January 31, 2024

Newly released documents definitively link Danish war planes to strikes that killed Libyan civilians

A joint investigation by Airwars, the Danish news site Altinget and The Guardian has sparked a review of civilian harm allegations from Danish airstrikes in the 2011 war in Libya.

Published on January 25th, the two-year investigation revealed the existence of a previously secret Danish internal review of allegations of civilian harm from its more than 900 bombs dropped as part of the NATO campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The military review found Danish pilots conducted strikes in incidents in which at least 14 civilians were killed. The document was produced in 2012, a year after the war, but kept from the Danish public for more than a decade.

The revelations are the first time a particular NATO country has been definitively linked to specific airstrikes that harmed civilians in Libya. You can read the news stories in English (Guardian) or Danish (Altinget), and find the full story behind the investigation.

The investigation was lead story on The Guardian’s website on January 25th

In a direct response to the investigation, Danish Minister of Defence Troels Lund Poulsen ordered the Danish Armed Forces to commit a formal review of the allegations. A top Norwegian official said such civilian harm was “unsurprising” as NATO’s targeting information was limited during the campaign in Libya.

Several Danish political parties have called for the government to establish a compensation model for civilians harmed, with Christian Friis Bach from the Radikale, emphasising: “If Danish soldiers become aware that they have conducted an airstrike resulting in unintended civilian casualties, then you should proactively take responsibility and reach out with a compensation model that has been established before the incident takes place”.

The investigation also sparked an intense conversation on the possibility of a ‘cover up’ in Copenhagen – with a focus on who knew about the internal review and when. Both the foreign minister and the defence minister at the time that the Danish armed forces concluded their review said they do not recall being briefed about the reports. The foreign minister emphasised he would have remembered, had he been told, while the defence minister referred follow-up questions to the ministry.

Then head of NATO, Rasmus Fogh Andersen – a former Danish prime minister – has refused to comment. Former Danish defence minister Hans Engell hailed the “skilful” investigation, but said the apparent cover up “threatens the credibility of the armed forces” in Denmark.

In Libya, the renowned Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat reported a number of politicians and human rights activists calling for action against Denmark to seek compensation for the victims.

Since the 2011 air campaign in Libya, Denmark has contributed to several international coalitions, including the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, which Airwars estimates led to at least 8,199 civilian casualties.

In late 2023, Denmark joined the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ campaign targeting the Houthi forces in Yemen, in a supporting capacity. It is unclear what civilian harm mitigation tools are applied in this campaign and whether systems have been established for civilians to report potential harm from airstrikes.

Emily Tripp, Airwars’ director, said: “This investigation reveals once again that a failure in transparency over civilian harm allegations does a disservice both to the citizens in whose name such wars are fought, and to those civilians who deserve answers about which nation killed their loved ones.

“The fact that Danish officials went to the trouble of reviewing these allegations is actually a positive: very few NATO allies engage with external allegations at this level. But refusing to then share those findings with the public raises serious questions about political processes and practices both in Denmark and in the wider NATO campaign.”


Below is a list of some of the articles about the investigation


Denmark admits role in Nato airstrikes on Libya that killed 14 civilians in 2011 (Guardian)

How we exposed secretive Danish role in Libyan civilian deaths (Airwars)



Armed forces kept reports secret for years: Denmark likely killed civilians in Libya (Altinget)

After revelations: the Ministry of Defence reopens its Libya investigation after more than 10 years (Altinget)

Parties in the aftermath of the Libya disclosure: Denmark should prepare for possible lawsuits (Altinget)

Podcast: How it was revealed that Denmark likely killed civilians in Libya (Danish)

‘Son of a bitch!’ exclaims former UN investigator: withheld Libya reports includes all the answers we requested (Altinget)

Former Danish Defence Minister Hans Engell: The Libya disclosures once again threatens the credibility of the armed forces  (Altinget)

‘News of that magnitude remains in the mind’: former foreign minister does not recall being briefed about the Libya case (Altinget)

Former top Norwegian diplomat on possible civilian casualties in Libya: ‘unfortunately not surprising’ (Altinget)

Outrage after disclosure of secret report on possible Danish killings of civilians: “Deeply worrying” (Berlingske)

Politiken’s Defence Editor: There was a good reason (minister) Lene Espersen would not guarantee no civilian casualties (Politiken)


Middle Eastern media

Denmark to probe 2011 strikes on Libya that killed 14 civilians (Arab News)

