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News

Photo by Ahmad Al-Basha/Agence France-Presse, taken from Flickr under Creative Commons

Published

April 18, 2024

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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Photo by Ahmad Al-Basha/Agence France-Presse, taken from Flickr under Creative Commons

In November 2023, Airwars and Article 36 co-convened a workshop to explore military perspectives on the opportunities and challenges arising in the implementation of the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas.

In the workshop report, we summarise the discussions held and challenges identified during the two-day workshop. We draw on these lessons, and our wider work on EWIPA, to make recommendations to states and militaries working to implement the declaration, and civil society organisations focused on supporting this process.

The workshop focused on exploring operational policies and practice regarding the use of explosive weapons during military operations in populated areas, with reference to the Declaration. Using a scenario-based approach, the workshop aimed to identify, and raise awareness of, changes to policies and practices that are necessary for the effective implementation of the operational provisions of the Declaration, ahead of the first official follow-up meeting of states and civil society which will be held in Oslo next week.

Participants in the workshop included active and retired members of national armed forces and defence ministry officials from 8 Western states, as well as participants from NATO, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and civil society organisations.

Key findings 

A summary of the key recommendations and good practices outlined during the workshop are summarised below:

    Efforts to disseminate and promote engagement with the Declaration at the national level are required within relevant ministries and departments as well as the armed forces. A process of policy review, revision and development by signatory states is an essential element of the implementation process. To promote and implement the Declaration, it is vital to include both leaders at the strategic/political level as well as commanders at the operational level. Commanders have a key role to play in ensuring civilian harm is mitigated, particularly from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The Declaration’s central commitment points towards national-level policies and doctrines as the framework through which it should be implemented. Weapon selection, including a proper understanding of the technical effects of different weapons and how those effects will be influenced by the built environment, is critical to mitigating civilian harm from explosive weapons. States should critically review their approaches to and capacity for undertaking civilian harm tracking in line with established good practice.

The full workshop report can be found here.

▲ Photo by Ahmad Al-Basha/Agence France-Presse, taken from Flickr under Creative Commons

Published

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

English

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)

 

Danish

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)

https://www.berlingske.dk/internationalt/forargelse-efter-afsloering-af-hemmelig-rapport-om-mulige-danske

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

Published

January 25, 2024

Written by

Joe Dyke, Rasmus Raun Westh, Maia Awada

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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.”

Disinformation

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.

Cairo

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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Published

January 25, 2024

Written by

Rasmus Raun Westh, Joe Dyke, Maia Awada, Dan Sabbagh

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In first such admission, previously secret document says Danish aircraft participated in attacks linked to civilian deaths

This article was originally published in The Guardian after a collaborative investigation. Read the full news stories in The Guardian (English) and Altinget (Danish) and our in-depth explanation of the investigation.

Denmark’s defence ministry said it would launch a review after evidence emerged showing its air force participated in airstrikes on Libya that killed 14 civilians in 2011, the first time any of the 10 countries involved in the Nato bombing campaign has acknowledged a possible link to non-combatant casualties.

Documents released under freedom of information show the Danish air force had concluded privately as long ago as 2012 that two F-16 attacks were connected to civilian casualty reports compiled by the UN, media and human rights groups.

However, this acknowledgment was not made public at the time, effectively preventing a relative of the Libyans killed from seeking compensation or redress, because he did not know which country may have been behind the bombing.

Nato attacks involving Danish fighter jets in which non-combatants were killed include:

• an airstrike on Surman, nearly 40 miles west of Tripoli, on 20 June 2011 that killed 13 civilians, including five children and six members of one family. A surviving family member says the target was only a residential compound, owned by a retired Libyan government member, but Nato said at the time it was “a legitimate military target” despite reports of non-combatant deaths;

• the bombing of an apartment block in Sirte, central Libya, on Sept 16 2011 that killed two, a man and a woman who was five months pregnant. Although there were unconfirmed reports of snipers on the rooftop, questions were raised in the aftermath whether an attack would have been proportionate, given civilians were killed.

The Danish defence ministry said in a statement that while the events took place many years ago, it had begun a review. “The Minister of Defence has requested the Defence Command to assess whether the documents in question indicate that there were ramifications of such magnitude that an investigation should have been conducted at that time within the coalition or Nato framework,” it added.

One newly released document, written in English, and sent in May 2012 from Danish military command to the country’s Nato representatives, said that “Danish aircraft participated in a number of the specific attacks” listed as having caused civilian casualties by investigators from the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, Human Rights Watch and the New York Times.

“Civilian casualties during the conduct of these attacks cannot be ruled out,” the Danish internal review, previously marked secret, concluded.

The Danish admission of a link with the deadly airstrikes follows a joint investigation between Altinget, a Danish news site, Airwars, a civilian harm watchdog, and the Guardian.

The full article in The Guardian can be read here.

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Published

July 14, 2023

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

New UN Human Rights Council study emphasises importance of casualty recording for human rights

A breakthrough United Nations report outlining the importance of casualty recording for the protection and promotion of human rights has received nearly universal support at the Human Rights Council’s 53rd session.

The report, which linked casualty recording and human rights obligations directly, received widespread support at the council on July 3rd – with 19 states and observers expressing support for the findings and recommendations. Only one state, Venezuela, expressed objections.

The study will create pressure on states – many of which have previously expressed confusion and hesitancy regarding their obligations around casualty recording – to do more to monitor the civilian impact of conflict.

Setting the tone for the Council session, the report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended that states: “ensure that casualty recording systems and policies are in place and report publicly on all casualties believed to have resulted from hostilities or violence and their circumstances, including for reparations and accountability”.

If implemented, such measures would create a global best practice around casualty monitoring. There is currently little transparency about how states record casualties from their own actions, and state militaries often face accusations of undercounting the civilian impact of their actions.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the Ministry of Defence refuses to publicly disclose details on its own mechanism for casualty recording in the war against ISIS. Airwars is challenging this position in a tribunal later this year.

The importance of casualty recording 

The High Commissioner’s report emphasised; “Casualty recording is an important and effective means of delivering on a range of fundamental human rights”. The report further notes: “In addition to disciplinary and accountability measures, such information can be used to foster compliance with international law, including by changing practices and behaviour and enhancing training to this end.”

