News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

September 22, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars adds voice to partners calling on the US government to end its targeting of the ICC

The United States Government recently applied sanctions to senior officers of the International Criminal Court – a court of last resort established by treaty, and endorsed by a majority of countries including most of the US’s closest allies. In partnership with a number of organisations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, Airwars is calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials. The public statement also calls on both Presidential campaigns to publicly commit to rescinding an Executive Order passed by President Trump in June, which formed the basis of the ICC sanctions.

We the undersigned, representing human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, write in opposition to United States sanctions against named senior personnel within the International Criminal Court (ICC).

We call on President Trump to revoke these harmful sanctions immediately and to rescind Executive Order 13928 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court.” We also call on the Presidential campaigns of both major parties to publicly commit to reversing this harmful Executive Order. The United States should support the rule of law rather than punish those seeking to provide redress to victims of harm.

The ICC exists as a court of last resort to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute the most serious international crimes. The Court has secured successful prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary beneficiaries are the many civilian victims who can secure no justice elsewhere and the communities subject to cycles of violence fuelled by impunity. They include many victims and survivors of violence for whom the United States has been a strong, vocal advocate for justice and accountability.

We understand that the United States takes issue with some of the ICC’s jurisprudence and assertions of jurisdiction. However, we believe that concerted diplomatic efforts and engagement with the ICC will enhance its effectiveness more than punishing individuals who have dedicated their careers to delivering justice to victims of egregious crimes.

As condemnatory statements from close U.S. allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice. 

The United States should recommit to an independent and credible domestic process of investigating and holding to account U.S. citizens for alleged abuses, free from executive interference and consistent with U.S. and international law. That is the best way to ensure that U.S. service members are afforded due process of law in a domestic forum for any alleged wrongdoing and that the U.S. is recognized as a leader in the pursuit of global justice and accountability.

Signed,

Action on Armed Violence

Airwars

Amnesty International USA

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Human Rights First

Oxfam America

Oxford Research Group

Saferworld

▲ A recent appeal hearing at the International Criminal Court (Image via ICC)

Published

September 14, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Header Image

Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

At least 200 civilians died during the siege of the capital - with the future still looking uncertain for Libya

Two months after the brutal siege of Libya’s capital ended, new interactive Airwars mapping shows the impact of 14 months of fighting between two rival governments on the city’s beleaguered civilians.

Airwars has visualised every allegation of civilian harm from air and artillery strikes during the period of war in and around Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020. Glasgow-based consultants Rectangle designed the innovative mapping, in an effort to find fresh ways of visualising civilian harm on the modern battlefield.

The new Airwars mapping uses a sliding timeline to enable an overview of often indiscriminate air and artillery strikes on Tripoli and its suburbs. A fine-detail satellite map of Tripoli and its suburbs makes it possible to see the siege evolving over the 14 months of its duration.

The map utilises a 1km radius hexagonal system, whose height represents the number of civilians reported killed in an incident. This in turn enables users to see the extent of shelling on various neighbourhoods, with casualty spikes clearly revealed in heavily hit areas such as Salaheddin, Abu Salim and Tajoura. The new mapping can also be used as a portal to access individual civilian harm assessments on the Airwars website.

Lizzie Malcolm and Daniel Powers of design consultancy Rectangle explain their rationale behind the new approach: “The challenge of mapping and visualising civilian harm is to balance the presentation of aggregated information and individual details. Maps of large areas and timelines of conflicts are useful for understanding scale. But any visualisation should be a gateway to the evidence and stories about individuals and families,” they tell Airwars.

Over the course of the siege, Airwars recorded 339 civilian harm events in Libya, 197 of which around Tripoli, nearly tripling the number of locally reported incidents since the end of the NATO campaign in 2011. At least 197 civilians were killed by the violence and another 537 were injured by the violence, as the LNA and GNA fought for control of Tripoli.

