News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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 MP (@StewartMcDonald) April 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

April 5, 2022

Written by

Sanjana Varghese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) March 30, 2022

US, UK, France in focus

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

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

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

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

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

— Airwars (@airwars) March 17, 2022

Detailed negotiations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— CIVIC (@CivCenter) April 1, 2022

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

Published

March 31, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Dmytro Chupryna (@ChuprynaDmytro) March 25, 2022

▲ Emily Tripp will be Airwars' new Director

Published

January 12, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Minor: stepping down due to ill health

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

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

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

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

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

New Board member announced

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

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

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

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

Aditi Gupta has now joined the Airwars Board

Update on Director recruitment

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

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

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

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

Published

December 10, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Edward Millett

Airwars has found that 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of Israel’s bombing of Gaza than in the entirety of its 8-year campaign in Syria

This article was originally published by Newlines on December 9th 2021 and written by Airwars’ Investigations Team.

 

On Jan. 13, 2021, the Israeli military launched some of its most intensive strikes to date in Syria. Over several hours, perhaps two dozen sites of Iranian-linked armed groups were hit over a vast territory in the Deir ez-Zor region near the Iraqi border. At least 57 militants were reportedly killed. Local communities did not report a single civilian casualty.

Four months later, the might of the Israeli military targeted a very different location.

On the night of May 15, a series of airstrikes hit the Al-Rimal neighborhood of central Gaza City. At least 44 civilians reportedly died. Multiple families were nearly wiped out after taking shelter in a neighborhood previously thought to be safe. Some Hamas militants may also have been killed in underground tunnels, the announced target of the strikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), though this remains unclear.

The death tolls on those nights were not an anomaly — they form part of a clear trend. The Israeli military has fought two largely aerial campaigns in recent years. One is a yearslong campaign to prevent the Iranian military and its allies from entrenchment in Syria, the other a brief but fierce war with Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza in May. The effect on civilians could hardly be more stark.

New research by Airwars has found that up to 10 times more civilians were killed in 11 days of bombing in Gaza than in the entirety of Israel’s eight-year campaign in Syria.

In Syria, several hundred secretive Israeli strikes since 2013 have likely killed as many as 40 civilians. Rough tallies suggest hundreds — and likely thousands — of Iranian and Syrian military personnel and militants of other nations were killed in these strikes. Civilian casualties from the Israeli campaign appear to be dramatically lower than those resulting from other foreign powers operating in Syria — including Russia, Turkey and the U.S.-led coalition.

In Gaza the civilian-militant ratio is reversed. Between May 10 and 21, from 151 to 192 civilians were likely killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to a comprehensive review of local community reporting by Airwars. While this research didn’t estimate the number of militants killed, Israeli rights group B’Tselem put it at 90.

The Israeli actions in Gaza and Syria are usually thought of separately — with comparisons between the two rare. But how did a military that runs such a careful campaign in one theater end up killing so many civilians in just a few days in another? Our research pointed to three main reasons for the discrepancies.

The first is the type of targets chosen by the IDF in the two contexts. Israel’s targeting system bears many similarities to that of its closest ally, the United States. In fact, Israeli military lawyers pioneered the legal justifications for the targeted assassinations that later became a hallmark of the war on terror.

Until 2000, Israel legally considered Palestinian opposition a matter of law enforcement, said Daniel Reisner, then head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department. But following the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada, the Israeli military effectively invented a “hybrid” model to apply the laws of armed conflict — normally meant to apply only between states at war — to the West Bank and Gaza.

Craig Jones, a lecturer at Newcastle University and author of a recent book on Israeli and U.S. military lawyers, said by expanding the concept of “direct participation in hostilities,” Israel effectively invented a new category of potential target between civilian and combatant — allowing it to justify a widespread campaign of targeted assassinations.

“Essentially, once a Palestinian ‘participates’ by the broad Israeli standards, he or she cannot put down arms and remains targetable even when resting at home,” Jones said.

Reisner recalled that U.S. officials initially criticized the policy but after 9/11 “started calling for advice.” Later U.S. official justifications for drone strikes included lines lifted almost directly from Israeli policy, he said.

