The report outlines key highlights from the organisation’s research, investigations and advocacy departments over the time period, as well as strategic objectives and basic financial details.
It includes a foreword by Airwars’ director Emily Tripp, who took over at the beginning of the time period, and is designed to provide an overview of the how the different parts of the organisation overlap to achieve shared goals.
International gathering brings nearer a protocol on restricting explosive weapon use in urban areas.
States edged closer to a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on April 8th, after three days of crunch talks in Geneva.
More than 65 states descended on the Swiss city for key talks on the wording of a political declaration that advocates believe would save thousands of lives by restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Detractors, such as the United States government, argue it would unfairly limit the freedom of their own military actions and have threatened not to sign.
While no final text was agreed upon Friday, all sides struck an optimistic tone at the end of the three-day meet – saying a deal was nearer than ever. Delegates will meet again for one day in two months before an adoption ceremony expected in the summer.
“There are clearly differences of opinion but we have seen a very positive, solution oriented approach,” the chairperson, Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, said. “We are not simply working on a formula of words in a political declaration – we want to make a real difference and impact on the ground and foster behavioural change.”
The talks were given additional urgency by the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Russia’s extensive use of explosive weapons on its cities. Moscow did not attend the talks.
Even the United States, widely viewed as one of the most hostile states to a declaration with teeth, struck a more positive tone than in previous meets. “There are still tough drafting issues and decisions ahead, and we have to get them right. The US delegation pledges our goodwill, to help to get to a positive outcome. We look forward to doing so.”
Since 2018, Ireland has chaired consultations on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In the sessions since, the need for such a declaration – which is not legally binding and so does not create new legal obligations – has only become clearer.
“The draft declaration text holds the potential to make a meaningful contribution to the protection of civilians, and negotiations over the past few days have overall been constructive,” Laura Boillot of INEW, a network of NGOs pushing for the protocol, told Airwars.
“But decisions will now need to be made if the final text is going to have humanitarian effect. Most importantly it needs to establish a presumption against the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in towns, cities and other populated areas.”
It will be a failure to leave this room agreeing that simply restating existing laws will reduce civilian harm – a failure for all of us who came here with the intention to reduce that harm in the first place." @alma_osta in HI concluding remarks at #EWIPA negotiations today. pic.twitter.com/pTKpgfqWWU
— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022
Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.
Three days of consultations
During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.
On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.
In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.
Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.
The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.
Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.
In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”
The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.
A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.
Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.
Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)
At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.
But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”
The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.
There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.
Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.
As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”
Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/pAyglwZO9D
— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022
Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons
Crunch talks in Geneva aim to hammer out protocol on explosive weapons in urban areas
The shadow of the Ukraine conflict loomed large over the first day of the informal UN-backed consultations on a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA), currently underway in Geneva.
Delegates from more than 65 nations have gathered to fine tune the language of the political declaration, along with more than 15 civil society organisations including Airwars. The chairperson, Michael Gaffey of Ireland, opened the proceedings by calling for a minute of silence for Ukraine.
Nujeen Mustafa, who had fled the war in Aleppo, then powerfully testified via a video message, saying, “throughout history, diplomats have discussed world problems while sitting at a table with a nice coffee. People trapped in a conflict zone cannot do that. Today, you have the possibility to change a terrible situation and protect civilians.”
Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian who fled Aleppo after it was largely destroyed by explosive weapons, addresses delegates:“While you’ve been negotiating whether a declaration should be made, 11,076 people have fallen victim to these weapons" she sayshttps://t.co/DI9vYhD6nq
— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022
While there are two days of discussion left before proceedings close on Friday evening, many of the most pressing issues arose in proceedings on Wednesday – particularly as states laid out their own positions during opening remarks. Here are five key themes from the first day of EWIPA negotiations.
1. The conflict in Ukraine adds a sense of urgency
The first statement was made by the Ukrainian delegate, who noted that “our cities and towns have been turned into dead ash because of the use of these explosive weapons” – highlighting a new sense of urgency and relevance which the negotiations have taken on.
Every delegate who spoke made reference to the Ukraine conflict, with many emphasising that the violent and horrific violence against Ukrainian civilians must move states to act more effectively. The French delegate noted that Russia did not attend the proceedings, while the Japanese delegation emphasised the importance of documenting civilian harm in Ukraine.
