Ministry of Defense to a tribunal, in part for its lack of clarity on mechanisms to protect civilians during its role in the same campaign.

If implemented well, this new Dutch mechanism will make it possible for civilians who have been affected by strikes to report the details directly to the Ministry of Defense. It will also provide NGOs, such as Airwars, which gather evidence of harm with a systematic approach to submitting allegations. This has long been identified by NGOs as best practice in civilian harm mitigation and response.

When it comes to civilian harm reporting in future conflicts, Ollongren states in the letter; “I consider it desirable that NGOs and victims/survivors can report to the relevant coalition. Where relevant, the Netherlands will therefore endeavor to organize this well in a coalition before the start of the Dutch contribution. Should a coalition in question be unable to adequately organize a reporting structure, Defense itself will ensure the possibility to report suspicions to the Netherlands“.

Coalitions, which have come to define engagement in recent conflict by Western states, often introduce uncertainty and bureaucratic complexity on the responsibility and accountability for civilian harm. It is notable that the Netherlands commit themselves to setting up a Dutch mechanism if a coalition one cannot be agreed upon.

As with all policy commitments, the eventual effect depends on how well it is implemented. This is particularly relevant in this case, as a new US-led coalition with Dutch participation was announced on the same day that the letter came out. The new coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, will respond to Yemen-based Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Yemen has seen some of the most brutal and sustained civilian harm in the last decade, from both the Houthi forces, but also the US-backed Saudi Coalition.

The Netherlands participation in this new coalition does not yet meet the threshold required for an ‘Article-100 letter’, the system by which civilian harm considerations, such as a reporting mechanism, would be announced and established. However Dutch involvement in this and future operations will be a testing ground for these new commitments, which so far puts the Netherlands apart from many of its allies.

▲ The Dutch Ministry of Defence in the Hague.

Published

July 14, 2023

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

New UN Human Rights Council study emphasises importance of casualty recording for human rights

A breakthrough United Nations report outlining the importance of casualty recording for the protection and promotion of human rights has received nearly universal support at the Human Rights Council’s 53rd session.

The report, which linked casualty recording and human rights obligations directly, received widespread support at the council on July 3rd – with 19 states and observers expressing support for the findings and recommendations. Only one state, Venezuela, expressed objections.

The study will create pressure on states – many of which have previously expressed confusion and hesitancy regarding their obligations around casualty recording – to do more to monitor the civilian impact of conflict.

Setting the tone for the Council session, the report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended that states: “ensure that casualty recording systems and policies are in place and report publicly on all casualties believed to have resulted from hostilities or violence and their circumstances, including for reparations and accountability”.

If implemented, such measures would create a global best practice around casualty monitoring. There is currently little transparency about how states record casualties from their own actions, and state militaries often face accusations of undercounting the civilian impact of their actions.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Ministry of Defence refuses to publicly disclose details on its own mechanism for casualty recording in the war against ISIS. Airwars is challenging this position in a tribunal later this year.

The importance of casualty recording 

The High Commissioner’s report emphasised; “Casualty recording is an important and effective means of delivering on a range of fundamental human rights”. The report further notes: “In addition to disciplinary and accountability measures, such information can be used to foster compliance with international law, including by changing practices and behaviour and enhancing training to this end.”

The US delegation reflected on casualty recording in Ukraine, acknowledging that: “we still do not know the full picture. For that reason, we must advance efforts to create a comprehensive casualty recording system that accounts for all casualties, both civilian and military.”

The delegation went on to emphasise that the US is keen to “aid the international community in developing a casualty reporting mechanism at the international level to contribute to equal access to justice for all”

The support for casualty recording is particularly significant in the context of other successes for civilian protections at the UN last week. In a statement welcoming the report on casualty recording, 56 states of the ‘Group of Friends of R2P’ emphasised the connection between casualty recording and atrocity prevention.

A week earlier, a resolution was adopted at the General Assembly creating an independent institution to examine the fate of all people who are missing in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, an estimated 130,000 people have gone missing or been forcibly disappeared.