This legal justification allowed for more freedom in targeting Palestinian militants in their homes. While potential civilian harm still needed to be considered and precautions taken, it was accepted by the Israeli system that hitting a militant at home was potentially justified.

When the Gaza conflict started on May 10, the IDF would have had dozens of targets that had been preapproved — meaning they had already been through legal and military review.

“The IDF would have taken out of its drawers plans that were pre-prepared and reviewed legally,” said Liron Libman, former head of the International Law Department at the IDF. “But then every plan is just the basis for an order. To turn it into an operational order, you still need to assess the information again.”

It seems likely that many of those preapproved targets were the homes of militants.

Airwars tracked 17 locally reported incidents in which militants were explicitly targeted in residential buildings and civilians were killed or injured. Most took place in the first four days of the conflict, suggesting that they were in a preapproved target bank.

 

Airwars mapping of all civilian harm and strike locations (in light green according to UN data), mapped onto population density in the Strip

 

In those 17 incidents, local reports found that from nine to 11 militants were killed but also from 27 to 33 civilians, with more than 100 injured.

In one incident on May 13, four civilians were killed and 15 more, including seven children, were injured. The target was a three-story house in the Al Jeniya neighborhood, where four families lived. One of the dead, Raed Ibrahim al-Rantisi, was identified by the al-Qassam Brigades as one of their fighters. The family had gathered for Eid dinner.

In Syria, such incidents are rare, though not unheard of — such as when a Palestinian official and his family were killed in a strike in central Damascus in November 2019. But in general, strikes in Syria seem to target militants at exclusively military targets such as weapons warehouses close to land borders. Some of the civilian harm associated with Israeli strikes may even have been a result of Syrian air defense missiles missing their targets and hitting civilian homes.

The IDF’s practice of striking homes in Gaza also contributed to the high percentage of children killed, with more than one-third of all civilians killed there reported to be children. In Syria the figure is around 10%.

Likewise, when Israeli forces killed a civilian in Syria, more than 70% of the time they also harmed a militant, whereas in Gaza that ratio was in the 30% range.

“In Syria we bomb military targets, while in Gaza we strike civilian areas, so we end up bombing families,” said Yehuda Shaul, of the Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence, which is made up of former IDF military personnel.

Population density

A second key factor that helps explain these very different outcomes for civilians in Syria and Gaza is population density. Gaza is among the most heavily populated territories in the world, which dramatically increases the likelihood of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure for every strike carried out.

We mapped every reported civilian harm incident in Gaza and every recorded strike location tracked by the United Nations, against population density.

Even within Gaza, civilian casualty incidents were clustered around areas of relatively high population density, such as in Gaza City to the north.

“Unlike in past wars, in May the Israeli military started its bombardment by hitting heavily populated areas and high-rise buildings,” said Yamen Al Madhoun, fieldwork director at the Gaza-based Palestinian rights organization Al Mezan. “Normally, people flee the perimeter areas where Israeli troops are stationed [and go] to schools and relatives’ homes in cities. But if civilian areas are the primary target, where can people go?”

Population density may also have provided some victims with a false sense of security. On May 12, airstrikes on the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood apparently targeting Hamas’ military wing destroyed two residential buildings. Reema Saad, who was four months pregnant, was killed alongside her two children and husband. The family had decided to stay in their apartment because they believed the densely populated neighborhood would be immune from strikes, Reema’s mother Samia told Middle East Eye.

Samir Zaqout, Al Mezan’s deputy director, said civilians had no idea how best to stay safe. “Fear, panic and confusion spread among the population. There were no taxis or transportation, so people were carrying their possessions and sometimes other family members while fleeing on foot.”

The Israeli military frequently notes that Hamas has placed military infrastructure in civilian neighborhoods in Gaza City, pointing to alleged tunnel networks as violations of the laws of war. Israeli officials also argue many of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza came from heavily populated neighborhoods.

But critics point out that hitting such neighborhoods overwhelmingly leads to civilian harm.

“Israeli authorities have shown an utter disregard for civilian life,” Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch said. “They have a quite loose definition of what is a ‘military target,’ and they have consistently bombed in heavily populated neighborhoods without considering the civilian ramifications.”