The US delegation reflected on casualty recording in Ukraine, acknowledging that: “we still do not know the full picture. For that reason, we must advance efforts to create a comprehensive casualty recording system that accounts for all casualties, both civilian and military.”

The delegation went on to emphasise that the US is keen to “aid the international community in developing a casualty reporting mechanism at the international level to contribute to equal access to justice for all”

The support for casualty recording is particularly significant in the context of other successes for civilian protections at the UN last week. In a statement welcoming the report on casualty recording, 56 states of the ‘Group of Friends of R2P’ emphasised the connection between casualty recording and atrocity prevention.

A week earlier, a resolution was adopted at the General Assembly creating an independent institution to examine the fate of all people who are missing in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, an estimated 130,000 people have gone missing or been forcibly disappeared.

The moves at the UN follow other international assertions on the importance of casualty recording. The Explosive Weapons Declarations, signed by nearly 90 states in November last year, urges states to “record and track civilian casualties, and [ensure] the use of all practicable measures to ensure appropriate data collection.” The US’ Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), which is widely seen as one of the most ambitious and detailed national policies on this topic, highlights that “developing standardized reporting procedures for operational data to inform civilian harm assessments …will improve DoD’s ability to mitigate and respond to civilian harm.”

The work of independent civil society organisations

Airwars has been collaborating with civil society organisations, particularly Every Casualty Counts and other partners in the Casualty Recorder’s Network, to present evidence for the Human Rights Council report over the last year.

Last year, Every Casualty also released a hard hitting report outlining the requirements for casualty recording across legal regimes. It found that “international humanitarian and human rights law contain extensive requirements regarding states’ duties to account for the dead and missing in armed conflict and other situations of gross human rights violations… these duties are universally binding on all states.”

The work of these organisations was emphasised throughout the report. On the work of Airwars, the report highlighted our work with the US military and Government in particular, highlighting that: “more than 70 per cent of United States internal inquiries into civilian casualties caused by air strikes in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq since 2014 have been based on casualty recording submitted by Airwars.”

The report also drew attention to the advocacy work of organisations like Airwars, writing: “…following years of advocacy and engagement based in part on [Airwars’] findings on casualties in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, the United States Department of Defense issued the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan in August 2022.”

We welcome the findings of the report on casualty recording and the widespread support it received at the Human Rights Council last week. It brings clarity to the requirements on states and reaffirms, at an international level, the importance of accurately recording and reporting on casualties in warfare.

▲ UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Incident date

May 31, 2023

Incident Code

LC437

LOCATION

العجيلات, Al Ajailat, An Nuqat al Khams, Libya

One civilian named Ali Balkour was killed by alleged Government of National Unity (Turkish) drone strikes on the Al Shabika area in the city of Al Ajailat on May 31, 2023. A tweet from @aleasima_17 reported that three raids in the Al Shabika area resulted in the death of Ali Balkour inside a wine factory. Other

Summary

First published
May 31, 2023
Last updated
July 4, 2023
Strike status
Likely strike
Strike type
Airstrike, Drone Strike
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
1
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Fair
Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
Suspected belligerent
Government of National Accord
Named victims
1 named
Geolocation
City
View Incident

Incident date

May 29, 2023

Incident Code

LC436

LOCATION

عين زارة, Ain Zara, Tarabulus, Libya

A civilian man was injured by shelling between “Al Radaa” and “Brigade 444”, one of which is loyal to the Government of National Unity, which struck his home in Ain Zara on May 29, 2023. A tweet from @ObservatoryLY reported that a house in Ain Zara was hit by a shell during clashes between “Al

Summary

First published
May 29, 2023
Last updated
July 4, 2023
Strike status
Contested strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
1
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Contested
Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
Suspected belligerent
Government of National Accord
Geolocation
Neighbourhood/area
View Incident

Published

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

Incident date

May 28, 2023

Incident Code

LC435

LOCATION

الماية, Al Maya, Al Zawiyah, Libya

As many as seven civilians were injured by alleged airstrikes carried out by the Government of National Unity on a port in Al Maya the evening of May 28, 2023. Between two and five members of the Coast Guard/Stability Support Agency were also killed in the airstrikes. A tweet from @rgowans reported that with the

Summary

First published
May 28, 2023
Last updated
June 15, 2023
Strike type
Airstrike, Drone Strike
Civilian harm reported
None known
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
3–7
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Suspected belligerent
Government of National Accord
Named victims
3 named
Belligerents reported killed
2–5
View Incident

Incident date

May 25, 2023

Incident Code

LC434

LOCATION

السيدة زينب, Al Saida Zainab, Al Zawiyah, Libya

A civilian was slightly injured, in addition to several personnel affiliated with the ministry, by declared Government of National Unity (GNU)/Turkish drone or air strikes near the Sayeda Zeinab area on May 25, 2023. A tweet from @wady_dynar quoted spokesman for the Ambulance and Emergency Service, Osama Ali, who reported that “a person was slightly injured as a

Summary

First published
May 25, 2023
Last updated
June 14, 2023
Strike status
Declared strike
Strike type
Airstrike, Drone Strike
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
1–3
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Fair
Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
Known belligerent
GNA/Turkish Military
View Incident

Published

February 2023

Written by

Anna Zahn, Clarie Alspektor and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Clive Vella and Shihab Halep

In the second year of President Joe Biden’s administration, the number of US airstrikes fell to an historic low as some military engagements appeared to take a different form — with the redeployment of US forces to Somalia and a shift towards targeted raids on Islamic State figures in Syria.

The overall number of declared US airstrikes across all monitored military theatres fell from 441 in 2021 to a minimum of 36 in 2022 – mostly due to the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is the lowest number of strikes the US has declared annually since the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in 2001 and subsequent launch of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

This drastic drop was also indicative of another shift – while airstrikes seemed to occur with less frequency in all military theatres except Somalia, the number of more loosely defined military operations increased in some, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

2022 saw intense focus on US civilian harm policy – with the launch of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHM-RAP). The proposals are supposed to reduce the number of civilians killed in future conflicts and improve the civilian harm review process. It came after years of work organisations like Airwars and journalists documenting how the US military’s process for assessing, reviewing and investigating civilian harm was unfit for purpose.

