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Published

January 31, 2024

Newly released documents definitively link Danish war planes to strikes that killed Libyan civilians

A joint investigation by Airwars, the Danish news site Altinget and The Guardian has sparked a review of civilian harm allegations from Danish airstrikes in the 2011 war in Libya.

Published on January 25th, the two-year investigation revealed the existence of a previously secret Danish internal review of allegations of civilian harm from its more than 900 bombs dropped as part of the NATO campaign against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The military review found Danish pilots conducted strikes in incidents in which at least 14 civilians were killed. The document was produced in 2012, a year after the war, but kept from the Danish public for more than a decade.

The revelations are the first time a particular NATO country has been definitively linked to specific airstrikes that harmed civilians in Libya. You can read the news stories in English (Guardian) or Danish (Altinget), and find the full story behind the investigation.

The investigation was lead story on The Guardian’s website on January 25th

In a direct response to the investigation, Danish Minister of Defence Troels Lund Poulsen ordered the Danish Armed Forces to commit a formal review of the allegations. A top Norwegian official said such civilian harm was “unsurprising” as NATO’s targeting information was limited during the campaign in Libya.

Several Danish political parties have called for the government to establish a compensation model for civilians harmed, with Christian Friis Bach from the Radikale, emphasising: “If Danish soldiers become aware that they have conducted an airstrike resulting in unintended civilian casualties, then you should proactively take responsibility and reach out with a compensation model that has been established before the incident takes place”.

The investigation also sparked an intense conversation on the possibility of a ‘cover up’ in Copenhagen – with a focus on who knew about the internal review and when. Both the foreign minister and the defence minister at the time that the Danish armed forces concluded their review said they do not recall being briefed about the reports. The foreign minister emphasised he would have remembered, had he been told, while the defence minister referred follow-up questions to the ministry.

Then head of NATO, Rasmus Fogh Andersen – a former Danish prime minister – has refused to comment. Former Danish defence minister Hans Engell hailed the “skilful” investigation, but said the apparent cover up “threatens the credibility of the armed forces” in Denmark.

In Libya, the renowned Arabic paper Asharq Al-Awsat reported a number of politicians and human rights activists calling for action against Denmark to seek compensation for the victims.

Since the 2011 air campaign in Libya, Denmark has contributed to several international coalitions, including the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and Syria, which Airwars estimates led to at least 8,199 civilian casualties.

In late 2023, Denmark joined the US-led ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ campaign targeting the Houthi forces in Yemen, in a supporting capacity. It is unclear what civilian harm mitigation tools are applied in this campaign and whether systems have been established for civilians to report potential harm from airstrikes.

Emily Tripp, Airwars’ director, said: “This investigation reveals once again that a failure in transparency over civilian harm allegations does a disservice both to the citizens in whose name such wars are fought, and to those civilians who deserve answers about which nation killed their loved ones.

“The fact that Danish officials went to the trouble of reviewing these allegations is actually a positive: very few NATO allies engage with external allegations at this level. But refusing to then share those findings with the public raises serious questions about political processes and practices both in Denmark and in the wider NATO campaign.”

 

Below is a list of some of the articles about the investigation

English

Denmark admits role in Nato airstrikes on Libya that killed 14 civilians in 2011 (Guardian)

How we exposed secretive Danish role in Libyan civilian deaths (Airwars)

 

Danish

Armed forces kept reports secret for years: Denmark likely killed civilians in Libya (Altinget)

After revelations: the Ministry of Defence reopens its Libya investigation after more than 10 years (Altinget)

Parties in the aftermath of the Libya disclosure: Denmark should prepare for possible lawsuits (Altinget)

Podcast: How it was revealed that Denmark likely killed civilians in Libya (Danish)

‘Son of a bitch!’ exclaims former UN investigator: withheld Libya reports includes all the answers we requested (Altinget)

Former Danish Defence Minister Hans Engell: The Libya disclosures once again threatens the credibility of the armed forces  (Altinget)

‘News of that magnitude remains in the mind’: former foreign minister does not recall being briefed about the Libya case (Altinget)

Former top Norwegian diplomat on possible civilian casualties in Libya: ‘unfortunately not surprising’ (Altinget)

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

Outrage after disclosure of secret report on possible Danish killings of civilians: “Deeply worrying” (Berlingske)

Politiken’s Defence Editor: There was a good reason (minister) Lene Espersen would not guarantee no civilian casualties (Politiken)

 

Middle Eastern media

Denmark to probe 2011 strikes on Libya that killed 14 civilians (Arab News)

New evidence emerges from 2011 (Al Hadath Libya)

Libyans to sue Denmark on charges of killing 14 civilians during the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime (Al Sharq al-Awsat)

Danish revelations about Libya bombing 13 years ago could help victims’ families (MEMO)

▲ Journalists and locals gather next to the rubble of buildings in Tripoli, Libya, on June 19, 2011. During a government-led tour, the group was shown damaged houses and the bodies of civilians said to have been killed in a NATO coalition bombing. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Published

July 14, 2023

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Header Image

UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of casualty recording 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The work of independent civil society organisations

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

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

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

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

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

▲ UN Headquarters in Geneva (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Published

November 25, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Header Image

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

An overview of the actions needed

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

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

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

States must be frank about gaps in their current approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward

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

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

Additional resources:

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

Published

August 26, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is the CHMR-AP so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should we be looking out for now?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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)