In a major step forward, the Dutch Minister of Defence has announced a new mechanism for civilians and NGOs to report harm to civilians from Dutch airstrikes.
The announcement follows several years of advocacy and detailed discussions between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Protection of Civilians team and a consortium of NGOs including Airwars, Pax, Utrecht University, and CIVIC, in the so-called ‘Roadmap process’.
In the letter to parliament, the Dutch format for setting out policy, the Minister of Defence, Kajsa Ollongren, outlined two major commitments; one for operations that have already finished and one for future engagements. To the former, the Minister acknowledged current gaps in the MoD’s approach, emphasising; “At present there is no specific counter for NGOs and victims/next of kin to report suspicions of civilian casualties to the Netherlands. The Defense Department will therefore set up a counter where these parties can report suspicions of civilian casualties in relation to [military deployments] that are already terminated”.
The Netherlands was one of several nations who contributed with air support to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2019. Our evidence suggests that at least 8,199 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition airstrikes. The Dutch have admitted to some of these deaths – though often only after major international investigations have exposed Dutch involvement. This includes a strike on the Iraqi city of Hawijah in 2015, in which more than 85 civilians were killed, which prompted an independent inquiry and a major court case with a verdict expected in January 2024.
By establishing a dedicated civilian harm reporting mechanism, the Netherlands is following in the footsteps of the US and setting itself ahead of the other allies which contributed to OIR. This announcement comes shortly after Airwars took the UK Ministry of Defense to a tribunal, in part for its lack of clarity on mechanisms to protect civilians during its role in the same campaign.
If implemented well, this new Dutch mechanism will make it possible for civilians who have been affected by strikes to report the details directly to the Ministry of Defense. It will also provide NGOs, such as Airwars, which gather evidence of harm with a systematic approach to submitting allegations. This has long been identified by NGOs as best practice in civilian harm mitigation and response.
When it comes to civilian harm reporting in future conflicts, Ollongren states in the letter; “I consider it desirable that NGOs and victims/survivors can report to the relevant coalition. Where relevant, the Netherlands will therefore endeavor to organize this well in a coalition before the start of the Dutch contribution. Should a coalition in question be unable to adequately organize a reporting structure, Defense itself will ensure the possibility to report suspicions to the Netherlands“.
Coalitions, which have come to define engagement in recent conflict by Western states, often introduce uncertainty and bureaucratic complexity on the responsibility and accountability for civilian harm. It is notable that the Netherlands commit themselves to setting up a Dutch mechanism if a coalition one cannot be agreed upon.
As with all policy commitments, the eventual effect depends on how well it is implemented. This is particularly relevant in this case, as a new US-led coalition with Dutch participation was announced on the same day that the letter came out. The new coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, will respond to Yemen-based Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Yemen has seen some of the most brutal and sustained civilian harm in the last decade, from both the Houthi forces, but also the US-backed Saudi Coalition.
The Netherlands participation in this new coalition does not yet meet the threshold required for an ‘Article-100 letter’, the system by which civilian harm considerations, such as a reporting mechanism, would be announced and established. However Dutch involvement in this and future operations will be a testing ground for these new commitments, which so far puts the Netherlands apart from many of its allies.