The moves at the UN follow other international assertions on the importance of casualty recording. The Explosive Weapons Declarations, signed by nearly 90 states in November last year, urges states to “record and track civilian casualties, and [ensure] the use of all practicable measures to ensure appropriate data collection.” The US’ Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), which is widely seen as one of the most ambitious and detailed national policies on this topic, highlights that “developing standardized reporting procedures for operational data to inform civilian harm assessments …will improve DoD’s ability to mitigate and respond to civilian harm.”

The work of independent civil society organisations

Airwars has been collaborating with civil society organisations, particularly Every Casualty Counts and other partners in the Casualty Recorder’s Network, to present evidence for the Human Rights Council report over the last year.

Last year, Every Casualty also released a hard hitting report outlining the requirements for casualty recording across legal regimes. It found that “international humanitarian and human rights law contain extensive requirements regarding states’ duties to account for the dead and missing in armed conflict and other situations of gross human rights violations… these duties are universally binding on all states.”

The work of these organisations was emphasised throughout the report. On the work of Airwars, the report highlighted our work with the US military and Government in particular, highlighting that: “more than 70 per cent of United States internal inquiries into civilian casualties caused by air strikes in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq since 2014 have been based on casualty recording submitted by Airwars.”

The report also drew attention to the advocacy work of organisations like Airwars, writing: “…following years of advocacy and engagement based in part on [Airwars’] findings on casualties in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, the United States Department of Defense issued the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan in August 2022.”

We welcome the findings of the report on casualty recording and the widespread support it received at the Human Rights Council last week. It brings clarity to the requirements on states and reaffirms, at an international level, the importance of accurately recording and reporting on casualties in warfare.

▲ UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Published

June 5, 2023

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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Hawijah's industrial area in 2021, showing the damage and destruction that remained widespread (Image via Roos Boer, PAX)

On the eighth anniversary of the Dutch airstrike that destroyed the Iraqi town of Hawijah, the Netherlands faces a crossroad on its approach to the protection of civilians.

On the night of June 2nd 2015, the Dutch military released a munition on an ISIS car bomb factory in the Iraqi city of Hawijah. The strike lit 18,000 kg of TNT hidden in the factory, causing an immense secondary explosion; in an instant, at least 70 civilians were reported killed and an entire section of the city was reduced to rubble.

The pilots who had conducted the strike immediately reported the extensive destruction of Hawjiah to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Just two weeks later, the US Central Command of the coalition that the Dutch were contributing to, submitted a report to the MoD emphasising that reports of over 70 civilians killed were credible. Regardless of these reports, the Minister of Defence made statements to parliament claiming that the strikes had caused no collateral damage.

Four years later, under significant media and civil society pressure, the Government acknowledged the civilian harm that had occurred.

In the years since, the Netherlands has done much work to review its policy framework on civilian harm mitigation, tracking, and response. But the independent inquiry set up to look into the incident in 2020 has yet to release its report, and key members of the investigating team have stepped away from the process. Last month, fresh revelations about civilian harm allegations once again made headlines in the Netherlands – though the Minister of Defense still told parliament that an independent examination of the full Dutch campaign was not needed.

Airwars is one of a small group of NGOs who meet routinely with the Dutch MoD to advise on where improvements could be made with regards to its policies and practices on civilian protection. This article reflects on the steps taken since the deadly Hawijah strike, and highlights some of the critical gaps and questions that remain.

The rubble of a building in Hawijah (courtesy of Roos Boer, PAX)

Accountability to the people of Hawijah

In an effort to hold themselves accountable for the harm caused in Hawijah, the Dutch Government and MoD have taken a dual approach. On the one hand, a commission was launched in 2020, named after its lead, Minister of State Winnie Sorgdrager. The Sorgdrager commission aims to investigate the Dutch strike itself, and the civilian harm that followed, rather than the political decisions around the incident.

In parallel, the Government donated a ‘voluntary compensation’ of €4.4million to two international organisations, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in order for these to deliver aid and development programmes in Hawijah.

In both processes, the Dutch government has been accused of excluding key local voices. When researchers from the charity PAX travelled to Hawijah in 2021, they read a statement to the Mayor and local NGO coordinators from the MoD on the implementation of the IOM project, which had allegedly started in May 2021 with “local authority…closely involved in every step of the way”, only to look up to shocked faces from the key local stakeholders who were apparently unaware of the project and said that they had never been consulted.