The LNA’s Tripoli offensive introduced Libyans to a degree of conflict violence not seen since NATO’s intervention almost a decade earlier. Even when the conflict was over, LNA forces and Wagner mercenaries reportedly booby-trapped houses and planted landmines, leading to gruesome additional reports of killed and injured civilians.

The siege of Tripoli has previously been visualised by other organisations, though not via an interactive map. UN agency OCHA has for example provided infographics summing up their findings. And Dzsihad Hadelli has previously visualised Airwars data on civilian casualties for the Libya Observer.

The war on Tripoli is now one year old. But already in this period, as many civilians have been killed by air raids as in all Libyan civil war conflicts since 2012 (Airwars annual report 2020).

Here's a map of all reported air strikes/shellings of the last 12 months. pic.twitter.com/tTYoEaaDSM

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 5, 2020

Is justice possible?

Mapping and recording harm in conflicts can help both with the proper investigation of civilian casualties, and of possible war crimes – potentially leading to reconciliation and justice in those parts of society affected by the fighting. “There is no way out of this without people being held accountable,“ says Elham Saudi, Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

Her organisation seeks to document violations of humanitarian and human rights law in Libya, in turn hoping for accountability. “If you’re aiming for criminal responsibility, the threshold is really high. First hand accounts and witnesses are the most important thing,“ Saudi explains. Establishing the chain of command that leads to an event in question is another crucial point, she adds.

As a former resident of Tripoli suburbs, Saudi knows from friends and family what the siege did to Tripoli’s population: “The impact was felt throughout the city, the fear and anticipation of being targeted was quite overwhelming – even if you didn’t live in the areas being targeted, because of the indiscriminate nature of the attacks. You always felt like you were a target.”

However, her organisation does not focus only upon recent events around Tripoli but investigates violations committed in the civil war across the country. The highly polarised political landscape poses an additional challenge, as activists and media in Libya are often affiliated with one of the parties to the conflict: “The hyper-politicisation of everything makes it very difficult to keep the distance from what’s being said in the media. I don’t disregard anything just because it belongs to a certain party.”

“Things get lost if you don’t preserve evidence in a conflict. Preserving evidence is absolutely vital, it’s not just about the present but also about the future for civil society,“ the lawyer elaborates. Social media plays an increasing role there as “Perpetrators help you because they incriminate themselves.“

Mahmoud Werfalli’s arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, for example, was based on social media accounts of extrajudicial killings. The former LNA commander is accused of executing ten prisoners in Benghazi in 2018, a case that was widely documented on social networks – as are many cases of potential war crimes in Libya.

At this point it remains difficult to predict which alleged incidents might potentially bear fruit in court. War crimes were alleged on both sides of the conflict. “The US is promising because Haftar, as a US citizen, is subject to its jurisdiction; it also allows for individuals to pursue civil responsibility,” Saudi says. Three civil lawsuits attempting to do that have been filed in the US for example, whereby affected families are suing the General for compensation for his alleged responsibility in the deaths of family members as a result of the indiscriminate shelling of Tripoli neighbourhoods by his forces.

Links to individual case assessments that occurred in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Tripoli

Bringing Libyans back to the negotiations table

Even as the search for accountability continues, rifts remain deep within Libyan society after so many years of civil war. The big question is: how might Libya finally find a way towards a peaceful future?

A pause in fighting between Libya’s rival camps might be expected to generate optimism in a country riven by intermittent civil war since 2011. But instead of improving the livelihoods of the population, both seem keen to return to the status quo that partly led to the siege of Tripoli in the first place. Infighting within both the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA); profound economic problems; and deep distrust between all the main political actors, make a peaceful future more uncertain.

Recently popular protests erupted in both GNA- and LNA-controlled territories, that were in turn met with violence by both governments. At the same time, a new military build-up around Sirte has raised fears of another escalation in violence – while a dire economic situation exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the population into ever deeper poverty.