Many other states called on Russia to cease its aggression and indiscriminate bombing of civilians and it was noted multiple times that Russia’s campaign has targeted and destroyed civilian neighbourhoods using wide area effect explosive weapons – referring to the scenes of destruction in Kherson, Mariupol, and Kharkiv.
2. The gap between ‘IHL is enough’ and ‘IHL does not go far enough’
Broadly the delegates and countries fall into two groups – those that believe international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough to protect civilians under attack in urban areas – and those that argue more is needed to protect civilians.
States such as the USA, UK, France and Israel argued that any political declaration could not introduce new legal requirements (which it cannot) and that the requirements currently set out under IHL should be sufficient protection for civilians. Currently, these frameworks emphasise for example that deliberately attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure constitutes a violation of IHL – and that any military actions must be both proportionate, and distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Those backing strong wording to the political declaration text – from Ireland to the ICRC – insist that adherence to IHL alone is not doing enough to protect civilians during much urban fighting.
The US nevertheless called on those states gathered not to produce an “unrealistic impression” that civilians would not be harmed in conflict, while emphasising that explosive weapons are “considered a legitimate and lawful means of warfare when used in accordance with IHL.”
But other states, as well as civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, emphasised that any resolution which merely restated the value of IHL – and how states must abide by it – would effectively be useless, as it would be an iteration of what states have already committed to.
States such as Finland and Sweden remarked that there are gaps within IHL around EWIPA , and mere compliance with IHL is not enough to protect civilians. This has been an ongoing fissure during previous consultations, and continues to be a major fault line.
3. Reverberating effects
The particularities of the language used in the eventual political declaration are at the heart of the ongoing consultations in Geneva – with discussions about whether to “avoid” or “restrict” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas already a key sticking point.
An additional area of tension appears to the so-called “reverberating effects” of EWIPA, which are essentially the long-term effects.
An example of a reverberating effect would be the destruction of a bridge. If destroyed, it has the immediate effect of removing a crucial piece of civilian infrastructure. But even after the conflict finishes the destruction could also mean that people can’t travel across a certain river, making it harder to access other kinds of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals or schools.
These long-term impacts were the subject of much discussion on Wednesday – with some states, such as the US, Israel, and the UK all noting that ‘reverberating effects’ is neither a legal term nor – they claimed – a widely accepted term with a clear definition. The US also said it would not accept a ‘novel’ term such as reverberating effects in the eventual political declaration.
However, civil society organisations such as PAX and observer states such as the Vatican suggested that it would be difficult to meaningfully understand the full implications of how civilian populations were impacted without incorporating ‘reverberating’ effects.
4. Focus on the humanitarian impacts
The Holy See opened its own remarks by noting that it believes conventional weapons should be named “weapons of mass displacement,” a nod to the ongoing long term effects that explosive weapons can have. The Danish Refugee Council also noted that the use of EWIPA can contribute to displacement, and in time, continuously produce forms of renewed displacement.
Some other states such as Uruguay emphasised the need to collect and monitor the impacts of EWIPA on specific groups – such as those with disabilities, or those who face discrimination because of their gender. Organisations such as CIVIC, PAX and Humanity and Inclusion also spoke about the psychological and mental effects of the use of explosive weapons, notably the need for a survivor-centric approach to any kind of political declaration.
5. The impact of non-state actors
While the political declaration is primarily a matter between states, the UK, Israel, the US and others asked that the considerations around EWIPA must also extend to non-state actors, such as armed groups, in the interest of maintaining what they termed a balanced account of how explosive weapons are actually used in populated areas.
The US noted for example that “the declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non-state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects.” The Turkish delegation argued that asking non-state actors to really consider these impacts would also mean they would be considered as legitimate parties to an international armed conflict – which they are currently, for the most part, not.
The declaration has to make it clear that all belligerents, including non state armed groups, must take steps to address the harms to civilians and civilian objects,” says the USA, intervening for the second time today. pic.twitter.com/cNBYvzncqN
Civilian harm reduction proposals cautiously welcomed by NGOs - but delivery will be key.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has announced major proposals to overhaul how the US military monitors, assesses and documents when its actions kill civilians, a move warily welcomed by human rights and civilian harm mitigation NGOs.
Building on years of documentation by groups like the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Airwars, since late 2021 the New York Times has produced a series of deep investigations documenting systemic flaws in the way US military operations track casualties from their strikes. These revelations have prompted further scrutiny of the US military’s approach to civilian harm and raised pressures on the Biden administration to intervene.