“The rules and principles found in customary international humanitarian law to protect civilians should be followed,” Zaqout said. “Israel’s high-level military technology enables its forces to do so — to ensure the lawfulness of a target prior to attack. If circumstances are unclear, the Israeli military should presume people and objects normally dedicated to civilian purposes to be civilian.”

Even in Syria, the trend is noticeable. While the scale of civilian harm from IDF strikes is far lower than in Gaza, it is still overwhelmingly located in heavily populated areas, particularly the capital of Damascus — where around 45% of the estimated civilian harm occurred. In rural Deir ez-Zor Israel has carried out extensive strikes for more than five years, killing hundreds of militants and Iranian and Syrian military personnel along the way, without a single credible local allegation of civilian harm.

By contrast, both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian forces have caused often devastating numbers of civilian casualties during their own campaigns in Syria — primarily driven by extensive strikes on urban centers.

Such concerns chime with widespread calls for limits on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A U.N.-backed campaign now involving more than 120 nations — to forge a political statement that could help limit explosive weapons use in urban areas — is being led by Ireland, though so far no major military powers have fully thrown their weight behind it.

Rules of Engagement

A third possible factor helping explain why outcomes for civilians differ so radically between Israeli campaigns is one that is harder to prove — that the Israeli military has different, and more expansive, rules of engagement (RoE) for strikes in Gaza compared with Syria. Such RoEs govern when militaries are allowed to use force and, in the event that a strike is likely to kill civilians, determine how many casualties are deemed “acceptable.”

There are no internationally agreed-upon rules of how many civilians can be killed in a strike — international law requires only that it be “proportional” to the military advantage gained. At one point during the presidency of Barack Obama, U.S. generals in Iraq were allowed to carry out strikes they expected might kill up to 10 civilians, whereas the same figure in Afghanistan was at times set at just one, given the political sensitivities of civilian harm.

Multiple sources said the Israeli military does not internally quantify these “acceptable” tolls quite so explicitly, preferring instead to be “very context specific,” as Libman, now research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said. The country has never released its RoEs for Syria or Gaza, and it is unlikely to do so.

A recent study found that Israeli military officers in general were significantly more conservative in their view of acceptable levels of civilian harm in discussions on proportionality as compared with their U.S. counterparts. The study, by universities in Israel, the U.S. and the U.K., found that in an imagined case of targeting an enemy headquarters, the median number of civilian deaths that U.S. officers were willing to tolerate in order to achieve military gains was 175, while Israeli officers were willing to accept 30 such casualties.

The IDF also likes to highlight its policy of warning civilians in Gaza before some airstrikes, a practice not widely adopted by other military actors. Yet these are the exception rather than the rule — in the 136 civilian harm incidents Airwars researchers tracked, the vast majority of targets had reportedly received no warnings.

According to Breaking the Silence, when there is imminent threat to populations, Israeli militaries are willing to carry out strikes that threaten civilian lives. “When there is even the slightest threat to Israeli lives, concern for Palestinian civilians all but goes out the window,” Shaul said.

Reisner didn’t dispute that the calculations were different in Gaza. “If I see an enemy about to fire a rocket at an Israeli city, the proportionality calculation would be different than if I saw the same individual at home knowing he is planning an attack in three days,” he said.

“I can legitimately kill many more civilians — it is a horrible sentence, but [it is the reality].”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad also posed a far more imminent threat than Iranian groups in Syria, said Amos Guiora, a professor at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and another former senior Israeli military lawyer. “With the Iranians you can afford to wait for the right time,” he said.

Politics may also play into it. Guiora said that the potential for a political fallout from a strike in Syria could also encourage caution. Israel has long had de facto control over the Palestinian territories but open involvement in Syria could risk a backlash at a time when Israel has secured landmark deals with Arab states including the United Arab Emirates.

“An unacceptable number of civilian deaths opens the door to blowback and bounce back, in the court of international opinion,” he said.

“Maybe from a geopolitical perspective, extra caution is necessary in Syria.”

▲ Airwars' homepage comparing Israeli strikes in Syria and Gaza