Virginie Collombier, Professor of Social and Political Dynamics in Libya at the European University Institute of Florence, has been working on grassroots mediation processes led by Libyans for many years. She sees the first step to a lasting ceasefire taking place at the international level – getting countries now meddling in Libya to respect the commitments they made during the Berlin peace conference: “The aim of the mediation process is to find someone who has the capacities to provide guarantees and enforce things. The UN can’t do anything alone as we see; and the EU doesn’t have the capacities or willingness.“

“Who has the capacities to influence things on the ground: Russia? Turkey?“ Collombier asks.  Neither seems a likely candidate given the ongoing geopolitical struggle between these two states: “Most importantly [there is] the US, but will they work as a guarantor on broader issues related to the economy, and the political framework?“

The current stalemate may however make things easier, Professor Collombier believes: “There is clearly a sense of exhaustion, the meaning of the war is lost, which is something we can see on both sides of the divide.“ She adds: “There is not much we can achieve through violence and weapons, the situation has stabilised around two camps that can block each other.“

However, internal divisions in both the GNA and in Haftar’s camp show that the situation could turn violent again if issues are not resolved. Collombier stresses the need for a dialogue that includes all Libyans, beyond the GNA and LNA: “Voices of Libyans can be heard and put pressure on politics; and diversifying the political sphere is absolutely crucial. There is a need for alternative voices and leaders. There is deep distrust in the current political elite.”

Whatever the result of both reconciliation and accountability processes in Libya, there is a long way ahead for the country to finally find peace. Documenting and archiving the crimes committed during the civil war is only an initial step towards accountability that can then lead to reconciliation between former enemies.

▲ Civilian casualty situation at the beginning of the LNA's Tripoli offensive on April 4th, 2019

Published

August 19, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation follows recent study showing challenges of mainstream media coverage of civilian casualties.

A new Senior Investigator will be joining the Airwars core team in the coming weeks, thanks to a two year grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation – a Chicago based family philanthropic fund.

Over the past six years, Airwars has consistently shown that its groundbreaking work has a powerful impact on the public understanding of civilian harm – and can lead to positive changes in both policies and practices among militaries. However, systemic challenges in many newsrooms can result in the issue being poorly reported. Our recent study News In Brief, authored by US investigative reporter Alexa O’Brien and also funded by the Logan Foundation, explored the many obstacles to good reporting of this critical issue.

Responding to this deficit, new funding will enable Airwars to majorly enhance its own capacity for much-needed investigations into civilian casualties and their causes, in particular with the appointment of an in-house Senior Investigator – who will be supported by a wider team of geolocation, research and design professionals.

Airwars will then seek partnerships with key US and international media on the most vital and controversial cases and stories. In doing so, it aims to bridge a critical gap in the mainstream reporting of civilian harm from war – and bring many more stories to public awareness. A key focus will be to explore innovative approaches to engaging new audiences on civilian harm issues.

Major investigations

Since its founding, Airwars has published several major investigations into civilian harm. In 2017 our then-inhouse reporter Samuel Oakford revealed with Foreign Policy that, according to senior US military officials, more than 80 civilians had been killed in non-US international airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. That investigation still serves as a key point of engagement for our advocacy work with individual belligerents.

In June 2019, Airwars partnered with Amnesty International on a major project War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality – which found that at least 1,600 civilian deaths had likely been caused by the US-led Coalition during the battle of Raqqa. More recently, Airwars has played a prominent role in reporting the scandal surrounding Dutch responsibility for a 2015 airstrike in Hawijah, Iraq, in which 70 or more civilians likely died. And in early 2020 – in partnership with the BBC, Liberation, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands – Airwars revealed that European militaries were failing to declare civilian deaths from their own actions in the war against ISIS, even where US military personnel had concluded otherwise.

