News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

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 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

— Airwars (@airwars) April 6, 2022

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

Published

April 6, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Joe Dyke

Speaking at key Geneva talks, SNP's defence spokesperson calls on nations to back strong EWIPA protocol

Stewart McDonald MP, the defence spokesperson for Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party (SNP), called on Wednesday for the United States and United Kingdom to join those nations backing restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in urban environments during key talks in Geneva.

On April 4th the SNP became the largest British party – and one of the largest in the world – to lend its support to restricting the use of explosive weapons in urban areas (EWIPA).

The policy – part of a wider SNP Protection of Civilians paper expected soon – was announced to coincide with crunch talks in Geneva, where dozens of countries are meeting to hammer out the wording of a protocol, or political declaration, on EWIPA. While the proposals are supported by the United Nations and many other nations, both the United States and United Kingdom are currently expected to oppose the protocol, while Russia is not attending the talks.

“It is unlikely that the United States or Russia are going to be signatories to it and that is deeply unfortunate – in fact it is worse than unfortunate,” Stewart McDonald MP told Airwars. “I am convinced that deeper cooperation internationally is what we need right now.”

During three days of talks, representatives from more than 65 nations are meeting in Geneva to discuss the potential final language of the political declaration. In Wednesday’s opening session, the US again said it had major reservations about restrictions on explosive weapons use.

The US and other states critical of the protocol argued that international human law is enough to limit civilian harm, but advocates say that when used in cities weapons designed for the open battlefield will always disproportionately harm civilians.

McDonald added that he was “optimistic” rather than confident that a strong text could still be agreed. But he raised concerns that the wording could be watered down by obstructive nations, including the United Kingdom, making it effectively meaningless.

“We will see what comes at the end of it, but anything that is not robust, that doesn’t have broad, multilateral buy-in to it, might make some people feel good – but I am not sure I would call that a success.”

🇺🇳 My remarks at today’s session at @UNGeneva on the #EWIPA negotiations, being led by 🇮🇪 @dfatirl. It was a pleasure to speak alongside fellow parliamentarians from Belgium 🇧🇪 and France 🇫🇷. The growing international consensus needs to coalesce around robust civilian protections pic.twitter.com/PWpUTSb8zz

— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) April 6, 2022

McDonald said the new SNP declaration was a significant moment for both his party and the United Kingdom. The text declares that there “must be a presumption against the use of wide-impact explosives in conflicts that take place in populated and urban territories. SNP fully supports the ongoing UN-backed process to develop a political declaration addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”

The announcement comes ahead of a full approach the party intends to announce later this month outlining how the SNP, and potentially a future independent Scotland, would seek to protect civilians in conflicts.

“I believe my party should think like a state and act like a state – so if Scotland were independent, how would it approach these issues? That’s why we have taken the time to develop a policy around protection of civilians to show people where we think people would go.”

“But importantly, in the here and now what the UK government should be doing.”

While the SNP’s defence spokesperson said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which has seen thousands of civilians killed while trapped in cities – had focussed attention on the scourge of explosive weapons use, McDonald also highlighted similar civilian suffering in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Research by Action On Armed Violence indicates that around 90 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.

“Ukraine has gathered the public and political momentum now [and] I think that does mean correctly that these negotiations take on a particular urgency to succeed and deliver something meaningful.”

“How do you scroll through social media right now, and not want something serious to happen?”

The political declaration talks are continuing until April 8th. Airwars’s social media coverage of the first day can be viewed here.

Full text of SNP policy extract: Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas – where conflicts increasingly take place – studies suggest that more than 90% of those killed and injured are civilians. Vital facilities such as sanitation systems and hospitals are disproportionately destroyed in attacks using these weapons, exacerbating risks to civilians who become further exposed to deadly diseases and further robbed of medical assistance. There must be a presumption against the use of wide-impact explosives in conflicts that take place in populated and urban territories.