In a directive released on January 27th, Austin announced a major shake-up of Department of Defense (DoD) policies on civilian harm reduction, including the establishment of a ‘civilian protection center of excellence’.
“The protection of innocent civilians in the conduct of our operations remains vital to the ultimate success of our operations and as a significant strategic and moral imperative,” Austin told reporters.
The directive gives the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Dr Colin Kahl, 90 days to prepare a “comprehensive” Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, or CHMRAP, that emphasises that “efforts to protect civilians are the responsibility of all leaders throughout the (DoD), always, and not only that of our commanders and personnel in the field in the execution of missions assigned.”
Austin’s directive also paves the way for the establishment of a new ‘civilian protection center of excellence’ which according to DoD, will enable it to “better expedite and institutionalize the advancement of our knowledge, practices, and tools for preventing, mitigating, and responding to civilian harm.”
And there are also plans to shake up how the Pentagon collects, shares and learns from casualty data; to re-examine the issue of condolence payments to victims; and to “Incorporate guidance for addressing civilian harm across the full spectrum of armed conflict into doctrine and operational plans, so that we are prepared to mitigate and respond to civilian harm in any future fight.”
The CHMRAP will then itself feed into a forthcoming Department of Defense Instruction, or DODI – a long awaited department-wide policy on civilian harm reduction. Airwars was among more than a dozen US and international NGOs which engaged extensively with the Pentagon on the DODI – which has been awaiting a signature since November 2020, when drafting was completed.
According to Austin, the DODI “should be informed by the CHMRAP and presented to the Secretary of Defense for signature within 90 days of the CHMRAP’s conclusion” – meaning it should come into force by late July.
“Austin’s directive and the promised release of the DODI could be a crucial step towards standardising the US military’s approach to civilian harm assessments across US commands,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ research manager, said.
Marc Garlasco, a military advisor at PAX and former civilian harm assessor with NATO, was among those cautiously welcoming the Pentagon announcements. “The memo sends a strong message that civilian harm mitigation (CHM) is not simply an issue for counterinsurgency. The US military is embracing CHM as it shifts to great power competition,” he said in a thread on Twitter.
🧵 on today's memo on "Improving Civilian Harm Mitigation & Response" by @SecDef. The memo is welcome focus from the highest level of @DeptofDefense showing leadership & taking ownership of the issue of civilian harm. Allow me to cover the salient points both pro & con 1/ #CIVCAS https://t.co/BJ83W6mXX9
— Marc Garlasco (@marcgarlasco) January 28, 2022
On the same day that Secretary Austin announced his shakeup, the RAND Corporation also published a major Congressionally-mandated review of the US military’s approaches to mitigating civilian harm.
The deep-dive report, ‘US Department of Defense Civilian Casualty Policies and Procedures,’ argues that while the DoD may have made progress in some areas, “additional concrete steps are overdue.”
RAND points to several weaknesses in the DoD’s own policies and procedures – including that military officials often did not “sufficiently engage external sources” such as Airwars before they concluded investigations and designated them as non-credible; that investigations are often treated as independent of each other and so levels of detail between them vary widely; and that military assessments are often subject to long delays.
Several graphics in the report demonstrate the often extreme gap between US military estimates of civilian harm, and those of NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Airwars – noting that in Syria in 2019, more than 1,100 civilian deaths were locally alleged from US actions, yet with only 21 fatalities so far officially admitted.
The RAND report makes a number of recommendations, noting that many were called for several years ago. These include incorporating civilian harm assessments into intelligence estimates; reducing the eligibility conditions for those who can claim ex gratia payments; and implementing a standardised civilian harm reporting process across conflicts.
Airwars was among several stakeholders which met with RAND during the drafting of the report. “Many of the critical recommendations in this valuable study have long been requested by the NGO community and by Congress – and we urge the Biden Administration to now act swiftly,” Airwars director Chris Woods said.
The alliance bombing campaign had a devastating toll—but, a decade after the war, leaders have still not taken responsibility.
This article was written by Airwars’ senior investigator for Foreign Policy. It can be read in full here.
Attia al-Juwaili may never know which country’s laser-guided bomb killed his young daughter. It could be a British, French, or American pilot who struck, but until he finds out, his family’s hopes for justice are forever on hold.