During the year the Biden Administration also altered US policy on engaging militants outside of recognised conflicts by issuing a Presidential Policy Memorandum to Congress – but not to the public. Airwars joined over 50 civil society organisations in calling on the White House to release the new lethal force policy.

Iraq and Syria

There was a noticeable shift in the kind of operations the US carried out in Iraq and Syria in 2022, and this was reflected in changing language from CENTCOM – the military command responsible for the Middle East and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the US officially ended its combat role at the end of 2021 – formally transitioning to advising, assisting and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces. However, there are still around 2,500 US troops in the country and it remains unclear what the exact definition and limits of ‘assistance’ entails.

In Syria, the US has yet to make an equivalent official declaration – partly as its estimated 900 troops in the country are there without the support of the Damascus regime. However the pattern of behaviour is similar to Iraq – with most activities in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily in the north and east of the country.

Based on official reporting, Airwars estimates that the US conducted a minimum of 20 airstrikes in Syria in 2022. This is by far the lowest figure since 2014, when the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State was formed.

CENTCOM’s end of year review stated that US forces carried out a total of 313 operations in Iraq and Syria during 2022, with 686 militants allegedly killed. In Iraq, US forces conducted 191 partnered operations, with at least 220 operatives killed and 159 ISIS operatives detained. In Syria, they conducted 108 partnered operations and 14 unilateral operations – with 466 ISIS operatives killed and 215 detained. CENTCOM does not define what an ‘operation’ is – making it difficult to understand the discrepancy between these figures and those in press releases throughout the year.

The 2022 report by CENTCOM also doesn’t mention civilian casualties. However, Airwars recorded 13 incidents where harm to civilians allegedly occurred from the actions of the US-led Coalition.

In 10 of these incidents, the Coalition was reported as the only belligerent responsible. In those incidents between seven and 13 civilians were reported killed. In the other three incidents, it was unclear from local sources whether the civilian harm was caused by the US-led Coalition, their SDF allies or ISIS militants. In total these incidents could account for up to 15 additional deaths, excluding the casualty toll of a complex ISIS prison breakout that began on January 20th.

That incident was the largest reported US action during the year and came as ISIS militants led a daring raid at al-Sinaa prison, a detention facility where thousands of alleged former fighters were detained. CENTCOM provided aerial and ground-based support and carried out airstrikes throughout the ten days of battle. A year on, limited definitive information exists as to how many civilians and militants were killed by the different military forces and militants involved. The exact number of US strikes conducted also remains unclear – with the US-led Coalition referring only to a “series of strikes.” Airwars monitored a minimum of 13 strikes during ten days of fighting though this is likely an underestimate, with other monitoring organisations estimating the figure to be several dozen. A joint Airwars and VICE News investigation examined the failures that led up to the prison break.

In early February 2022, US Special Operations Forces conducted a raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, as well as his wife and children – with up to thirteen civilians killed, including six children and four women. Local reporting was conflicted as to whether the civilian casualties were caused by US forces or by Qurayshi detonating a suicide device.

Airwars also tracked an incident where a civilian was reportedly killed when he was run over by a vehicle allegedly belonging to the Coalition on November 14, 2022 in Deir Ezzor, Syria.

It is unclear whether the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), is still actively assessing civilian harm allegations. OIR last released a civilian casualty report in March 2022, which indicated that it still had 37 reports of civilian casualties still under review.

Somalia

US direct involvement in Somalia increased in 2022.

US troops were officially withdrawn from the country in January 2021; shortly before President Biden assumed power. Between then and May 2022, rotating groups of American special operations units provided training and assistance to Somali and African Union forces. The then head of AFRICOM – the US military command for Africa – General Stephen Townsend, complained this structure was “not effective.”

In May 2022, Biden approved a plan to deploy several hundred ground forces to the country.

On August 9th 2022, a new head of AFRICOM – General Michael Langley – was instated, while the new Somali administration has requested the US loosen its restrictions on drone strikes.

US strikes have since increased – in total AFRICOM declared 15 strikes in Somalia in 2022, up from 11 in 2021. Airwars tracked a further five strikes that local sources attributed to US forces but were not declared by AFRICOM.

Airwars Graph of US declared strikes in Somalia in 2022 by month

In the 15 declared strikes, AFRICOM claimed 107 alleged al-Shabaab militants were killed, while local reporting or statements by the Somali government put casualties significantly higher. To date it has released only two quarterly civilian casualty assessments which referenced strikes in 2022 (covering the period from January 1-June 30), but did not acknowledge any civilian harm was caused by its actions.

Airwars tracked two allegations of civilian harm in 2022 where local sources pointed to US forces’ involvement. One of these occurred on September 9, when up to ten civilians were reportedly killed in an airstrike south of the capital Mogadishu. The Somali government initially released a statement acknowledging the strike but other sources pointed out that the attack allegedly involved a drone – a capability Somali forces were not believed to have until their recent reported acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar drones. To date no belligerent has accepted responsibility.

Less than a month later, the US declared an airstrike on an al-Shabaab leader, Abudullahi Yare. Local sources alleged that Ibrahim Hassan Dahir was also killed – some referred to him as a civilian and a farmer, while others said that he was the son of a former extremist leader who is under house arrest.

Information gathered from areas under the control of the militant group al-Shabaab is notoriously limited, making determinations of civilian status in Somalia a significant challenge. Multiple sources have called into question the status of those that the US alleges are militants. In a recent report examining the impact of US airstrikes on Jubbaland, a part of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab, Dutch organisation Pax and journalist Amanda Sperber explained:

“The interviews for this report do raise serious questions about the ability of the US to consistently distinguish between armed men who are not involved with Al-Shabaab, armed pastoralist community members who are forced to work for Al-Shabaab and actual Al-Shabaab fighters. Al Shabaab is thoroughly ingrained in Jubbaland society, which complicates external observations about who is and is not Al Shabaab and can thus hamper proper application of the principle of distinction.”

Yemen

The US officially withdrew its support from the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen in 2021, in one of Biden’s major first foreign policy announcements. A ceasefire came into effect in the country in April 2022, which was later extended until October.

In 2022, CENTCOM did not declare any airstrikes or operations in Yemen. Airwars tracked two incidents allegedly conducted by US forces, in which civilians were killed and injured. The first was a February 6 drone strike that killed three al-Qaeda militants but also reportedly injured and killed civilians who were nearby – though the exact number was not reported by local sources.