SNP fully supports the ongoing UN-backed process to develop a political declaration addressing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. An independent Scotland would look to sign on to this declaration. Additionally, Scotland should ratify the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions as well as the 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention.

▲ SNP Defence Spokesperson Stewart McDonald (centre) addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in urban areas with fellow European MPs on April 6th 2022 (Photo: Airwars)

Published

April 5, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

Crucial UN-brokered talks begin on restricting heavy explosive weapon use in populated areas

State delegates from around the world will meet this week in Geneva for UN-backed crunch talks, working towards a political declaration on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in urban conflict. If successful, the move could help save thousands of civilian lives.

Representatives from more than 60 countries will meet from April 6th-8th in the Swiss city of Geneva to try and hammer out the wording of a protocol, or political declaration, on restricting the use of wide area effect explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

As wars have increasingly moved from open battlefields to urban environments, weapons designed for the former are being deployed in heavily populated areas – sharply increasing the risks of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.

UN and civil society reports have repeatedly found that civilians and civilian infrastructure are at most risk when heavy explosive weapons are used in populated areas. This has been clearly demonstrated in recent weeks in Ukraine as Russian forces have pounded civilian neighbourhoods with devastating results, but has also been documented in other recent conflicts across the globe.

Research by Action On Armed Violence indicates for example that around 90 percent of those killed and injured by explosive weapons in populated areas are civilians.

“Ukraine puts a spotlight on the devastating consequences civilians face when towns and cities are bombed. But this is a pattern of harm that we see elsewhere too: Ethiopia, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria are all recent examples,” said Laura Boillot, coordinator for the International Network on Explosive Weapons, which is leading civil society efforts to restrict EWIPA use.

To highlight the EWIPA talks, the campaigning group Humanity & Inclusion has installed a tank made of balloons outside the United Nations in Geneva (Credit: Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen/Airwars)

“This week, states have an opportunity to reduce civilian harm and agree a new international declaration that commits states to avoid the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with wide area effects.”

In 2019, Ireland convened the first EWIPA negotiations, inviting delegates from every country to join and shape a resolution to change how explosive weapons are used in populated areas.

In the years since, delegates have continued to gather to discuss the text of the declaration – which will be finalised and ratified by states this summer.

While not a United Nations process, the EWIPA proceedings are backed heavily by the UN; and Secretary General Antonio Guterres has repeatedly called for countries to adopt a strong protocol.

When explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of the casualties are civilians, causing devastating suffering.

I again call on countries to avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas. https://t.co/OS4OgqJ771

— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 30, 2022

US, UK, France in focus

During three days of talks in Geneva, representatives from attending countries will pore over the draft resolution and try to agree on key sections of text.

Much of the focus will likely be on winning the support of those states which have previously attempted to water down the declaration’s language, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. While some states argue that abiding by international humanitarian law (IHL) is enough, others like Britain also claim that limiting explosive weapon use in cities “would reduce the UK’s ability to operate legitimately and responsibly.”

Critics say that adherence to IHL alone is not sufficient to protect civilians during attacks on cities – a point recently supported by a major Pentagon-published study into the ferocious 2017 Battle of Raqqa, which noted that the US-led Coalition caused “significant civilian harm despite a deeply ingrained commitment to the law of war.”

Efforts by the US, UK and others to water down the political declaration would make it effectively useless critics warn – and crucially, would not lead to changes in the way that states actually approach the use of explosive weapons in cities.

Given the horrors of urban civilian harm in Ukraine, a very disappointing answer from UK government on whether it will commit to restrictions on explosive weapons use in cities, at upcoming @UN talks in Geneva. (Thanks to @MargaretFerrier for question.) https://t.co/BHWDagQD1D pic.twitter.com/LmK7mgStKv

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2022

Detailed negotiations

The draft resolution being discussed at Geneva consists of two parts – a preamble, which lays out the framework and overall considerations; and the operative section, which effectively compels states to act. For example, the value of tracking civilian casualties in real-time are currently mentioned in the preamble, but aren’t in the operative section – though some states are pushing for it to be moved there.

