US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

Civilians in the ruins of Mosul city. (Maranie R. Staab)

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Published

September 20, 2022

Written by

Imogen Piper, Joe Dyke and Sanjana Varghese

Assisted by

Julia Nueno

New Airwars/VICE documentary digs deep into January raid in Syria

An Islamic State (ISIS) prison break in northern Syria which left hundreds dead came after years of systemic failures and ignored warnings, a VICE News documentary in partnership with Airwars has found.

Mistakes made by both the United States and its Syrian partner the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) meant the Al-Sinaa prison in Hasakeh was drastically unprepared for an assault, the documentary, which aired on Showtime on September 18th, found.

The detention centre housed around 4,000 alleged ISIS members, including some of its most battle-hardened militants. It had long been identified as a prime target for ISIS attack.

On January 20th 2022, the group launched its most daring offensive in three years, with attackers storming the prison while detainees rioted. In total more than 500 people were killed, including 121 SDF-employed guards and prison staff, as well as hundreds of prisoners. The exact number of those killed who were civilians remains unclear, but around 40,000 civilians fled their homes from surrounding areas.

While many of the detainees are from Syria and Iraq, others originate from the UK, France and other countries. None of the prisoners had been convicted, with no formal courts set up to deal with the fate of ISIS members in Syria. Many are awaiting repatriation to their home countries to face justice.

Despite protests of human rights groups and non governmental organisations, around 700 teenage boys under the age of 18 were also detained in one prison block. Around 100 juvenile detainees went missing in the assault, according to UN experts.

The full documentary can be viewed here.

Images posted online showed ISIS prisoners during the escape attempt

The Airwars process

In the days during and after the January assault, the Airwars Investigations Unit sought to fully understand the event. Building on our long track record of award-winning open-source research, the team:

    Gathered and archived all available open source material, including images, videos and testimonies from Telegram, Twitter and other social media. Conducted dozens of interviews with those familiar with the prison. Constructed a 3-D model of the prison and the surrounding areas. Created a visual timeline of the events of January 20 and the days after. Examined years of reports into assistance given by the US and other members of the global coalition to fight ISIS to the Syrian Democratic Forces – which runs the prison.

Partnering with VICE News, whose investigators visited the prison and the surrounding areas, we used this forensic analysis to understand the causes and impact of the prison break, as well as what it means for the resurgence of ISIS as a terrorist organisation.

A screengrab of Airwars’ 3D model of the Al-Sinaa Prison in northern Syria.

Breakout more than a raid?

After the fall of the ISIS caliphate in 2019, tens of thousands of fighters, members and alleged supporters were sent to detention centres in north-east Syria.

Most women and children were sent to the vast al-Hol and al-Raj camps. The SDF run the detention facilities, supported by the US and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition.

The most serious ISIS members – those alleged to have fought with the group – were sent to Al-Sinaa.

The prison itself was in fact a former school building and was quickly deemed to be unsuitable and unsafe for housing large numbers of prisoners.

Multiple reports sent to the US Congress by the US-led military coalition to fight ISIS – known as Operation Inherent Resolve – also warned that prison riots and attempted breakouts were a regular occurrence. In some cases prisoners were even reported to have dug under walls and ripped doors off their hinges. One report, published in 2020, even warned that “the risk of a mass breakout cannot be discounted.”

Despite the warnings, conditions in the prison were left to deteriorate.

Since 2019, the US has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to equip and train SDF forces, but multiple requests for funding to fortify the prison went unanswered, SDF officials told VICE. Prisoners were held as many as 100 per cell, with tuberculosis becoming endemic. The United Nations and Human Rights Watch warned the prison was a breeding ground for extremism.

James Jeffrey, former US special representative for Syria under President Donald Trump, denied to VICE that the prison was ignored, but admitted fortifying it was just one of many competing priorities.

On January 20th ISIS fighters attacked the prison from multiple directions, creating diversions and driving an improvised explosive device (IED) into the main gate. In the ensuing chaos, hundreds of prisoners rioted and escaped their cells, some armed with weapons. Such was the state of internal security that some prisoners were able to smash through the thin cell walls, footage seen by Airwars shows.

Many ran into the surrounding neighbourhoods, which were densely populated, with fighting continuing until January 30.

Still of Airwars video tracking images of suicide vests

While the SDF continues to maintain that there were hundreds of attackers from outside the prison, Airwars analysed images released at the time (such as of the suicide vests used by attackers) and reviewed reports of explosions in the surrounding areas after the attack. In total the evidence suggests the number of attackers was likely only a few dozen.

The documentary is the first part of our investigative series into the prison break, with additional findings to be released in the coming months.

The full documentary can be seen here (US only).

▲ A screengrab of Airwars' 3D model of the Al-Sinaa Prison in northern Syria.

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.)

Published

July 8, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars joins partners in publishing guidance to the US Department of Defense (DoD), ahead of its own civilian harm review

Recommendations published today urge the Department of Defense to revise its assessment and investigation processes, including through practical steps such as routinely engaging with civil society to ensure that civilian harm policies are informed by civilians affected by US and partnered actions, and casualties are recorded and tracked through transparent processes that are fit for purpose.

Airwars joined Amnesty International USA, CARE, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Human Rights Watch, Humanity & Inclusion, InterAction, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam America, and PAX in preparing and publishing the recommendations.

Read the full list of recommendations here.

To date, serious concerns with US civilian harm policies undermine effective routes to accountability for affected populations. These concerns have been raised by civil society and in recent Pulitzer-prize winning investigations in the New York Times.

While the US reform process is intended to be forward-looking, significant questions still remain about civilians harmed in US and partnered operations over the past two decades – not least in the war against the Islamic State. Overall, the US-led Coalition has conceded killing at least 1,437 civilians in the war against ISIS – while Airwars believes the likely tally could be significantly higher; with between 8,192 and 13,243 civilian deaths recorded in the Airwars archive.

