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.
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.
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)