The second alleged strike, on November 30, reportedly targeted the home of a member of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, causing secondary explosions which killed up to three civilians and injured up to five others.

Since 2017, Airwars has tracked a minimum of 78 deaths and 28 injuries to civilians resulting from US actions in Yemen. However, CENTCOM has only admitted to causing the deaths of 13 civilians, and injuring a further three. The CIA has carried out sporadic strikes throughout the period, but none of them have been officially recognised.

Yemeni organisations such as Mwatana for Human Rights continue to seek accountability from the Department of Defense, with questions around specific civilian casualty incidents unanswered or inadequately resolved. One victim of a 2018 drone strike, Adel al Manthari, resorted to a GoFundMe campaign in 2022 to pay for his insurance and medical bills.

Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan

When the US officially withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Biden said he retained the right to conduct ‘over the horizon’ strikes from nearby countries. The only acknowledged US airstrike in 2022 was the July drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul. This was allegedly conducted by the CIA and did not result in any allegations of civilian casualties.

Airwars does not monitor US involvement in Afghanistan, but UNAMA – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan– tracked civilian casualties in the country for years. Since the US withdrawal, UNAMA has stopped publishing regular updates.

There were no reports of US airstrikes in Libya or Pakistan during 2022.

Methodology note – counting US airstrikes

Iraq and Syria:

Until 2022, Airwars would review AFCENT reporting, press releases published by CJTF-OIR, and other official CENTCOM reports. No AFCENT reports were released in 2022, with only sporadic reporting from CENTCOM and CJTF-OIR throughout the year on strike reporting. To reach estimates of airstrikes in 2022, the following information methodology was applied – see table below for details:

    Where plurals of ‘strikes’ were referenced, Airwars chose a minimum estimate of two airstrikes. However, regarding the Al-Sinaa prison break in Syria, during which CJTF-OIR declared “a series of strikes,” Airwars monitoring of local sources recorded at least 13 incidents where alleged US-led Coalition strikes were reportedly conducted. These incidents allegedly occurred between January 21st and January 28th 2022. Other Syrian-focussed monitoring organisations had estimates of several dozen strikes. When references were only made in official reporting to ‘operations’, without explicit mention to strikes conducted, no strikes were counted. Airwars local monitoring indicates that operations mainly refer to ground actions.
Source Date Language used in official reporting Country Airwars’s estimated number of declared strikes*
CJTF-OIR Jan 4 2022 “four suspects captured” Syria 0
CJTF-OIR Jan 30 2022 “Coalition forces conducted (…) a series of strikes throughout the days-long operation” Syria 13
CJTF-OIR Jun 16 2022 “counterterrorism operation” Syria 0
CENTCOM Jun 27 2022 “CENTCOM Forces conducted a kinetic strike” Syria 1
CENTCOM Jul 12 2022 “U.S. Central Command Forces conducted a UAS strike” Syria 1
CENTCOM Aug 23 2022 “U.S. military forces conducted precision airstrikes” Syria 2
CENTCOM Aug 25 2022 “CENTCOM forces struck at Iran-affiliated militants in the area with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and M777 artillery” Syria 3
CENTCOM Dec 11 2022 “Helicopter raid” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 16 2022 “6 partnered operations” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 20 2022 “three helicopter raids” “partnered operations” Syria 0
CENTCOM Dec 29 2022 “CENTCOM conducted 313 total operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria” Syria/Iraq 0
Estimated Total Strikes 20

* according to US sources and Airwars Local Monitoring

Reporting from AFRICOM for Somalia was consistent with previous years; in 2022, exact numbers of airstrikes were released routinely throughout the year. In Yemen, CENTCOM press releases were used to monitor declared airstrikes – of which there were none in 2022 – while estimates from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Airwars monitoring were used to identify possible or alleged strikes for previous years. See our Yemen data page for a full breakdown.

In Afghanistan, Airwars formerly monitored AFCENT reporting – the only reported strike in 2022 was released by the State Department.

It should be noted that the term ‘airstrike’ is also not used consistently across different military forces, and between military commands – see our overview on this here.

For any questions or clarifications on our methodology, please contact info@airwars.org.

Correction issued to update Yemen airstrike data in July 2023 to note the sole inclusion of ‘declared’ strikes in the overall figures for 2020. See below the original sources and extracts Airwars used to assess these 2020 strikes as declared:

    Strike on January 2-3, 2020, though CENTCOM did not confirm the strike, several major news outlets including ABC News and the Washington Post printed comments from US officials who confirmed details of the attack. Strike on January 27, 2020, extract from a White House Statement: “At the direction of President Donald J. Trump, the United States conducted a counterterrorism operation in Yemen that successfully eliminated Qasim al-Rimi”, though not reported via CENTCOM. Strike on May 13, 2020, extract from a press release by the US Department of Justice: “The evidence derived from Alshamrani’s unlocked phones has already proven useful in protecting the American people. In particular, a counterterrorism operation targeting AQAP operative Abdullah al-Maliki, one of Alshamrani’s overseas associates, was recently conducted in Yemen”, though not reported via CENTCOM.
▲ President Joe Biden in the White House Situation Room (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Published

November 25, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Header Image

The signing ceremony for the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) on November 18th 2022 in Dublin Castle. Over 80 state delegations such as the UK (pictured) officially endorsed the declaration.

An overview of the actions needed

On Friday November 18th, states and civil society joined together in Dublin Castle to officially endorse the long-awaited international Political Declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). So far, 82 states have signed onto the declaration; this is a similar number to the initial signatories to other international declarations that have created new norms and standards in warfare, such as the Safe Schools Declaration. Among the signatories to the EWIPA declaration are states such as the US, UK, Netherlands, and Belgium, all of which made sizable contributions to the coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria that killed an estimated 8,194–13,249 civilians.

According to Action on Armed Violence, when EWIPAs are used, over 90% of those harmed are civilians. Airwars recently put together a series of maps showing the clear and troubling connection between population density in cities and civilian deaths during urban warfare. Even beyond those who are killed immediately, the reverberating effects are often severe and pervasive, with schools, hospitals, livelihoods, and basic resources like food and water becoming inaccessible for years. This has played out in recent conflicts in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa, in which entire city parts were destroyed and have been made uninhabitable.