New evidence emerges from 2011 (Al Hadath Libya)

Libyans to sue Denmark on charges of killing 14 civilians during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime (Al Sharq al-Awsat)

Danish revelations about Libya bombing 13 years ago could help victims’ families (MEMO)

▲ Journalists and locals gather next to the rubble of buildings in Tripoli, Libya, on June 19, 2011. During a government-led tour, the group was shown damaged houses and the bodies of civilians said to have been killed in a NATO coalition bombing. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


January 25, 2024

Written by

Joe Dyke, Rasmus Raun Westh, Maia Awada

published in partnership with

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Inside the two year investigation to track down victims of NATO bombing campaign

Today a joint investigation by Airwars, Altinget and The Guardian revealed that Danish planes conducted strikes in a number of well-known civilian harm incidents from the 2011 NATO bombing campaign in Libya.

The release of documents showing Danish involvement in strikes in which at least 14 civilians were killed has raised hopes for accountability for the victims and placed pressure on Copenhagen to explain why they were kept secret for a decade. In response to this investigation, Denmark on Thursday pledged to review whether a full investigation should have been opened at the time.

To accompany the news stories, which you can read here (The Guardian, English) and here (Altinget, Danish), this article by Joe Dyke, Rasmus Raun Westh and Maia Awada explains the process by which we uncovered Denmark’s admission of involvement in specific strikes and then tracked down the families of the victims.

Nato strikes

In February 2011, with Libya engulfed in mass ‘Arab Spring’ protests, the country’s dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi cracked down. With fears of potential massacres, the United Nations voted for a NATO-led intervention on the legal basis of protection of civilians – making allegations of civilians killed by NATO particularly sensitive.

Over eight months, the international bombing campaign and armed Libyan rebel groups forced Gaddafi’s troops into submission, with NATO states conducting 9,700 strike sorties and destroying 5,900 targets.

Of the eight NATO nations that conducted airstrikes, Denmark was among the most committed – dropping 923 bombs. At one point, the Danes dropped so many bombs they nearly ran out of ammunition. The NATO Secretary General at the time, Rasmus Fogh Andersen, was also a former Danish Prime Minister.

In October 2011, Gaddafi was captured in his home city of Sirte and killed by rebels, effectively ending the war. In the decade since, Libya has become a dysfunctional state with rival governments engaged in a stuttering civil war, fuelling debate about whether the NATO campaign achieved its goals.

Mahmood Zarooq in his home in Sirte after a NATO airstrike in 2011. His wife was killed in the strike (Human Rights Watch/Sidney Kwiram)

After the war, allegations of civilians killed by NATO strikes also surfaced, with The New York Times, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International and later the United Nations each conducting extensive on-the-ground research into the victims. Each report found that NATO took significant measures to avoid harming civilians, but identified a number of separate allegations of civilians killed.

Danish culpability was speculated on as early as 2011, with media in Copenhagen reporting that some key strikes were likely conducted by Danish pilots, but Danish authorities refused to comment.

Freedom of Information

In early 2021, Rasmus filed a Freedom of Information Request with the Danish Defence Command seeking “all communication regarding civilian casualties during the Air Force’s mission in Libya in 2011.”

A month later, an email appeared in his inbox. Attached were dozens of pages of internal reports never before seen by the Danish public. Why they had been declassified now was unclear – Rasmus, Joe and other reporters had similar requests rejected previously.

But as he flicked through, Rasmus knew he had a big story. The documents revealed for the first time that after the 2011 war, Denmark conducted a review of its involvement in strikes in which civilians had reportedly been harmed. While Danish officials had not conducted any ground research in Libya themselves, they had cross checked their strike list with all the allegations of civilian harm documented by HRW, Amnesty, the UN and others.

The review found that Danish planes dropped bombs in four strikes in which Libyan civilians were reportedly harmed.

It was completed in early 2012. Danish officials could have released the findings and offered routes to compensation and accountability for the victims’ families. Instead the documents were marked secret and classified – kept from the Danish population for more than a decade until they arrived in Rasmus’ inbox.

Marc Garlasco, who led the United Nations investigation into civilian victims from NATO strikes, said the documents “show that Denmark killed civilians and kept it secret from us.”

Tracking down the victims

Once Rasmus and Joe agreed to conduct a joint investigation, they had one immediate priority – searching for the victims’ families.