Broadly speaking, those attending the political declaration talks can be split into two camps: those states that argue the resolution should use weaker language; and those nations – backed by the UN – arguing that the declaration should be as strong as possible.

Other key states, including Russia and China, are not expected to attend this round of talks.

Among the strongest advocates for an effective political declaration is Ireland, which has led the process. UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres has also called for “strong” wording. “The Secretary-General supports the development of a political declaration, as well as appropriate limitations, common standards and operational policies in conformity with, and further to existing requirements under, international humanitarian law relating to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas,” he said in a recent statement.

Some countries, such as Belgium, have already passed their own parliamentary resolutions indicating that they will be signing the declaration, although it is still unclear how this would be implemented in practice.

While these negotiations were originally planned to be the final in a series of discussions, there may still be a further round ahead of final ratification in the summer. In the meantime, supporters of controls on explosive weapon use in cities believe that Russia’s extensive use of indiscriminate large weapons on Ukrainian cities – and the horrific civilian toll associated with such attacks – may help sway wavering countries.

Armed conflicts in urban areas are increasingly fought with weapons that are not designed or adapted to be used in populated areas.

As a result, the effects of these weapons go well beyond their targets and have devastating consequences for civilians. pic.twitter.com/UUS2YMWW0x

— CIVIC (@CivCenter) April 1, 2022

▲ Remnants of a wide area effect explosive weapon used in Syria (Credit: White Helmets)

Published

March 31, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

In news widely welcomed by team, Emily Tripp to take over as organisation's second leader this summer.

Emily Tripp will be the next Director of Airwars, the organisation’s Executive Board announced today, and will succeed the present head of the organisation Chris Woods in the summer.

Emily is presently Airwars’ Research Manager, where she has strongly led on recent projects including the team’s monitoring of the conflict between Israel and Gaza in 2021 – which was recently shortlisted for an Amnesty Media Award.

Emily has previously worked in the humanitarian sector, managing monitoring and evaluation departments in Syria and assessment teams in Libya. She brings to the Director’s role technical expertise in data collection in volatile conflict environments, as well as leadership experience overseeing large teams across different countries and regions.

“We are beyond thrilled to know that Emily will lead Airwars into its next iteration, in which civilian harm monitoring, archiving of open-source data, and research and advocacy on behalf of affected communities will continue to form the heart of our work,” the Board noted in a statement. “Emily’s talent, strategic vision and collaborative approach make her the ideal leader to build on the outstanding work done by Chris and the rest of the Airwars team.”

Emily Tripp will be the organisation’s second Director, succeeding Chris Woods who co-founded Airwars in 2014. He saw the organisation through a strong growth phase in which civilian casualty monitoring was introduced across multiple conflict situations in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. His work at Airwars also helped set the bar for accountability for military action in air-dominated conflicts around the world.

“Chris has been an invaluable asset to Airwars since its founding in 2014. He has been the driving force in building a unique organisation dedicated to the monitoring of civilian harm that has become recognised globally as the gold standard for accountability and transparency for belligerents in conflicts,” read a statement from Airwars’ Executive Board.

In further news, Dmytro Chupryna – Airwars’ Deputy Director since 2018 – decided to step down at the end of March. During his time with Airwars, Dmytro led on organisational, fundraising, and civil advocacy issues – and has been a critical contributor to the organisation’s ongoing success.

“We are all incredibly sad to see Dmytro move on – though his positive legacy will be with us for many years to come,” noted outgoing Director Chris Woods. “We wish him every success in his future career.”