The Irish-led, UN backed international declaration is a groundbreaking step towards curbing the use of such weapons. It comes at the back of a decade of civil society focus and pressure on this, led by the INEW network, which Airwars is a part of. As with any political declaration, the results are only as good as the implementation. Below, we outline some of the challenges states must address as they begin the process of implementing the EWIPA declaration.

States must be frank about gaps in their current approach

The first step in understanding how to implement the declaration to limit the use of EWIPAs must be for each state to critically examine current gaps in its own approach and engage in a meaningful process to address these. This in itself might be a stumbling block for some; while states such as the US and the Netherlands have shown increasing willingness to address gaps in their approach to the protection of civilians by working with civil society and experts, others have not.

The UK for instance, still falls behind allies in terms of transparency on evidence collection around civilian harm. Under the declaration, states committed to: “Collect, share, and make publicly available disaggregated data on the direct and indirect effects on civilians and civilian objects of military operations involving the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, where feasible and appropriate”. Despite the UK representative in Dublin noting during the signing ceremony that “the UK already has policies and procedures in place to support the implementation”, this has to date not been evident when it comes to public reporting on the effects of UK military actions.

As it stands, the UK maintains that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its actions in the seven year anti-ISIS campaign, for example, despite extensive military involvement. The US, by comparison, has admitted to over 1,400 civilian casualties as part of the Coalition.  When challenged, UK officials tend to emphasise that they are aware that is not a case of lower civilian casualties than in previous conflicts – but of poor evidence gathering. This position was summarised by former Armed Forces Minister, Mark Lancaster, who emphasised in 2019 that; “[I]t is not our position that there has been only a single civilian casualty as a result of our military action. What we are saying is that we have evidence of only a single, or what we believe to have been a single, civilian casualty.”

In spite of this oft-repeated recognition that the evidence gathering mechanisms of the UK are not able to accurately reflect the reality on the ground, there is, to our knowledge, no process in place to improve this approach and little willingness to engage with civil society to address this. If this is not addressed, there will be a significant gap between the rhetoric of UK leadership when it comes to EWIPA and the reality on the ground.

States must build clarity on who is responsible for implementing the EWIPA declaration on a national level

The second step states must take to implement the EWIPA declaration is to gain better internal understandings of who will be involved in its implementation. This must include those focusing specifically on EWIPA, but also those focusing on topics such as human security, the protection of civilians, humanitarian response, development, diplomacy, and all the other elements required to protect those caught in conflict from being harmed by explosive weapons.The structures behind overseas military engagements are complex, quick changing, and lines of responsibility are often murky. Yet it is only if all involved in such operations, across parliament, ministries of defence, and ministries of foreign affairs and overseas development, are dedicated to limiting the use of EWIPA, understanding their impact, and tracking civilian harm that occurs if they are used, that implementation will be effective.

States must be open to civil society inclusion in the implementation of the EWIPA declaration 

Civil society actors, many of us united under the INEW banner, played a significant role in the development of the EWIPA declaration and the advocacy that brought states to the process, a fact that was acknowledged by a large number of states at the conference in Dublin. We stand ready to support the implementation in national contexts and across international coalitions. Many civil society organisations have spent years – sometimes decades – developing protection mechanisms and civilian harm tracking mechanisms, as well as conducting research into valuable lessons on the impact of EWIPA. Civil society organisations are also often direct links to the communities affected. It is in all of our interests that these resources are effectively shared with those in power.

In those states where there is a history of poor transparency and accountability on civilian harm and civilian harm tracking, governments and their militaries must also commit to a certain level of transparency on the implementation of the EWIPA declaration. They should work with civil society actors to understand the gaps in their current approach and set up milestones for implementation.

Looking forward

The endorsing ceremony was a promising step towards recognising the immense harm that these weapons have caused in recent years – and the harm they will continue to cause as their impact reverberates through communities. If the declaration is implemented well, fewer civilians will be harmed by explosive weapons in their cities, towns, and camps.

Yet there are pitfalls each state must avoid if their implementation of the declaration is to be meaningful. They must be frank about current gaps in their system and must be willing to address them. They must gain an oversight of everyone who will play a role in the effective implementation of EWIPA. And they should work with civil society actors who have resources to share and stand ready to support implementation.

Additional resources:

    Implementation Brief: Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, CIVIC, November 2022 (here) Safeguarding Civilians: A Humanitarian Interpretation of the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas, Human Rights watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law school, October 2022 (here) Implementing the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Key Areas and Implementing Actions, INEW and Article 36, November 2022 (here) Over 80 Countries Committed to Curb Use of Explosive Weapons, Now Comes the Hard Part, Bonnie Docherty, Human Rights Watch for Just Security, November 23rd 2022 (here)
▲ The signing ceremony for the Political Declaration on the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas (EWIPA) on November 18th 2022 in Dublin Castle. Over 80 state delegations such as the UK (pictured) officially endorsed the declaration.

Published

August 26, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

New action plan contains positive steps - the focus now is on implementation and renewed efforts to ensure past cases are not forgotten.

Airwars joins our civil society partners in welcoming the publication of the much awaited Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP), released yesterday by the US Department of Defense.

The CHMR-AP reflects a years-long process of sustained pressure by individuals, civil society, journalists, activists and legislators to challenge the way the US military conducts itself in the battlefield, and force the Department of Defense to review practices that have had deadly outcomes for civilians across the globe – from the battles of Mosul and Raqqa in the war against ISIS, to the botched Kabul strike last year.

In response to this sustained pressure,  catalysed by a series of Pulitzer-winning New York Times articles exposing serious concerns with US military practices in January 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum calling for the creation of the CHMR-AP. Austin called for the CHMR-AP to set up a process for the establishment of a new centre of excellence, and a framework for standardising civilian harm reporting, investigation and mitigation.

The 46-page document is an unprecedented move toward transparency, and was put together following a series of key engagements with civil society actors and independent specialists. Presenting a far reaching future-looking agenda, it is applicable to the ‘full spectrum of conflict’ – from current operations, large and small, to any future situations of high-intensity conflict.

Covering 11 distinct objectives – ranging from actions to reduce confirmation bias to implementation of a new data management system; each with a proposed set of phased actions and associated resource plan, the CHMR-AP presents an ambitious set of actions that, if implemented appropriately, could present a radical departure from existing policy in some areas. It sets a strong precedent for future US military action – and, importantly, an example for allies to follow.