A quirk of modern international military coalitions is that while operations are conducted as a collective, civilian harm or compensation claims can often only be levelled at individual member nations. This was true with NATO in 2011, and it has been true with other campaigns since – such as the US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In almost all cases strikes are officially conducted by the coalition as a whole, with the individual member states not named. States argue this is necessary as it is a joint campaign so who pulls the trigger to drop any particular bomb is unimportant. Yet for the victims it feels like a Catch-22 – to seek accountability they must know which state carried out a strike, but coalitions say strikes are conducted collectively.

The documents released to Rasmus meant that, in these four instances, the victims’ families could have an answer to who harmed their loved ones – opening the door to accountability.

With support from the Journalismfund Europe, experienced Lebanese forensic investigator Maia Awada joined the team. Together, we conducted in-depth searches into the strikes over six months – trying to speak to each and every witness we could find to build out a fuller picture of the attacks.

Tower block flattened

In one of the four incidents, the report contained few details to investigate – with only the injury of one unnamed victim reported. As such, the team focused primarily on the other three.

The first one we investigated took place in Gaddafi’s home town Sirte, on September 16th 2011, a few weeks before the dictator’s death.

Both HRW and Amnesty visited the site after the strike and documented the bombing of a residential tower block. Pictures showed part of the block, known as the Al-Tameen Building, flattened.

The Al-Tameen building in Sirte, Libya, after a NATO airstrike (Credit: Human Rights Watch/ Sidney Kwiram)

At least two civilians were killed, including Ayesha Bishir, a mother of two who was five months pregnant. Aisha’s husband Mahmoud described to HRW attack happened.

“All I can remember is that I flew into the air then I fell on my back. And it was dark. There was dust everywhere… I went back to search for [my wife] Ayesha and Rawasi. I kept calling them both and eventually Rawasi answered. Rawasi was under something metal. She was doubled over with metal and wood debris on her back. So I pushed away the debris and took her back to the room next to Tahani. And then I went back again to find Ayesha. I couldn’t find her.”

The documents showed that Denmark conducted the strike alongside one other nation, whose identity was redacted even in the declassified document.

A part of one of the documents released to Rasmus. It says: (Via International Committee of Inquiry on Libya (ICIL)) May 1 – attack that killed Gaddafi’s youngest son, Sayf al-Arab, his wife, and three children. Danish fighter jets carried out an attack on an ‘Alternate Command Center’ in Tripoli on the evening of April 30, and it is the assessment of FTK [The Air Tactical Command ed.] that there is conformity with the attack described by ICIL, even though they refer to the date May 1″

The team spent several weeks searching for Mahmoud, eventually getting in touch with his son from his first marriage, Faraj. He confirmed that Mahmoud died of cancer in 2019, never learning which nation carried out the strike that killed his wife.

When told that it was Denmark, Faraj said his father had sought answers from the Libyan government and NATO for a decade. Yet even with the documents, he didn’t have much hope for accountability. “God will bring us justice,” he said resignedly.

The other civilian killed was Ali Omar Suwaysi, a young man whose family had left the building as the war came closer. Ali stayed behind with his brother Mustafa to guard the tower block.

Maia eventually tracked down Mustafa, who said Ali was upstairs in the family flat when the strike hit. Despite the heavy smoke, Mustafa rushed towards the stairs in a panic looking for his brother. A second strike hit and Mustafa was badly injured – spending 10 days in hospital.

Mahmoud Zarooq with his two daughters in 2011 (Human Rights Watch/Sidney Kwiram)

Neither NATO nor Denmark have publicly commented on this strike. We interviewed all witnesses we could, seeking to understand the reason for hitting a residential tower block.

Ahmed Nouri, who lived in a nearby building, told us that before the attack, a radio station aligned to Libyan rebels reported the tower was being used by Gaddafi’s forces. “I remember they talked about weapons and snipers on the top of Al-Tameen Building,” Nouri recalled. The building was hit shortly after the radio report, he said, though he never saw anyone on top of the building.

Abduljalil Abdulatif lived in the tower with his wife and four children. He explained that most families had fled the area as Sirte became the front line. He added that before the attack, he visited the roof of the building and there were no snipers.

Sidney Kwiram, who visited the site for Human Rights Watch during the war, said she found more than a dozen spent small arms casings on the roof, but could not draw definitive conclusions when they were from. A few days earlier there had been clashes in the district between a local rebel family and Gaddafi supporters. The casings could have been from then, Kwiram said.