PAX’s findings also emphasised that the priorities for response outlined by the people of Hawijah remained unaddressed by the Dutch Government. Namely: an apology from the Dutch Government, and individual compensation payments. Many of those affected by the 2015 blast lost businesses, homes, and sources of livelihood, while simultaneously facing mounting medical bills. For these individuals, a community wide programme focused on restoring access to electricity and demining the city may provide some benefits – but was said to be inappropriate support to individuals harmed by the Dutch strike.

At the same time, 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 remains little clarity on when the report from the Commission will be published, how the investigation has been carried out, and whether or not the voices of civilians in Hawijah have been listened to and taken into account.

Transparency on targeting and civilian harm tracking systems

In addition to the process of attempting to bring accountability to those in Hawijah, the Dutch MoD has been engaging in a process of reviewing its policy framework on civilian harm mitigation, tracking, and response, with a consortium of civil society organisations including PAX, Airwars, CIVIC, Open State Foundations and experts at the University of Utrecht.

The ‘Roadmap Process’ has led to notable progress in some key areas; this incudes an additional paragraph on the risks to civilians from Dutch military action in the reporting requirements outlined in Article 100 of the Dutch constitution. As a result of consistent pressure from the consortium of civil society groups and pressure from the media, the MoD also recently released details of all strikes conducted during their contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria. While this data does not include information on civilian harm, it is an important step in the right direction.

This model of consistent, structured engagement between civil society organisations, many of whom provide a direct link to those affected by Dutch military action, and the MoD serves as a model of inspiration for many of the Netherland’s allies, where Ministries of Defence are less willing to engage in structured engagement, including Belgium and the UK.

However, whilst these are positive steps in the right direction, there are also causes for concern. The same media outlets which revealed Dutch responsibility for the Hawijah blast in 2019, recently published evidence of a further strike in Mosul in 2016, which killed at least 7 civilians. This highlights the importance of continuing to examine allegations of harm from Dutch strikes in the anti-ISIS coalition – as well as the importance of ensuring that the MoD and Government have systems in place to effectively communicate about harm when it is uncovered.

In response to the newest allegations of civilian harm, The Minister of Defence announced a new inquiry into the attack, as well as the aforementioned release of data on Dutch strikes. Yet just a few weeks later, she revealed  that she “see[s] no reason” for wider independent examinations into Dutch involvement in strikes which may have caused civilian harm during the anti-ISIS coalition. A system that is only reactive rather than proactive in addressing civilian harm falls below the standards that Airwars and many of its civil society partners have long identified as best practice.

Moving forward

As we review the Dutch approach to civilian harm mitigation and tracking eight years on from Hawijah, we’re facing positive changes in commitments and outlook, as well as some positive policy reforms. At the same time, we are also facing a city that remains destroyed, with rubble still littering the streets, and a population that is being told that the development programmes which were launched in response to the strike in June 2015 have made great strides – a claim many do not recognise.

This is in no way a unique challenge with Dutch military policy. It speaks to the wider lack of transparency and accountability that permeates so much of modern warfare.

The Netherlands stands out insofar as they now face a crossroads: they can either use the positive changes from the last few years, including the establishment of the Roadmap Process, to become a European leader on civilian harm tracking. Or they fail to implement needed changes in their systems and instead continue to widen the gap between rhetoric and reality on the ground when it comes to civilian harm from Dutch actions.

 

Read more about our coverage of Dutch actions below:

    Dutch Parliament set to debate improvements in policies to protect civilians (2022) After Hawija: Dutch Ministry of Defence maps route forward (2022) Fresh revelations show Hawijah’s people are still far from receiving answers on deadly 2015 Dutch airstrike (2021) After Hawija: The way forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defence (2021) “Some families were completely wiped out”: The Mayor of Hawijah speaks out (2020) Dutch F-16 pilots break their silence on airstrikes and civilian harm (2020) Dutch Ministry of Defence promises significant transparency changes (2019) Investigation accuses Dutch military of involvement in 2015 Iraq airstrike which led to deaths of 70 civilians (2019) ‘That’s just how we do it.’ Minister upholds court’s decision not to identify Dutch civilian harm events (2018) Refusal by The Netherlands Defence Ministry to identify specific civilian harm events impedes natural justice, and runs counter to actions by other Coalition allies (2018) The renewed Netherlands mission against ISIS risks the lowest levels of public transparency and accountability among allies in a very different war (2017) Netherlands airstrikes in Iraq and Syria: Towards improved transparency and public accountability (2016)
▲ Hawijah's industrial area in 2021, showing the damage and destruction that remained widespread (Image via Roos Boer, PAX)

Published

November 25, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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The signing ceremony for the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) on November 18th 2022 in Dublin Castle. Over 80 state delegations such as the UK (pictured) officially endorsed the declaration.