Read the DoD factsheet here and the full action plan here.

Why is the CHMR-AP so important?

While the action plan itself is focused on reviewing and reforming the US’ policies on civilian harm mitigation and tracking, it should also have significant implications for the partners that support the US in modern conflicts, such as the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, and others. As it stands, US allies have been shown to have limited oversight, transparency, or accountability for civilian harm from their own actions. The UK, for instance, admits to only a single civilian casualty from its 8 years of support to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, in which the UK has been second only to the US in the number of munitions dropped in some battlefields. Airwars’ estimates of civilians killed by this coalition could be well over 8,000.

Over the last few years, Airwars and our civil society partners have advocated with several of these states to review and improve national approaches and policies to civilian harm mitigation; yet, while some states have taken on such reviews, none have been as far-reaching or ambitious as the CHMR-AP.

Beyond these national processes to improve approaches to civilian harm mitigation, the CHMR-AP also comes out in the context of a new international agreement on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, due to be signed by the US and key allies in October this year. The CHMR-AP’s introduction of the term ‘civilian environment’ presents a broad understanding of civilian harm – with reference to the need to understand population density, urban systems and the ‘the interconnected relationships between the civilian population, natural resources, infrastructure, and essential services’. This is an important move towards acknowledging the long-term consequences of military action on civilians caught in conflict.

What does this mean for civilians harmed by the US in past actions?

Perhaps the biggest gap in the CHMR-AP is that it includes no reference to reviewing past cases of alleged civilian harm; including addressing the 37 cases that are still open pending assessment for civilian harm claims made against the US-led Coalition in the war against ISIS.

According to Airwars’ archive, the likely death toll resulting from the actions of the US-led Coalition’s actions in the war against ISIS alone could be at least 8,192 and as many as 13,247 civilians. The US has conceded causing overall at least 1,417 civilian fatalities – but has rejected 2,674 harm claims. These rejected cases could account for thousands of casualties.

Total estimates for the last twenty years of US actions reach as many as 48,308 civilian deaths – with over 90,000 declared strikes across seven major conflict zones throughout the so-called ‘forever wars’.

Key questions therefore remain unanswered: will the remaining open cases be reviewed? Will they be reviewed with this new policy in mind? How might the new policy change the outcome of those investigations? And if these open cases are reviewed in line with new policies – what does that mean for the cases that have previously been rejected as ‘non-credible’ under a system that has now been widely acknowledged to have been in need of reform?

Looking back at past cases has significant implications for commitments to amends processes – a section outlined as an objective in the CHMR-AP, although with no mention of how the new action plan would affect outstanding claims or clear detail on implementation of future processes.

What should we be looking out for now?

The implementation of the CHMR-AP will be key. While the action plan outlines a comprehensive set of actions and resource plans, it is yet to be determined the extent to which the policy will be implemented effectively and with continued consultation with independent voices. This is particularly important as US actions are on-going across the globe – Airwars has recorded an uptick in strikes in Somalia since Biden announced his decision to redeploy troops in May this year, while a new set of strikes were announced in Syria on Iran-backed militants just as the CHMR-AP was released.

Additionally, as noted by Human Rights Watch Washington Director Sarah Yager in a comment to CNN, the staffing and resources required must be arranged as soon as possible in order to ensure that “the principles and values behind doing this are deeply embedded in the Pentagon”, before any significant leadership change in the US administration, which could delay or even derail current plans for improvements.

Allies of the US should also take notice – and take action. Particularly with key sections of the CHMR-AP including reference to the application of the new action plan to multinational operations, US allies will have to review their own practices.

Several crucial points in the action plan are also still lacking clarity, and it will likely be some time before the full extent of the policy has been reviewed in its entirety by experts. Airwars is coordinating closely with our civil society partners in the US to ensure a comprehensive and thorough review of the proposed action plan, in order to ensure appropriate oversight and support from civil society as the action plan enters into the next phase of implementation.

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

Incident date

July 22, 2022

Incident Code

LC434

LOCATION

زاوية الدهماني, Zawiyat Al Dahmani, Tarabulus, Libya

Civil casualties resulted from unknown shelling of the radio building in Zawiya al-Dahmani on July 22, 2022. @AnisAbdaljawad reported that shells fell next to the radio station, Zawiya al-Dahmani. @taqarifatnews quoted the spokesman for the Emergency and Ambulance Service, Osama Ali, who stated that the shelling next to the radio building caused casualties. No other additional

Summary

First published
July 22, 2022
Last updated
October 21, 2022
Strike status
Likely strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
2
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Weak
Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.
Suspected belligerent
Unknown
Geolocation
Neighbourhood/area
View Incident

Incident date

July 22, 2022

Incident Code

LC433

LOCATION

السبعة, Al Sab’a, Tarabulus, Libya

One civilian was injured by unknown shrapnel in Al Sab’a next to the Al-Qadi market on July 22, 2022 @tkyroogklshytk and @Bbttmm010100 tweeted that an African worker was injured by shrapnel in their foot in Al Sab’a next to the Al-Qadi market. A tweet from @tkyroogklshytk reported that a shell fell on the house of

Summary

First published
July 22, 2022
Last updated
October 20, 2022
Strike status
Likely strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
1
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Weak
Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.
Suspected belligerent
Unknown
Geolocation
Nearby landmark
View Incident

Incident date

July 22, 2022

Incident Code

LC432

LOCATION

قرب مصحة سيول, near Seoul Clinic, Tarabulus, Libya

An unknown shell injured a woman inside her car in the June 11 area on July 22, 2022. Two sources, @tkyroogklshytk and @taqarifatnews, reported that a shell fell on a car near the Seoul Clinic in the June 11 area, injuring a woman who was inside the car. No other information is available to Airwars at

Summary

First published
July 22, 2022
Last updated
October 20, 2022
Strike status
Single source claim
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
1
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Weak
Single source claim, though sometimes featuring significant information.
Suspected belligerent
Unknown
Geolocation
Nearby landmark
View Incident