“Airwars is unique. There are few organisations that shine a light so intensely on the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians caught up in the fury of war. The Airwars team has developed groundbreaking methodology to track these horrors and has delivered their consequent findings with authority to governments, the military and the public,” commented Richard Logan, President of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

“Their work has consistently brought changes in perceptions and in the conduct of war. It has contributed to a significant reduction of non-combatant battlefield deaths and injuries. For these and other related reasons, it is crucial to magnify Airwars’ investigative capacity to ensure that the plight of the most vulnerable stays at the forefront of all our minds. We are honoured to support their efforts.”

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Chart legend:

View this chart as:

Best for comparing an individual group over time Best for comparing totals over time

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).

Incident Code

LC421

Incident date

June 29, 2020

Location

وادي أزكير, Wadi Azkir, Sirte, Libya

Geolocation

31.131944, 16.271944 Note: The accuracy of this location is to District level. Continue to map

Geolocation accuracy

District

Airwars assessment

A civilian was reportedly killed and another man was injured as the result of alleged LNA air or artillery strikes on Wadi Azkir, west of Sirte, on June 29th, 2020, according to local sources.

Burkan Al Ghadab Operation reported that civilian Abdel Nabi Milad Ashtaiwi Al Sabi’i was killed alongside some of his camels in bombings by LNA forces on Wadi Azkir. His cousin Omar Ammar Ashtaiwi Al Sabi’i was injured.

Mansour Azker, a relative of the killed victim, reported that his cousin died when civilians were bombed in Azkir area.

Wadi Jaref reported the valley was targeted with airstrikes. Other sourced did not specify whether the attacks were air or artillery strikes. Bani Walid wrote on Facebook that Al Sabi’i died in a missile attack on the valley and that some houses in the area had been damaged.

Only Burkan Al Ghadab blamed the LNA for the strikes, other sources did not mention the belligerent.

Currently, further information is unavailable to Airwars.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

The victims were named as:

Family members (2)

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • (1 man)
  • Civilians reported injured
    1
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attacker
    Libyan National Army (LNA)
  • Suspected target
    Unknown

Sources (4) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (3) [ collapse]

  • Abdel Nabi Milad Ashtaiwi Al Sabi’i, here posing with a weapon, was killed in alleged LNA strikes on Wadi Azkir on June 29th, 2020 (via Mansour Azker).
  • Abdel Nabi Milad Ashtaiwi Al Sabi’i, here pictured with a camel, was killed in alleged LNA strikes on Wadi Azkir on June 29th, 2020 (via Wadi Jaref).
  • Abdel Nabi Milad Ashtaiwi Al Sabi’i, here posing on a vehicle, was killed in alleged LNA strikes on Wadi Azkir on June 29th, 2020 (via Mansour Azker).

Libyan National Army (LNA) Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Libyan National Army (LNA)
  • Libyan National Army (LNA) position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    1
  • (1 man)
  • Civilians reported injured
    1
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attacker
    Libyan National Army (LNA)
  • Suspected target
    Unknown

Sources (4) [ collapse]

Libya: Civilian Fatalities per Belligerent

Share of minimum reported civilian fatalities by belligerent. Emirati and some Egyptian air and artillery strikes are conducted on behalf of the LNA and are grouped as a coalition. Unilateral Egyptian strikes at the border are counted as individual events. Turkish strikes conducted on behalf of the GNA are grouped as a coalition. Strikes by the 7th Brigade before it became a part of the LNA were counted as individual events.

Chart legend:

View this chart as:

Best for comparing an individual group over time Best for comparing totals over time

Libya: Strikes per Belligerent

Share of reported air and artillery strikes by belligerent. Emirati and some Egyptian strikes are conducted on behalf of the LNA and are grouped as a coalition. Unilateral Egyptian strikes at the border are counted as individual events. Turkish strikes conducted on behalf of the GNA are grouped as a coalition. Strikes by the 7th Brigade before it became a part of the LNA were counted as individual events.

Chart legend:

View this chart as:

Best for comparing an individual group over time Best for comparing totals over time