An overview of the actions needed

On Friday November 18th, states and civil society joined together in Dublin Castle to officially endorse the long-awaited international Political Declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). So far, 82 states have signed onto the declaration; this is a similar number to the initial signatories to other international declarations that have created new norms and standards in warfare, such as the Safe Schools Declaration. Among the signatories to the EWIPA declaration are states such as the US, UK, Netherlands, and Belgium, all of which made sizable contributions to the coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria that killed an estimated 8,194–13,249 civilians.

According to Action on Armed Violence, when EWIPAs are used, over 90% of those harmed are civilians. Airwars recently put together a series of maps showing the clear and troubling connection between population density in cities and civilian deaths during urban warfare. Even beyond those who are killed immediately, the reverberating effects are often severe and pervasive, with schools, hospitals, livelihoods, and basic resources like food and water becoming inaccessible for years. This has played out in recent conflicts in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, in which entire city parts were destroyed and have been made uninhabitable.

The Irish-led, UN backed international declaration is a groundbreaking step towards curbing the use of such weapons. It comes at the back of a decade of civil society focus and pressure on this, led by the INEW network, which Airwars is a part of. As with any political declaration, the results are only as good as the implementation. Below, we outline some of the challenges states must address as they begin the process of implementing the EWIPA declaration.

States must be frank about gaps in their current approach

The first step in understanding how to implement the declaration to limit the use of EWIPAs must be for each state to critically examine current gaps in its own approach and engage in a meaningful process to address these. This in itself might be a stumbling block for some; while states such as the US and the Netherlands have shown increasing willingness to address gaps in their approach to the protection of civilians by working with civil society and experts, others have not.

The UK for instance, still falls behind allies in terms of transparency on evidence collection around civilian harm. Under the declaration, states committed to: “Collect, share, and make publicly available disaggregated data on the direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects of military operations involving the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, where feasible and appropriate”. Despite the UK representative in Dublin noting during the signing ceremony that “the UK already has policies and procedures in place to support the implementation”, this has to date not been evident when it comes to public reporting on the effects of UK military actions.

As it stands, the UK maintains that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its actions in the seven year anti-ISIS campaign, for example, despite extensive military involvement. The US, by comparison, has admitted to over 1,400 civilian casualties as part of the Coalition.  When challenged, UK officials tend to emphasise that they are aware that is not a case of lower civilian casualties than in previous conflicts – but of poor evidence gathering. This position was summarised by former Armed Forces Minister, Mark Lancaster, who emphasised in 2019 that; “[I]t is not our position that there has been only a single civilian casualty as a result of our military action. What we are saying is that we have evidence of only a single, or what we believe to have been a single, civilian casualty.”

In spite of this oft-repeated recognition that the evidence gathering mechanisms of the UK are not able to accurately reflect the reality on the ground, there is, to our knowledge, no process in place to improve this approach and little willingness to engage with civil society to address this. If this is not addressed, there will be a significant gap between the rhetoric of UK leadership when it comes to EWIPA and the reality on the ground.

States must build clarity on who is responsible for implementing the EWIPA declaration on a national level

The second step states must take to implement the EWIPA declaration is to gain better internal understandings of who will be involved in its implementation. This must include those focusing specifically on EWIPA, but also those focusing on topics such as human security, the protection of civilians, humanitarian response, development, diplomacy, and all the other elements required to protect those caught in conflict from being harmed by explosive weapons.The structures behind overseas military engagements are complex, quick changing, and lines of responsibility are often murky. Yet it is only if all involved in such operations, across parliament, ministries of defence, and ministries of foreign affairs and overseas development, are dedicated to limiting the use of EWIPA, understanding their impact, and tracking civilian harm that occurs if they are used, that implementation will be effective.