Today was my last day at @airwars. I'd like to thank all the amazing Airwars team and our large POC family for unbelievable four years. It was an absolute honour and pleasure to working with all of you 💙💛 and thanks for wonderful flowers and gifts ☺️👐 will miss you a LOT! pic.twitter.com/O0SihF1DZX

— Dmytro Chupryna (@ChuprynaDmytro) March 25, 2022

▲ Emily Tripp will be Airwars' new Director

Published

February 9, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

Header Image

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“For two decades, U.S. operations overseas have killed tens of thousands of civilians around the world – primarily from Brown, Black, and Muslim communities.”

On February 8th, Airwars joined its voice with 104 other organisations – including human rights, humanitarian, protection of civilians, peacebuilding, civil liberties, social and racial justice, government accountability, veterans, and faith based NGOs – to call for President Joe Biden to act urgently to overhaul US civilian harm policies and practises.

Recent New York Times investigations have documented significant shortcomings in how the US government – and its allies – monitors, investigates, and accounts for civilian harm as a result of its own military action. These have shown how the US military has routinely rejected civilian harm incidents, with decisions often riddled with basic errors, translation problems, or a lack of judgement and oversight. The Times reports echo years of similar findings by casualty monitors and human rights investigators.

There is now renewed attention within Congress and the Department of Defense on the vital changes needed, for example with the announcement of a Pentagon inquiry into how the military covered up civilian harm in Baghouz, and during recent sessions of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“As an organisation committed to reducing civilian harm in the battlefield, we join our many partners in urging President Biden to publicly recognise systemic and structural flaws in the US military’s approach to civilian casualties,” says Airwars advocacy officer Georgia Edwards. “Fulfilling his earlier pledges on human rights and moral leadership, he must now set a new course for the US government and military which opens up pathways to justice and accountability for civilians affected by US military actions.”

▲ President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, November 2021 (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Published

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 https://t.co/BJ83W6mXX9

— 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)

Published

January 12, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

The longstanding Chair of Airwars Elizabeth Minor has stepped down due to ill health.

Elizabeth Minor, the longstanding voluntary Chair of Airwars, has sadly stepped down due to ill health, the organisation’s Board has announced.

Since joining the Airwars Board in summer 2016, Elizabeth has been a critical driver of the organisation’s many successes.

A leading conflict casualty recording expert, Elizabeth was a key contributor to Every Casualty Counts’ world first Standards for Casualty Recording; is a co-recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with ICAN in helping galvanize successful negotiations of a global treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons; and is a key adviser with Article 36, the international NGO focused on reducing harm from weapons.

Elizabeth Minor: stepping down due to ill health

Among many accomplishments during her time chairing Airwars’ volunteer Board, Elizabeth led on the development of the organisation’s secondary trauma reduction policy in partnership with the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma; and was a champion throughout of the highest ethical and research standards. She also chaired the Airwars Advisory Board.

“I’m very proud to have been able to contribute to Airwars’ Boards as the organisation has developed from a very small startup to the established, professional and widely respected organisation it is today,” Elizabeth said this week.

“Of the work we have done together, I’m particularly proud of our establishing procedures for trauma risk management within the organisation – which no similar NGO had comparable policies on at the time we did this work.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where Airwars goes next and collaborating in other capacities, and wish the team and Boards all the best. It has been wonderful to work with such an excellent group of people.”

Speaking about Elizabeth’s departure, Airwars’ outgoing Director Chris Woods described her as “a wonderful, passionate and expert Chair who along with her volunteer colleagues has made an immeasurable contribution to our successes as an organisation. Elizabeth will be very much missed, and we wish her the very best.”

New Board member announced

A new Chair is expected to be appointed at Airwars’ next Annual General Meeting in the Spring. In the meantime, Aditi Gupta has been seconded to the Board with the warm support of staff, volunteers and other Board members.

Director for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict, Aditi is also Deputy Director for the UK Chapter of Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security. She previously managed the Freedom Online Coalition Secretariat, through her role at Global Partners Digital where she worked on strengthening civil society advocacy in cyber policy processes.