Incident date

July 22, 2022

Incident Code

LC431

LOCATION

مشروع الموز, Mashrou’ Al Muz, Tarabulus, Libya

Local sources reported that a woman and her two children were killed and the father was injured in shelling during clashes in Mashrou’ Al Muz in Tripoli on July 22, 2022. One source asserted that this news was not true. @tkyroogklshytk tweeted that a family near Mashrou’ Al Muz was killed due to shelling of

Summary

First published
July 22, 2022
Last updated
October 20, 2022
Strike status
Contested strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
0 – 3
(0–2 children0–1 women)
Civilians reported injured
0–1
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Contested
Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
Named victims
4 named, 1 familiy identified
Geolocation
Neighbourhood/area
View Incident

Incident date

July 22, 2022

Incident Code

LC430

LOCATION

شارع المطبات طريق المشتل, Al Matabat street in Al Mashtal road, Tarabulus, Libya

One civilian, a young man, was killed and four to five other men were injured in shelling carried out by “presidential agencies” on Al Matabat street in Tripoli on July 22, 2022. According to @tkyroogklshytk, a shell fell on Al-Matabat Street behind the Qadour Clinic near a group of young men sitting on the street,

Summary

First published
July 22, 2022
Last updated
October 25, 2022
Strike status
Likely strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
1
(1 man)
Civilians reported injured
4–5
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Fair
Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
Suspected belligerent
GNA/Turkish Military
Named victims
5 named, 1 familiy identified
Geolocation
Street
View Incident

Incident date

May 25, 2022

Incident Code

LC429

LOCATION

أبو سليم, Abo Salim, Tarabulus, Libya

A mortar shell injured at least two civilians when it hit Omdurman, the Abu Salim area of Tripoli, Libya on May 25th 2022, according to local sources. According to @KhaledDernah3, the injuries were of the “city team player”, Anwar Makhlouf, and his friend, Fathi Baira, who had minor injuries. Both were transferred to Al-Khadra Hospital

Summary

First published
May 25, 2022
Last updated
October 25, 2022
Strike status
Likely strike
Strike type
Artillery
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
Unknown
Civilians reported injured
2
Cause of injury / death
Heavy weapons and explosive munitions
Airwars civilian harm grading
Fair
Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
Suspected belligerent
Unknown
Named victims
2 named
Geolocation
Neighbourhood/area
View Incident

Incident date

May 14, 2022

Incident Code

LC428

LOCATION

جنزور, Jamila Triangle, Janzour, Tarabulus, Libya

Clashes at dawn on May 14th 2022 in the Jamila Triangle in the Janzour area, reported to be in the vicinity of the West Tripoli Electricity Station were reported to have caused civilian casualties, but reports differ in the number. However, according to another local source, the Municipal Council of Janzour did not mention any

Summary

First published
May 15, 2022
Last updated
October 25, 2022
Strike status
Contested strike
Strike type
Ground operation
Civilian harm reported
Yes
Civilians reported killed
0 – 5
Civilians reported injured
2–5
Cause of injury / death
Small arms and light weapons
Airwars civilian harm grading
Contested
Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
Suspected belligerent
Libyan rebel forces
Named victims
1 named, 1 familiy identified
Geolocation
Neighbourhood/area
View Incident

Published

May 10, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper

Number of civilians killed decreases across monitored conflicts, while focus on explosive weapons use grows

Civilian harm dropped across most of the major conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa in 2021, Airwars’ annual report has found.

The number of allegations of civilians killed by nearly all belligerents monitored by Airwars fell in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, though there was an escalation in the Israel-Palestinian conflict which caused significant human suffering.

Read Airwars’ full annual report here

US actions decline

The United States, which has fought multiple campaigns across the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia over the past two decades, saw a significant decrease in its activities.

Across all the US campaigns Airwars monitors, including in Syria and Iraq, as well as counterterrorism campaigns in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, civilian harm from US actions fell in 2021, continuing a downward trend in recent years.

In Iraq there were no reports of civilian harm from US actions, while in Syria at least 15 and up to 27 civilians were likely killed by US-led Coalition actions in 20 incidents throughout the year – mostly in combined air and ground actions that appeared to target alleged remnant ISIS fighters.

In Yemen at least two civilians were reportedly killed by US strikes during the year while there were no reliable local allegations of civilians likely killed by US strikes in Libya or Pakistan, according to Airwars’ assessment of local sources.

Even taking into account hundreds of airstrikes in Afghanistan which both the Trump and Biden administrations had initially kept secret, 2021 saw the lowest numbers of declared US military strikes globally since 2006.

However, 2021 was also a year in which focus was again placed on civilian harm caused by historic US actions.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, Airwars conducted an investigation to estimate how many civilians were likely killed by US forces alone in the subsequent 20 years of the so-called War on Terror. The research concluded that an estimated 22,000 to 48,000 civilians had been killed directly by US actions in two decades of war according to public records –  the vast majority of fatalities were in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  The findings were cited in the opening remarks of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing “’Targeted Killing’ and the Rule of Law: The Legal and Human Costs of 20 Years of U.S. Drone Strikes,” and were covered by more than 60 news outlets globally, in at least ten languages.

The Pentagon’s troubling management of civilian harm allegations was highlighted by another Airwars investigation during 2021, leading the Pentagon to withdraw and republish their own annual report to Congress. Airwars uncovered nine historic incidents in Iraq and Syria that the US had declared responsibility for killing civilians in, which were actually conducted by US allies including Australia, France, the United Kingdom and Belgium.

Brief but brutal Gaza conflict

In May 2021 an intense and deadly conflict lasting just eleven days erupted between Israeli and Palestinian forces. As on previous occasions, civilians paid the highest price. Airwars documented the human impact of this short but brutal conflict in both Gaza and Israel, working for the first time in three primary languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English.

The research found that Israeli strikes, continually impacting across the densely populated streets of Gaza, led to the likely deaths of between 151 and 192 civilians. Over a third of civilians killed in Gaza were children and in more than 70% of the allegations documented by Airwars, civilians – not militants – were the only documented victims. In Israel, ten civilians were directly killed by rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza.

The report also documented civilian harm from Israeli strikes in Syria, which across eight years had led to the deaths of between 14 and 40 civilians. Comparatively this civilian harm estimate stands in stark contrast to the numbers of those killed in just eleven days. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, whilst Israeli strikes in Syria were conducted on military targets mostly in sparsely populated areas.