▲ President Joe Biden holds a meeting with military and civilian defense leadership, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, April 2022 (Image via DoD)

Published

May 27, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

On the final day of Protection of Civilians Week, eleven civil society organisations request to meet the UK Secretary of State for Defence to discuss improvements on the way the UK mitigates, accounts and investigates instances of civilian harm.

As the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians report welcomes steps by the United States to develop new civilian harm mitigation and tracking mechanisms, a coalition of civil society organisations specialised in the subject call on the United Kingdom to follow suit.

After devastating revelations published in The New York Times late last year revealed critical failures by the US-led Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) in the prevention of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria, the Biden administration has launched a review to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence’.

These revelations add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years.

Developments in the US have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm, as the UK played an important role in CJTF-OIR. The UK must now engage with civil society on these issues and implement urgent reforms.

The use of explosive weapons, with wide area effects, in urban areas continues to be a cause of immense human suffering – with nine out of ten casualties being civilians.

“We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues” – Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), Airwars, Amnesty International UK, Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Crisis Action, Every Casualty Counts, Iraq Body Count, Reprieve, Save the Children, and War Child call for Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace MP to act urgently.

Read our full letter here and below:

Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace Secretary of State for Defence Ministry of Defence Whitehall SW1A 1HB

27th May 2022

Dear Secretary of State,

RE: Protection of Civilians Week – time to address UK policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and oversight 

On the occasion of UN Protection of Civilians Week, the undersigned civil society organisations are writing to you to develop a constructive dialogue and request a meeting with you to discuss the UK’s policy on civilian harm mitigation, transparency and oversight. As some of our closest allies have begun to reform their approach to civilian harm in military operations, we believe there is an urgent need for the UK to learn from developing practice on this issue.

Revelations published in the New York Times in 2021 about critical failures by Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to prevent, respond to, and be held accountable for civilian harm caused in Iraq and Syria add to the strong evidence base of civilian harm from CJTF-OIR operations built up by researchers, humanitarian agencies, and international organisations over the years. This public disquiet partly spurred, as you will know, the US Secretary of State of Defense to direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to improve policies on data collection, reporting and acknowledgement of civilian harm, improvements which aim to overhaul processes and create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMRAP), as well as a civilian protection ‘center of excellence.’

Given the important role of UK forces in combined operations as part of CJTF-OIR, these developments clearly have substantial implications for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm.

All states participating in CJTF-OIR, including the US and UK, should ensure that all instances of reported civilian harm are investigated and accounted for. We urge for constructive dialogue around the hundreds of civilian-harm claims from local communities that indicate that large-scale civilian harm occurred as a direct result of CJTF-OIR operations.

We believe that the UK for its part has an opportunity to be a global leader on civilian protection issues. We would like to discuss the following with you:

● Engagement with civil society on these issues and involvement of civil society in implementing improvements

● Implications from the reviews of US practice and the CHMRAP for the UK’s own approach to civilian harm mitigation and response

● How the UK could contribute to developing the knowledge base on civilian harm mitigation and response

● How civilian protection concerns are included in UK support for partner forces, lessons learnt from civilian harm incidents and standards set for best practice.

● How the UK can play a leading role in ensuring historic instances of civilian harm allegations resulting from CJTF-OIR actions are properly accounted for.

● How the UK can lead the strengthening of NATO’s Protection of Civilian preparedness.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely,

Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) Airwars Amnesty International UK Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights (CIVIC) Center for Civilians in Conflict Crisis Action Every Casualty Counts Iraq Body Count Reprieve Save the Children War Child

▲ The UK Ministry of Defence, Whitehall

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 22, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Civil society consortium cautiously welcomes Ministry's letter to Dutch Parliament - but also urges bolder stance.

The Dutch Ministry of Defence, Defensie, has finally outlined to Parliament the steps it expects to take in both the short and long term, to address civilian casualties from Dutch actions.

Since late 2020, Airwars has been part of a consortium of civil society and academic organisations working with the Defensie to help improve the Dutch approach to civilian harm tracking and mitigation. This process was launched in response to revelations that the Dutch MoD was responsible for an airstrike in the Iraqi town of Hawija in 2015, which killed between 70 and 85 civilians. There was then a four-year cover-up of Dutch involvement in the deadly incident.

On April 7th, Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren wrote to Parliament outlining the expected route forward for Defensie. According to the Minister, “These steps go further than just transparency. It also involves tightening up internal (military) procedures, decision-making processes, monitoring, evaluation and accountability.”

Ollongren said that the Ministry recognises that preventing civilian harm “is a responsibility that arises not only from international humanitarian law, but also from a moral obligation” and within her letter to Parliament, the Minister laid out ways that that Defensie must act to improve its systems.

These include five thematic short steps concerning the processes of decision-making, monitoring, evaluation, and accountability in future deployments. According to the Minister, these steps aim to ensure that Defensie improves the ways it considers risks to civilians; more clearly communicates transparency, and commits to periodically review the way this is done. Ollongren also highlighted the importance of transparency as a way to improve civilian harm accountability both for affected communities, and in providing more Parliamentary oversight in the Netherlands.

The plans also suggested that future mission evaluations will focus more on civilian casualty concerns. And Ollongren also promised in the letter that Defensie will be more involved in policy making on protection of civilians concerns, alongside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example through follow-up training and exercises.

While there are positive developments and promising commitments in the letter, several significant gaps remain and vital opportunities were missed. the consortium believes. Below is our joint response to the policy announcement.

 

▲ Hawijah, Iraq in 2021. Six years after the Dutch airstrike, parts of the town remain destroyed (Image courtesy of Roos Boer, PAX)

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)