States must be open to civil society inclusion in the implementation of the EWIPA declaration 

Civil society actors, many of us united under the INEW banner, played a significant role in the development of the EWIPA declaration and the advocacy that brought states to the process, a fact that was acknowledged by a large number of states at the conference in Dublin. We stand ready to support the implementation in national contexts and across international coalitions. Many civil society organisations have spent years – sometimes decades – developing protection mechanisms and civilian harm tracking mechanisms, as well as conducting research into valuable lessons on the impact of EWIPA. Civil society organisations are also often direct links to the communities affected. It is in all of our interests that these resources are effectively shared with those in power.

In those states where there is a history of poor transparency and accountability on civilian harm and civilian harm tracking, governments and their militaries must also commit to a certain level of transparency on the implementation of the EWIPA declaration. They should work with civil society actors to understand the gaps in their current approach and set up milestones for implementation.

Looking forward

The endorsing ceremony was a promising step towards recognising the immense harm that these weapons have caused in recent years – and the harm they will continue to cause as their impact reverberates through communities. If the declaration is implemented well, fewer civilians will be harmed by explosive weapons in their cities, towns, and camps.

Yet there are pitfalls each state must avoid if their implementation of the declaration is to be meaningful. They must be frank about current gaps in their system and must be willing to address them. They must gain an oversight of everyone who will play a role in the effective implementation of EWIPA. And they should work with civil society actors who have resources to share and stand ready to support implementation.

Additional resources:

    Implementation Brief: Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, CIVIC, November 2022 (here) Safeguarding Civilians: A Humanitarian Interpretation of the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Human Rights watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law school, October 2022 (here) Implementing the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Key Areas and Implementing Actions, INEW and Article 36, November 2022 (here) Over 80 Countries Committed to Curb Use of Explosive Weapons, Now Comes the Hard Part, Bonnie Docherty, Human Rights Watch for Just Security, November 23rd 2022 (here)
▲ The signing ceremony for the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) on November 18th 2022 in Dublin Castle. Over 80 state delegations such as the UK (pictured) officially endorsed the declaration.

Published

October 27, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Airwars and PAX release briefing for Dutch MPs ahead of Parliamentary debate, expected to cover civilian casualties from Dutch military operations and the impact of 2015 airstrike on Hawija.

In preparation for a debate in the Dutch Parliament on November 3rd, in which the Minister of Defence is expected to cover a range of topics including progress on the Roadmap process and improvements within the protection of civilians from Dutch military actions, Airwars and PAX released a briefing for Dutch MPs today.

The briefing gives an overview of Dutch efforts to improve the mitigation and response to civilian harm to date, and the challenges that are yet to be addressed to ensure that the Dutch protection framework is up to scratch. It suggests specific areas MPs should remain aware of, including continued questions on the level of transparency offered by the MOD, the importance of the Ministry of Defence maintaining clear milestones as it implements stronger PoC systems, and rehabilitation payments to Hawija, Iraq.

Click on the briefing below (note this is an informal translation from the original Dutch briefing, which you can find here):

 

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

Published

August 26, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

New action plan contains positive steps - the focus now is on implementation and renewed efforts to ensure past cases are not forgotten.

Airwars joins our civil society partners in welcoming the publication of the much awaited Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), released yesterday by the US Department of Defense.

The CHMR-AP reflects a years-long process of sustained pressure by individuals, civil society, journalists, activists and legislators to challenge the way the US military conducts itself in the battlefield, and force the Department of Defense to review practices that have had deadly outcomes for civilians across the globe – from the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in the war against ISIS, to the botched Kabul strike last year.

In response to this sustained pressure,  catalysed by a series of Pulitzer-winning New York Times articles exposing serious concerns with US military practices in January 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum calling for the creation of the CHMR-AP. Austin called for the CHMR-AP to set up a process for the establishment of a new centre of excellence, and a framework for standardising civilian harm reporting, investigation and mitigation.

The 46-page document is an unprecedented move toward transparency, and was put together following a series of key engagements with civil society actors and independent specialists. Presenting a far reaching future-looking agenda, it is applicable to the ‘full spectrum of conflict’ – from current operations, large and small, to any future situations of high-intensity conflict.