Airwars’ Senior Investigator Joe Dyke partnered with the Guardian on a piece interviewing the residents of a tower destroyed by Israel Defence Forces during the May 2021 conflict. Al-Jalaa Tower was home to dozens of civilians and a number of offices, including those of Associated Press and Al-Jazeera. All were given an hour’s notice to evacuate the tower and scramble together their possessions before seeing their homes destroyed in front of them. The investigation recently won an Amnesty Media Award.

Russian assault in Syria

Long before Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February 2022, Airwars had been tracking civilian harm caused by extensive Russian actions in Syria.

Whilst allegations of civilian harm fell to their lowest rate this year since 2015, after a 2020 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey continued to hold, Putin’s forces continued to strike Idlib and other rebel-held areas of Syria with air and artillery strikes.

Approximately 48% of civilian harm allegations against Russia during 2021 occurred in Idlib, whilst 2% occurred in Hama, and 23% in Aleppo governorate. In total as many as 280 civilians were killed by Russian and/or Syrian regime air and artillery strikes.

This significant but comparatively lower civilian casualty count came alongside Russia’s escalation of military operations in preparation for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which has subsequently led to mass civilian harm.

Explosive weapons

An overarching theme throughout Airwars’ work during the year, and a key focus for our advocacy outreach, was on restricting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Whether in Syria, Iraq, Gaza or any of the other conflicts Airwars monitors, when explosive weapons are used in densely populated areas, the potential for civilian harm dramatically increases.

Throughout 2021, Airwars worked with international partners to support a strongly worded UN-backed international political declaration against the use of EWIPA. The final UN-backed conference debating this declaration will be held in summer 2022, with Airwars playing a key role advocating for change.

▲ An airstrike in Gaza is the front cover image for Airwars' 2021 annual report (Credit: Hani al Shaer)

Published

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. pic.twitter.com/pTKpgfqWWU

— HI_Advocacy (@HI_Advocacy) April 8, 2022

Civil society groups and international agencies made a strong case for restricting EWIPA.

Three days of consultations

During three days of focused talks, several key fissures bubbled. While states in attendance – and civil society organisations – repeatedly emphasised the shared desire to produce a tangible and meaningful political declaration that could help save civilian lives on the ground, the practicalities of the process made clear that good intentions weren’t going to be enough.

On the first day of the informal consultations on April 6th, states made general remarks – affirming their support for the proceedings as well as their national positions – after an introductory statement from Ireland, the penholder.

In these general remarks, most states tended towards re-affirming the positions they had made clear in previous negotiations. On the hawkish side, the UK, US, Israel and Canada all emphasized that their positions as militarily active states meant that they would not sign a declaration in its current form, which included strong language about avoiding the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. Throughout the week, the delegates from these countries could often be seen meeting as a bloc outside of formal proceedings.

Many of the sticking points that emerged on the first day continued to dominate both the main floor and side conversations. The predominant line of argument was between those who argued that the declaration needed only to reaffirm the importance of international humanitarian law and provide further guidance about how to do so in this context; and those who asserted that this declaration needed to strengthen existing commitments and add new ones for states around the use of explosive weapons.

The second day of discussions took a more technical turn, with the majority of interventions focused on the wording of specific clauses and paragraphs of the text.

Clause 3.3, which attracted much attention in previous consultations, was once  again hotly debated. It is one of the first clauses in Section B, the operative section – which lays out the actions that states have to comply with if they choose to sign onto the declaration.

In the current draft, Clause 3.3 says states must: “Ensure that our armed forces adopt and implement a range of policies and practices to avoid civilian harm, including by restricting or refraining from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, when the effects may be expected to extend beyond a military objective.”

The bulk of the discussion around this clause was on the second sentence, as many states intervened on the use of “restricting or refraining,” with some suggesting it was strong enough while others lobbied instead for the use of “avoid”.

A split between the majority of civil society organisations and militarily-powerful states was apparent during these parts of the discussions, with NGOs and international agencies pushing for stronger language, rather than trying to place limits on what kinds of civilian harm would be protected under this new declaration.

Airwars’ incoming director and current head of research Emily Tripp also made an intervention – emphasising how crucial it was for states to actually track civilian harm.

Airwars’ incoming director Emily Tripp addresses a UN-backed conference on explosive weapons in Geneva on April 7th, 2022 (Image: Airwars)

At the end of day two INEW, one of the organisers, named nine states – Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Israel, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States – that it said had “worked to weaken declaration provisions.” The UK delegation, for example, agreed that tracking civilian harm was a ‘moral obligation,’ but then highlighted ways in which it claimed this was not feasible – arguing that live hostilities made it near impossible to monitor casualties properly.

But INEW also said that there had been a “shift in the collective tone set by states since the last round of negotiations, with more governments explicitly committed to strengthening the protection of civilians through the declaration.”

The statement said this was likely as a response to the bombing of Ukrainian towns and cities, and the Ukraine crisis loomed large over the conflict. Not only did the majority of states open their remarks with condemnation of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, many also emphasised the importance of a meaningful political declaration with specific reference to Ukrainian cities and towns such as Mariupol, Bucha and Khrarkiv.

There was also an emphasis on the value of protecting civilian objects and infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, with states such as Mexico and the delegate for the Holy See (which holds observer state) urging specific language around the need to protect hospitals, blood transfusion centres, and environmental and religious sites.

Speaking at the end of the latest talks, Ambassador Gaffey said Ireland and organisers would review the submissions from all parties before a month or two of further work on the text. He said states and NGOs would then hold a final one-day consultation in a couple of months, before a political adoption ceremony where states would declare their support for the text.

As Alma Taslidžan Al-Osta, of Humanity and Inclusion, noted in her own concluding remarks to delegates: “Eleven years in Syria, seven years in Yemen and over a month in Ukraine have taught us that explosive weapons with wide area effects should not be used in towns, cities and populated areas. The status quo is no longer an option.”

Civilians increasingly bear the brunt of modern conflicts. Addressing the devastating harm to civilians from Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas is a priority for 🇮🇪. We welcome states, international organisations and civil society to consultations in Geneva this week #EWIPA pic.twitter.com/pAyglwZO9D

— Disarmament IRELAND (@DisarmamentIRL) April 6, 2022

Ireland chaired Geneva talks on restricting urban use of explosive weapons

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

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 (@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)