“I’ve closely followed Airwars’ vital work since their inception, and I’m so proud to work with them officially as a member of the Board. Over the years, the team at Airwars has built an unignorable evidence base of allegations, putting the experience of and impact borne by civilians in conflict firmly at the door of those who need to take accountability,” Aditi said this week.

“I wholeheartedly support this important work, and hope my experience in parliamentary engagement, organisational management, and efforts working on intersectional justice and equality issues will bolster their strength further.”

Aditi Gupta has now joined the Airwars Board

Update on Director recruitment

In a further update this week, the Board said that it has unfortunately not yet been successful in its efforts to appoint a successor to Chris Woods, the founding Director of Airwars who announced he would be stepping down after more than seven years in the role.

Brexit and COVID between them have made for a very challenging UK jobs market at present, and the Board says it is determined to ensure the best possible appointment as Director to take the organisation forward. In the meantime the Board has asked Chris Woods to stay on temporarily as Director.

“The Board is immensely grateful to Chris for agreeing to delay his departure for a few months while we complete our process to find the right leader to build on his incredible work, and ensure a smooth transition once they are appointed,” notes Airwars Treasurer James Hirst.

Further updates on the recruitment process are expected in the weeks ahead.

Published

December 22, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Official military data shows a 54 percent decline in strikes across all US conflicts during Biden’s year in office.

There has been much speculation in recent weeks about what President Biden’s first year in office shows us about his foreign policy – and in particular whether he is ending 20 years of America’s so-called ‘forever wars’.

As 2021 nears its end, Airwars reached out to US combatant commands to request strike data for conflicts. Coupled with the long-delayed release of crucial strike data from Afghanistan, Airwars can assess for the first time what the ‘war on terror’ looks like under Joe Biden.

The biggest take-home is that Biden has significantly decreased US military action across the globe.

Overall, declared US strikes have fallen by 54% globally during 2021

In total, declared US strikes across all five active US conflict zones – Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – fell from 951 actions in 2020, to 439 by mid December 2021, a decrease of 54 percent. This is by far the lowest declared annual US strike number since at least 2004, and reflects a broader trend of declining US actions in recent years.

During 2021, the overwhelming majority of US strikes (372) took place in Afghanistan prior to withdrawal on August 31st. In fact, the United States carried out more than five times as many strikes in Afghanistan this year than in all other active US conflict zones combined.

If you were to remove Afghanistan from the data, the United States has declared just 67 strikes across the globe so far in 2021.

Afghanistan dominated US military actions during 2021

Civilian casualties also down

This trend is also reflected in far lower numbers of civilians allegedly killed by US strikes. During 2021, there were no credible local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan or Yemen.

However,  at least 11 civilians were likely killed by US actions in Syria. In Afghanistan at least 10 civilians were confirmed killed by US actions. That latter figure is almost certainly higher, since we now know the US dropped more than 800 munitions on Taliban and Islamic State fighters during the year. At least some of those strikes were in urban areas where civilians are particularly at risk. However exact estimates remain elusive, due to ongoing confusion between US strikes and those carried out by Afghan security forces up to August.

In Somalia one civilian was locally reported killed by US strikes, though this occurred before Biden assumed office on January 20th.

Biden is partly continuing a trend seen in recent years – the number of strikes has largely fallen since 2016 when the war with the so-called Islamic State reached its apex. Below, we provide breakdowns of both US and allied airstrikes and locally reported civilian casualties – as well as emerging trends – for each individual conflict.

Over the length of the ‘War on Terror’, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 still marks the highest number of declared US strikes.

Afghanistan

On December 17th 2021, Biden’s administration finally released strike data for the final two years of the Afghanistan war. Such monthly releases were standard practice for nearly two decades but were stopped in March 2020, with the Trump administration arguing that their ongoing release could jeopardise peace talks with the Taliban. The Biden administration then chose to continue with that secrecy.