“A few witnesses I spoke to, including Mahmoud, told me that there were no snipers on the roof. A few others told me that Gaddafi snipers were on the roof around the time of the clashes to control the rebel supporters,” she said.

Kwiram said that during the war HRW visited one of NATO’s headquarters in Italy to discuss civilian casualties, and sought to understand which states conducted some strikes, including this one. “When we tried to have a conversation about that, we got nowhere,” she said.

Donatella Rovera, who investigated the strike for Amnesty International, said the organisation had been unable to get satisfactory answers from NATO about its intelligence. “Assuming that they received information that there was a military target in that building, what did they do to verify it?”

“Very often we see a situation where buildings are bombed based on intelligence that is not up to date at the time of the strike – there was a legitimate military target three hours or three days before the strike.”


A second incident, which was widely reported and featured in the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report, occurred on April 30, 2011 when one of Gaddafi’s residences was hit in the capital Tripoli, killing his son Saif al-Arab. Three of Gaddafi’s young grandchildren were also reported to have been killed. CNN later quoted the Libyan government naming them as Gartaj Hannibal Muammar al-Gaddafi, 3, Saif Mohammad al-Gaddafi, 2, and Mastoura Hamid Abuzitaia. Mastoura was reported to be the daughter of Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha.

The documents show that Danish planes conducted the strikes alone, calling the palace an “alternate command centre” for Gaddafi’s forces. This strike has proved controversial as it was alleged to have targeted Gaddafi – who was reportedly in the building. Critics argue that such targeting was not justified under the protection of civilians mandate. NATO denied targeting Gaddafi personally.

A part of one of the documents released to Rasmus. It says: (Via International Committee of Inquiry on Libya (ICIL)) May 1 – attack that killed Gaddafi’s youngest son, Sayf al-Arab, his wife, and three children. Danish fighter jets carried out an attack on an ‘Alternate Command Center’ in Tripoli on the evening of April 30, and it is the assessment of FTK [The Air Tactical Command ed.] that there is conformity with the attack described by ICIL, even though they refer to the date May 1″

Yet as Maia dug into the incident the details became murkier. In hours and hours of research, the team found no evidence of the children killed.

After months of searching, we tracked down the French doctor named in reports as having verified the deaths. In a brief and tetchy call from his practice in southern France, he confirmed seeing the body of Gaddafi’s son but said he only saw one child-sized corpse with its face covered.

Aisha Gaddafi also filed a lawsuit against NATO for the death of her daughter. After several months her then lawyer, Luc Brossollet, agreed to talk. He said he was invited to Tripoli during the war and met Aisha briefly, when she asked him to take on the case. However he confirmed she did not provide significant documentation or evidence of the child’s death, including images or videos.

Overall, the evidence suggests that the victims may have been invented by the Gaddafi regime as part of propaganda to discredit the NATO bombing campaign. An in-depth article into this story will be published in the coming weeks.

Hamedi family

The final strike in the Danish documents involved Khweldi al-Hamedi, a well known Gaddafi loyalist. He had been a vital member of Gaddafi’s leadership team and later a senior military official, and was accused by Libyan rebels of benefiting from millions of dollars from the regime, claims his family denied.

Khweldi’s role in the 2011 war remains disputed. NATO claimed he was an active member of Gaddafi’s forces, but the family insist he retired a number of years before the war and was not involved.

On the night of June 20, 2011, his family home was struck. It was a large walled compound and again its purpose was contested. NATO claimed the site was a command and control node and the facility was “directly involved in coordinating systematic attacks on the Libyan people and was identified through rigorous analysis based on persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.”

The family denied that the site was a military base and said it was home to Khweldi’s son Khaled and other family members. There is plenty of evidence the compound was at least partially used for residential purposes. Footage from a few days before the attack shows four young children playing in the garden.

Video of the children playing in the days before the strike (Courtesy of the Hamedi family)

What no one disputes is the devastating effect of the NATO attack.

In total 12 civilians were killed. Khaled, who was not home at the time, lost his wife Safaa, his daughter Khalida, 4, and son Khweldi, 3. His father Khweldi was unharmed and there were no reports of Gaddafi fighters killed.

The documents released to Rasmus showed that Denmark conducted the strike, along with one other partner whose name was redacted.