It has been 10 years since the NATO-led coalition dropped the first bombs targeting Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces—turning the tide in Libya’s civil war and playing a critical role in bringing down the dictator. The merits of that intervention have been long debated, with foreign meddlers and local rivals and extremists thriving in the vacuum ever since.
But there was a more direct cost. In a war fought expressly to protect civilians, NATO’s airstrikes inadvertently killed dozens. New research by the civilian casualty monitoring watchdog Airwars, where I am the senior investigator, lays out for the first time the estimated number of civilians killed by all parties to the 2011 war—including both Qaddafi forces and Libyan rebels. Almost none of the families left behind have received compensation or an apology.
While NATO insists it took steps to avoid killing civilians, when there were casualty allegations it had limited mechanisms to assess on the ground, with one former official saying they “really had no idea.”
And those seeking an apology have instead found themselves trapped in a nightmare in which NATO itself does not make condolence payments but insists accountability must be sought from individual nations. Yet, even a decade on, countries including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States still refuse to accept public responsibility for any harm they caused.
Juwaili’s family and a few others had sought refuge in the village of Majer in northern Libya a few weeks before the deadly strike, after fleeing the encroaching ground war between Qaddafi’s forces and NATO-backed rebels.
It was Ramadan, so prayers lasted late into the evening. Afterward, the women and children went inside, while the men sat in the August heat chatting.
“Then everything was black, we couldn’t see anything. After the smoke subsided it was clear the second floor was destroyed,” Juwaili told Foreign Policy.
The men rushed forward, searching through the rubble for survivors. Fifteen minutes later, another strike killed many of the rescuers.
Juwaili hunted frantically for his 2-year-old daughter, Arwa, eventually finding her lifeless under the rubble. “Thank God her body was not ripped apart,” he said.
The United Nations later concluded 34 civilians died at Majer that night, including Arwa. NATO called the site a command and control node for Qaddafi’s forces. The residents denied this, and U.N. investigators found no evidence of military activity.
“My message to NATO is that yes, mistakes happen, but you need to correct such mistakes,” Juwaili said. “I feel that we were treated as if we were nothing and they did not look back. I hope when Libya is back on its feet, we get justice.”
NATO members still refuse to discuss potential civilian harm from their strikes a decade after intervening against Gaddafi.
Ten years ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Elysee Palace with a shock announcement. “He surprised us both when he said that he had already issued orders for French jets to take off,” Cameron later recalled. The first airstrikes of the international intervention against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces hit their targets less than an hour later.
The 2011 Libyan civil war had begun on February 17th as an Arab Spring uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets. Within weeks Gaddafi’s forces had brutally crushed most of the protests, and were closing in on the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi. With fears of a Srebrenica-style massacre, the United Nations passed a resolution demanding the protection of civilians, upon which the NATO intervention was then justified. The war officially ended in October as Gaddafi, whose forces had been routed, was captured and killed by NATO-backed rebels.
Neither during nor after the war has there been a thorough analysis of the number of civilians likely killed by all sides. For the tenth anniversary of the conflict, Airwars has conducted the first comprehensive overview of civilian harm from all belligerents, based on the available public materials.
Over six months Airwars reviewed thousands of media and social media posts, and post-conflict investigations; as well as conducting interviews with survivors and officials.
The result is a detailed look at a brief but violent conflict that killed at least 1,142 civilians and injured at least one thousand more in 212 incidents of concern that Airwars researched. By the highest estimate, as many as 3,400 civilians were killed in those events.
The new archive offers a detailed insight into gruesome air and artillery strikes, as well as shocking ground massacres that occurred during the civil war. The tally of civilian deaths during the uprising was almost certainly significantly higher than the Airwars study indicates. In 2011 for example, social media use by Libyans was still relatively limited, and independent media in the country was not yet established. Based on Airwars’ experience of other conflicts such as Syria, a significant number of local claims of civilian harm made online at the time may also since have been lost, as a result of sites being closed or accounts being shut down.
Many small scale ground actions are additionally not reflected at present in the Airwars database – though likely constituted a key element of the civilian toll. Most estimates of Libya 2011 casualties to date have included both fighters and civilians – with a Libyan government study from 2013 likely being the most accurate, with its estimate of 4,700 fighter and civilian deaths on the rebel side alone, as well as at least 2,100 people listed at the time as missing.