Now we can see why. The new releases show that despite a ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban signed on February 29th 2020, under which the US was expected to withdraw in 14 months, the Pentagon continued its aggressive aerial campaigns in Afghanistan. Between March and December 2020, more than 400 previously undeclared strikes took place under Trump, while there were at least 300 US strikes in Afghanistan under Biden until August.

In total, almost 800 previously secret recent US airstrikes in Afghanistan during the Trump and Biden administrations have now been declared.

While Airwars does not track allegations of civilian harm in Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) has done so for more than a decade. Yet the decision by the Pentagon to stop publishing strike data in early 2020 may have led the UN to significantly underestimate casualties from US actions.

In its report detailing civilian casualties in Afghanistan from January to June 2021, UNAMA found that 146 civilians had been killed and 243 injured in airstrikes. Yet it seemed to assume these were all carried out by US-backed Afghan military forces, instead of the US.

“UNAMA…did not verify any airstrike by international military forces that resulted in civilian casualties during the first six months of 2021,” the report asserted. Such assessments will likely now require a fresh review, in the wake of recent US strike data releases.

We do know for certain that ten civilians were killed by US actions after that six-month period, on August 29th this year in Kabul – in the final US drone strike of a 20-year war. The US initially claimed this was a “righteous strike” on an Islamic State terrorist. However investigative journalists quickly showed the victims were in fact an aid worker and nine members of his young family, forcing the military to admit an error. Despite this, it recently concluded no disciplinary measures against personnel were necessary.

After the ignominious US withdrawal on August 31, US strikes have stopped. While at the time Biden discussed the possibility of continuing “over the horizon” airstrikes from a nearby country, this has not yet happened.

“The skies over Afghanistan are free of US war planes for the first time in two decades. A whole generation grew up under their contrails, nobody looks at the sky without checking for them,” Graeme Smith of the International Crisis Group told Airwars. “Their absence heralds the start of a new era, even if it’s not yet clear what that new chapter will bring.”

Iraq and Syria

During 2020, the number of air and artillery strikes conducted by the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State – Operation Inherent Resolve – has continued to fall, alongside an ongoing reduction in civilian harm allegations.

OIR declared 201 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2020, and only 58 strikes by early December 2021. This represents a reduction of around 70  percent in one year, and a 99 percent reduction in declared strikes between 2017 and 2021.

In Iraq, Airwars has tracked no local allegations of civilian harm from US led actions during 2021, down from an estimated five civilian fatalities in 2020. At the height of the Coalition’s war against ISIS in 2017, Airwars had tracked a minimum of 1,423 civilian fatalities.

In Syria, however, civilian harm allegations from Coalition actions actually increased this year, up from a minimum of one death in 2020 to at least eleven likely civilian fatalities in 2021. This does still represent a low figure compared to recent history: in 2019, Airwars had identified a minimum of 490 civilians likely killed by the Coalition, a reduction of 98 percent to this year.

Since 2019, Afghanistan has replaced Iraq and Syria as the primary focus of US military actions.

One key concern in Syria is that most recently reported civilian deaths have resulted not from declared US airstrikes, but from joint ground operations with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), often supported by US attack helicopters.

These include a raid on the town of Thiban in Deir Ezzor, carried out by the SDF with the support of the US-led Coalition at dawn on July 16th 2021. Eyewitnesses reported that a “force consisting of several cars raided civilian homes, without warning, accompanied by indiscriminate shooting between the houses with the aim of terrorising the ‘wanted’”. Two civilians, a father and son, were killed in the raid, reportedly shot outside their home.

Separately, on the morning of December 3rd 2021, a declared US drone strike killed at least one man and injured at least six civilians, including up to four children from the same family. Multiple sources reported that the drone targeted a motorcycle but also hit a passing car that the Qasoum family were traveling in. Ahmed Qasoum, who was driving, described the incident; “the motorcycle was going in front of me and I decided to pass it, when I got parallel to it, I felt a lot of pressure pushing the car to the left of the road….It was horrible.” His ten-year-old son had a fractured skull, while his 15-year-old daughter sustained a serious shrapnel injury to her head.