Covering 11 distinct objectives – ranging from actions to reduce confirmation bias to implementation of a new data management system; each with a proposed set of phased actions and associated resource plan, the CHMR-AP presents an ambitious set of actions that, if implemented appropriately, could present a radical departure from existing policy in some areas. It sets a strong precedent for future US military action – and, importantly, an example for allies to follow.

Read the DoD factsheet here and the full action plan here.

Why is the CHMR-AP so important?

While the action plan itself is focused on reviewing and reforming the US’ policies on civilian harm mitigation and tracking, it should also have significant implications for the partners that support the US in modern conflicts, such as the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, and others. As it stands, US allies have been shown to have limited oversight, transparency, or accountability for civilian harm from their own actions. The UK, for instance, admits to only a single civilian casualty from its 8 years of support to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, in which the UK has been second only to the US in the number of munitions dropped in some battlefields. Airwars’ estimates of civilians killed by this coalition could be well over 8,000.

Over the last few years, Airwars and our civil society partners have advocated with several of these states to review and improve national approaches and policies to civilian harm mitigation; yet, while some states have taken on such reviews, none have been as far-reaching or ambitious as the CHMR-AP.

Beyond these national processes to improve approaches to civilian harm mitigation, the CHMR-AP also comes out in the context of a new international agreement on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, due to be signed by the US and key allies in October this year. The CHMR-AP’s introduction of the term ‘civilian environment’ presents a broad understanding of civilian harm – with reference to the need to understand population density, urban systems and the ‘the interconnected relationships between the civilian population, natural resources, infrastructure, and essential services’. This is an important move towards acknowledging the long-term consequences of military action on civilians caught in conflict.

What does this mean for civilians harmed by the US in past actions?

Perhaps the biggest gap in the CHMR-AP is that it includes no reference to reviewing past cases of alleged civilian harm; including addressing the 37 cases that are still open pending assessment for civilian harm claims made against the US-led Coalition in the war against ISIS.

According to Airwars’ archive, the likely death toll resulting from the actions of the US-led Coalition’s actions in the war against ISIS alone could be at least 8,192 and as many as 13,247 civilians. The US has conceded causing overall at least 1,417 civilian fatalities – but has rejected 2,674 harm claims. These rejected cases could account for thousands of casualties.

Total estimates for the last twenty years of US actions reach as many as 48,308 civilian deaths – with over 90,000 declared strikes across seven major conflict zones throughout the so-called ‘forever wars’.

Key questions therefore remain unanswered: will the remaining open cases be reviewed? Will they be reviewed with this new policy in mind? How might the new policy change the outcome of those investigations? And if these open cases are reviewed in line with new policies – what does that mean for the cases that have previously been rejected as ‘non-credible’ under a system that has now been widely acknowledged to have been in need of reform?

Looking back at past cases has significant implications for commitments to amends processes – a section outlined as an objective in the CHMR-AP, although with no mention of how the new action plan would affect outstanding claims or clear detail on implementation of future processes.

What should we be looking out for now?

The implementation of the CHMR-AP will be key. While the action plan outlines a comprehensive set of actions and resource plans, it is yet to be determined the extent to which the policy will be implemented effectively and with continued consultation with independent voices. This is particularly important as US actions are on-going across the globe – Airwars has recorded an uptick in strikes in Somalia since Biden announced his decision to redeploy troops in May this year, while a new set of strikes were announced in Syria on Iran-backed militants just as the CHMR-AP was released.

Additionally, as noted by Human Rights Watch Washington Director Sarah Yager in a comment to CNN, the staffing and resources required must be arranged as soon as possible in order to ensure that “the principles and values behind doing this are deeply embedded in the Pentagon”, before any significant leadership change in the US administration, which could delay or even derail current plans for improvements.

Allies of the US should also take notice – and take action. Particularly with key sections of the CHMR-AP including reference to the application of the new action plan to multinational operations, US allies will have to review their own practices.

Several crucial points in the action plan are also still lacking clarity, and it will likely be some time before the full extent of the policy has been reviewed in its entirety by experts. Airwars is coordinating closely with our civil society partners in the US to ensure a comprehensive and thorough review of the proposed action plan, in order to ensure appropriate oversight and support from civil society as the action plan enters into the next phase of implementation.

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

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)