A board depicting the victims of the Sorman attack (Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch)

The case became particularly prominent when Khaled announced he would sue NATO in Belgium over the death of his family. We reached out to his appeals lawyer Jan Fermon. He explained that the case, which was originally filed in 2011, ultimately ended in 2017 when a Belgian court concluded NATO was immune from prosecution.

“If it wasn’t for the immunity I think we would have had a very strong case,” Fermon told us. “The immunity mainly put us in a position where the courts ultimately said ‘we don’t have jurisdiction, we can’t rule on this.'”

Fermon said that NATO’s structure – where strikes are officially conducted collectively but accountability must be sought from the specific country responsible – was a “mechanism to organise impunity.”

An image of the Hamedi family home after a NATO strike (Human Rights Watch)

“You have no idea what member state [conducted the strike], so you have no option but to sue all the member states. That is, of course, an impossible situation.”

We hoped that Fermon would finally give us access to Khaled, but he said he had lost contact with him a number of years earlier.


After more than six months of searching, we finally got in touch with Khaled’s brother Mohammed. He told us they would be happy to speak if we met them in Cairo. So in mid 2023, with Maia unavailable, Rasmus and Joe travelled to the Egyptian capital.

By the banks of the Nile, we sat planning what we would ask the man who had spent 10 years asking the same questions as we had – who killed his family.

Rasmus discusses the next day’s meeting with Khaled al-Hamedi

The next morning we drove out through Cairo’s crowded streets with our photographer Hamada, eventually pulling into a wealthy gated community. Ushered into a nondescript office block, at first it was slightly surreal.

Khaled started with a presentation – a video he had made interweaving images of his family before their deaths with footage from NATO’s press briefing about the attack. As he played a video of the NATO press conference, he paused multiple times to dispute the claims. He then handed us images of his children alongside pictures of civilians killed and injured in a booklet with the title “Message to the world: The Sorman Massacre in Libya”.

An image of a book produced by the Hamedi family entitled “Message to the world – The Sorman Massacre in Libya”

After slightly more than an hour, though, we went to a quiet restaurant and talked in more detail. Khaled talked through the legal cases and his frustrations – how he still hoped to get some answers.

Finally, around four hours after we arrived, Rasmus reached into his bag to present Khaled with a copy of the report with the words NATO SECRET etched along the top. He read it slowly.

After 12 years and seven months of trying to sue the military alliance, Khaled had an answer as to who dropped the bombs.

“So it was Denmark?” he said.

Khaled al-Hamedi reviews the document which shows Danish planes were involved in the strikes which killed his family (Hamada Elrasam/Airwars/Altinget 2023)

‘Lives could have been saved’

The release of the documents will have an impact in Copenhagen. Danish officials have already faced pressure to explain why this document was kept secret for so long, while Khaled has also said he may pursue a legal case in Denmark.

But the documents also put pressure on other NATO states to be more transparent. The review ruled out Danish involvement in a number of other attacks, such as notorious strikes in the town of Majer that killed at least 34 civilians. Those victims’ families are still waiting for answers.

Rovera, of Amnesty International, said it was “certainly not too late” for accountability but the anonymity of coalitions makes it harder. “If coalitions were more transparent with providing what members carried out specific strikes – which wouldn’t be sensitive – then that would be less of a problem,” she said. “For the purpose of accountability it would make a big difference, because we would have someone to engage.”

Garlasco, the former UN investigator, said the documents were “deeply significant” as they showed Denmark reflected on the civilian impact of its airstrikes. But he said the refusal to release it for a decade made it less “useful.”

“Useful not only for lessons learned so that lives could be saved in the future but also useful for the victims of these strikes – that they understand why their family members were killed and could potentially receive some kind of compensation for their loss.”

“How many civilians have died in wars after Libya because the lessons from the Danish report have not been learned?”

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May 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

Annual report 2022

Airwars annual report for May 2022-May 2023.

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.

Annual report 2022


April 8, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

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.

— 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

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

▲ The three-day EWIPA conference in Geneva sought to reach a deal on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments (Airwars)


April 7, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

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 says

— 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.

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

▲ MPs from various European countries attend the first day of EWIPA talks on April 6, 2022 (Photo: INEW)


January 28, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

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

— Marc Garlasco (@marcgarlasco) January 28, 2022

Critical study

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.

▲ US Vice President Kamala Harris, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, tour the Pentagon on February 10th 2021 (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)


March 20, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

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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.”


Read the full story on Foreign Policy here.

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