On December 6th, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the strike had targeted an Al-Qaeda linked militant but “the initial review of the strike did indicate the potential for possible civilian casualties.”

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A dashboard camera captures the moment a US strike also hits a passing civilian vehicle. 

Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen

Under Donald Trump, there had been a record rise both in declared US airstrikes in Somalia, and in locally reported civilian deaths and injuries – with the last likely death from a US action tracked by Airwars on the final day of Trump’s presidency.

Since then, Airwars has tracked no locally reported civilian deaths in Somalia under Biden. For the entire year, AFRICOM has declared nine strikes so far, four of which occurred under Biden. When he came to power, his administration implemented a six-month moratorium on strikes, multiple sources said. This meant that both AFRICOM and even the CIA had to have White House permission before carrying out strikes in either Somalia or Yemen.

On July 20th 2021, the day the moratorium ended, AFRICOM declared the first Somali strike of the Biden era – targeting the Al-Shabaab Islamist group. Multiple militants were reported killed, though no civilians were among them. A small number of additional strikes against Al-Shabaab occurred in the weeks afterwards, the most recent of which was on August 24th. Since then, there have been no declared strikes.

In Yemen, where the US has carried out periodic strikes against alleged Al-Qaeda affiliates since 2009, there have so far been no reliable reports of US strikes under Biden. In August, Al-Qaeda itself claimed two of its fighters had been killed in a US action, though there were no details on the date or location of this event.

Responding to an email query from Airwars on November 18th, the US military denied carrying out any recent attacks, noting that “CENTCOM conducted its last counterterror strike in Yemen on June 24, 2019. CENTCOM has not conducted any new counterterror strikes in Yemen since.”

However, in a more ambivalent statement to Airwars on December 16th, CENTCOM spokesperson Bill Urban noted only that “I am not aware of any strikes in Yemen in 2021.” Airwars is seeking further clarity, particularly since it is known that the CIA carried out several airstrikes on Al Qaeda in Yemen during 2020.

In both Libya and Pakistan, long running US counter terrorism campaigns now appear to be over. The last locally claimed CIA strike in Pakistan was in July 2018 under President Trump, while in Libya, the last likely US strike was in October 2019.

A crucial year ahead

Based on official US military data, it is clear that Joe Biden is building on a trend seen in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, further decreasing the scope and scale of the ‘forever wars.’

In Iraq and Syria, US forces appear to be transitioning away from carrying out active strikes in favour of supporting allied groups – although Special Forces ground actions continue in Syria, sometimes with associated civilian harm. The war in Afghanistan is now over, and it seems the long-running US campaigns in Pakistan and Libya have drawn to permanent halts. US airstrikes in Somalia and Yemen have all but stopped for now.

Still unknown is the likely framework for US military actions moving forward. In early 2021, Biden commissioned a major review of US counter terrorism policy. Led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the results are expected to be announced in the coming months. This will likely give us a far clearer idea how Biden believes the US should fight both ongoing wars and future ones.

Is 2022 the year Biden rescinds the AUMF? (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

And then there is amending – or even repealing – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That law, passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11, essentially granted the US President the right to conduct strikes anywhere in the world in the context of the ‘war on terror.’ Initially designed for use against Al-Qaeda, it has been employed against an ever widening pool of US enemies.

The future of the 2001 AUMF is once again likely to be debated by Congress in 2022. While unlikely to be repealed, it could possibly be significantly amended, Brian Finucane, senior advisor for the US programme at International Crisis Group, told Airwars.

“That would entail at a minimum specifying who the United States can hit – explicitly identifying the enemy. Secondly identifying where it should be used – geographical limits. And thirdly giving a sunset clause,” he said. “As it is now that AUMF is basically a blank cheque to be used by different administrations.”

▲ President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with national security advisers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, Thursday, August 19, 2021, in the White House Situation Room. (Official White House Photo by Erin Scott)