Armed men at the edge of Fashlum Al-Dhahra neighbourhood in Tripoli on February 20th 2011, where up to 700 civilians were alleged killed by Gaddafi forces while taking part in mass demonstrations, Image via Taha Krewi
Most deaths from Gaddafi forces
The tragedy of Libya’s 2011 war was not just of those who were killed, injured and displaced – but of the new world it ushered in. Following a couple of years of uneasy calm, by 2014 the country had split in two and reverted to civil war. Only in October 2020 was a United Nations-brokered deal seemingly able to bring a decade of violence to an end, though the rifts remain.
Hala Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer and founder of the Jusoor Libya think tank, said the 2011 war has had two long-lasting effects that have deeply impacted Libyan society.
“The first is the impact on the social fabric that emerged from armed conflicts between cities,” she told Airwars. During the war some neighbouring towns found themselves on either side of the conflict, with one broadly loyal to Gaddafi’s forces and the other supporting the rebellion.
“The second is the long term effect of the conflict on the mental wellbeing of civilians, including PTSD, stress and depression,” Bugaighis added.
The majority of civilian harm identified in the events reviewed by Airwars was reportedly caused by forces of the Gaddafi regime – with between 869 and 1,999 likely deaths and as many as 1,100 injuries identified from 105 assessed actions. Overall, as many as 2,300 civilian deaths were locally alleged from these same Gaddafi actions. Many more small-scale killings have yet to be fully documented.
At the beginning of the uprising, Gaddafi forces were reported to have deliberately targeted protesters with both heavy weaponry and small arms fire, causing high numbers of casualties.
Later on, several massacres and indiscriminate shelling of urban areas by the regime were documented in both local and international media.
“In the first days of the uprising, I was so scared,” said Bugaighis, who lived in Tripoli at the time. “Growing up in Libya we were raised to fear the regime, so at first, I thought nothing would take down the regime. I started to realise that it is more serious when the state of emergency was declared in Tripoli and foreigners were evacuated.”
Many Gaddafi forces incidents had previously gone unreported to an international audience, given the tendency of international media to focus only on larger scale events. On June 29th for example, a review of local sources found that a 13-year old boy named Moftah Muhammad Jalwal was killed and six more civilians injured by Gaddafi forces shelling on the Doufan neighbourhood of Misurata. Gruesome videos showed bloodstains at the site and injured children in the local hospital.
Moftah Muhammad Jalwal, reportedly killed by Gaddafi forces on June 29th 2011 in Misurata (Screengrab via a video by Ali Al Dadi)
NATO: lower civilian harm but lack of accountability
A decade on from NATO’s intervention, neither it nor any individual member has ever publicly admitted to a single civilian death. Libyans themselves tell a very different story.
Airwars reviewed claims of thousands of airstrikes reportedly conducted by NATO and its allies during Libya 2011, which between them resulted in 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths and 215 to 357 injuries in 84 events of concern, according to our assessment. NATO itself declared having conducted 7,600 strikes. Overall, Airwars identified as many as 800 civilians locally alleged killed by NATO forces – though those higher claims appear to have been significantly exaggerated by pro-Gaddafi sources at the time.
United Nations investigators after the war accused both Gaddafi and rebel forces of indiscriminate killings, but concluded that NATO had conducted a “highly precise campaign with a demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casualties.” They noted that the international alliance had used precision-guided munitions and carried out extensive pre-strike assessments to try and avoid killing civilians.
Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said NATO planners were supported by Western special forces marking targets on the ground, which had contributed to the accuracy of bombing and helped avoid civilian harm.
Both rebels and NATO were “very active in liaison, coordinating various operation centres even though NATO commandos made clear they were not acting as the rebels’ air force,” he says.
But while NATO itself insisted it was purely focused on protecting civilians, key members of the alliance were accused of supporting regime change. An Airwars investigation has found that a Norwegian effort to negotiate Gaddafi’s stepping down in April 2011 was seemingly undermined by France and the UK. As the former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store now notes, “Had there been in the international community a willingness to pursue this track with some authority and dedication, I believe there could have been an opening to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”
Even though the number of reported civilian casualties from NATO actions is far lower when compared to Gaddafi forces, Airwars’ findings indicate that likely fatalities were still significantly higher than the estimated 60 deaths that the United Nations documented at the time, in its review of 20 events of concern.
Reported victims of NATO airstrikes on Majer on August 8th 2011 (via Majer Zletin Massacre)
Those seeking clarity about individual incidents remain sadly disappointed. Inquiries to NATO about civilian harm from its actions in Libya are routinely referred to member states, which in turn then refer back to NATO. All recent Freedom of Information requests from Airwars to individual member states about their potential role in civilian harm during 2011 have been denied.
Only on one known occasion, on June 19th 2011, did NATO acknowledge that a malfunction of a munition in an attack on Tripoli’s Souk al Joumaa neighbourhood had potentially resulted in civilian casualties.
Mohammed Al Gharari, who lost five family members in the strike, told Airwars he had the following questions for NATO: “You struck people and admitted that it was by mistake. Why did you never care about us? If you had any humanity and you believe in human rights, you would have at least cared.”
“Even after ten years, no phone call or even any official has contacted us.”
Aftermath of the incident in Souq Al Joumaa on June 19th, 2011
Little reporting on civilian harm from rebels
Among the three parties to Libya’s 2011 war, the lowest documented number of civilian casualties was reported from rebel actions – with 57 incidents of concern reviewed by Airwars containing allegations of between 50 and 113 likely deaths.
That relatively low estimate of civilian harm from rebel actions can be explained by the lack of an air force and access to heavy weapons, particularly early on. It may also reflect a lack of media interest at the time.
The largest known loss of civilian life from rebel actions was reported on August 10th in the remote southern city of Tawergha, when between 24 and 74 inhabitants, including whole families and an imam of the town, were claimed killed by artillery fire. Tawergha was considered loyal to Gaddafi, with its more than 40,000 residents forced to flee by rebels. The majority of residents have still not been able to return a decade on.
“130 men from Tawergha are missing ever since, and no one knows anything about them. They were taken by the rebels. My brother is one of them,” Gabriel Farag, who also had to flee Tawergha, told Airwars. “These 130 men were arrested just for the mere fact that they are from Tawergha.”
“The war has impacted Libyan society in many ways, especially in social relationships among tribes. Libyan society is a tribal society, and the war has broken the connections between tribes across the country,” says Mustafa Al Fetouri, a Libyan journalist who covered the civil war back in 2011.
Mabrouk Elyan, reportedly among those killed by rebel forces on August 10th 2011 in Tawergha, via Tawergha Martyrs
Ten years of anarchy
What followed after the 2011 defeat of Gaddafi was a decade of chaos and on-and-off civil war that turned Libya into a failed state. Many hopes were betrayed and opportunities missed in a country that had once been described as Africa’s most developed.
“The notion of justice was completely absent after the revolution,” says Bughaigis. “Instead of avoiding a repetition of the injustice that occurred in the past, such as the Abu Salim prison incident or the killing of students, all we saw was the repetition of these mistakes over and over again.”
Airwars found that some victims had been paid compensation by one of Libya’s post-revolution governments, but only for damage done to property. Efforts to create proper mechanisms for restitution were abandoned when the country slipped into civil war again in 2014.
“Justice was one of the principles of the Libyan uprising. However, all those in power have failed to do so, and it may be in a systematic way to entrench chaos and hate,” explained Bughaigis.
Former US President Barack Obama once described the failure to plan for what came after NATO’s intervention in Libya as a “shit show”, and as his biggest foreign policy mistake. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess,” he told The Atlantic in 2016.
However, better times could now be ahead for Libyans, with the country recently selecting a unified transitional government which has committed to working on a reconciliation process for those affected by the civil wars. Those in the international community who have become embroiled in Libya’s violence since 2011 could now too – it might be hoped – finally acknowledge the civilian harm they themselves have caused.
Out with the old, in with the new.
Family photo of Libya’s outgoing Presidency Council today after they handed over power to new unity government represented here by prime minister Dabaiba & new Presidency Council president Mnefi (front right and left) pic.twitter.com/Zgq36LCFde
Abadi Ahmed Abdul Rahman bin Sartiya, killed in Sirte in 2011
Reports of the incident mention the research farm (مزرعة الأبحاث) south of Sirte (سرت). The generic coordinates for the research farm are: 31.169236, 16.578948. Due to limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.
NATO forces Assessment:
NATO forces position on incident
Not yet assessed
Civilian harm reported
Civilians reported killed
Civilians reported injured
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.