Open letter from Airwars calls on new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to work collaboratively with Ministry of Defence on the protection of civilians affected by UK military actions.
Last week marked 20 years since the US-led ‘War on Terror’ began. The conflict has been defined by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan saw the reshuffle of Dominic Raab from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, amid widespread criticism for the way millions of Afghans were left in uncertain – and concerning – situations.
The UK continues to operate in Iraq and Syria with the US-led Coalition against ISIS to this day – yet refuses to hold itself truly accountable for civilians harmed by its actions in these countries, nor in historical incidents in Afghanistan.
Despite various commitments from the UK government to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, there have been insufficient efforts to work with civil society organisations; to ensure transparent cross-departmental work to make this feasible; nor to put legislation in place to truly offer change.
As Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Rt. Hon. Liz Truss now has the opportunity to respond to the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation and monitoring policies which will allow the UK to catch up with its allies, and become more accountable for its actions.
Airwars this week sent the Foreign Secretary an open letter outlining key improvements we believe are needed now. The full text of our letter is reprinted below.
October, 8th 2021
Rt. Hon. Liz Truss
Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
King Charles Street
cc. Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence
RE: Open letter from Airwars to the new Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, calling for the FCDO and MoD to work together and improve protections for civilians resulting from UK military actions.
Dear Rt. Hon. Liz Truss,
We would like to congratulate you on your promotion to Foreign Secretary. We look forward to working with you to improve UK policy to protect civilians in conflict.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led so-called War on Terror. This conflict has been defined as you know by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and other allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. These countries have been among those consistently most dangerous for civilians over the last two decades, with military actions involving explosive weapons increasingly taking place in urban environments.
Airwars recently found, for example, that at least 22,679 and potentially as many 48,308 civilians have likely been killed by US-led strikes over the last twenty years.
In light of the recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are concerned about the UK government’s potential shift to remote warfare in that country, noting the Defence Secretary’s comments on 7th September that “I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect citizens’ lives and our interests and our allies, when we’re called upon to do so, wherever that may be.”
We reiterate our calls for robust and transparent mechanisms to mitigate, monitor, and investigate all instances of civilian harm potentially resulting from UK actions, before these actions are considered. As it stands, the UK is systematically failing to hold itself accountable for civilians harmed by its own actions in the War on Terror; and there have been insufficient efforts to adequately investigate historical instances flagged by monitoring organisations such as Airwars.
The most striking example of this is the UK’s insistence that there is only evidence of a single civilian casualty from the entire campaign against ISIS within the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq. Our own independent monitoring suggests that at least 8,300 and as many as 13,000 civilians have likely been killed so far by the US-led Coalition, including from thousands of British airstrikes. The failure of the MoD to more accurately understand and account for civilian harm on the ground from its own actions places the UK dangerously behind key allies, including the US and Netherlands.
Below we note our main concerns, and reiterate our urgent call for a more open and collaborative approach from the FCDO on civilian harm mitigation. We would very much welcome a meeting to discuss these issues at your earliest convenience.
Improving transparency and accountability
As conflicts have changed over the past two decades, the UK has focused increasingly on assisting local forces through airstrikes, rather than through large-scale deployment of ground forces. Yet such airpower-focused conflicts are much less accountable to civilians on the ground, we and our partners believe.
UK policies to protect civilians have fallen behind other allies such as the US Department of Defense and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which have made significant legislation-driven improvements. For example, since 2018, the US DoD has been legally obliged to report annually to Congress on all civilians it deems have been killed by US actions in the past 12 months. No such legislation exists in the UK; and key recommendations from the Chilcot report, “to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians,” have yet to be implemented.
We are also concerned that the current MoD review methodology used to determine only one civilian casualty from its ongoing seven year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in part a result of the exceptionally high ‘proof’ threshold currently applied within the Department when assessing civilian harm claims. In other words, this low estimate of civilian harm is a reflection of poor evidence gathering and analysis, not of effective strategies to protect civilians.
The FCDO leads the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Yet despite commitments made to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm,” there has yet to be any published evidence of change in its approach. There was no mention of how the MoD and FCDO intend to protect affected communities in the recent Integrated Review, nor how the “Conflict Centre” will work cross-department, or be resourced for these areas.
1. Will the MoD consider assessing its current methodology to determine civilian harm and publish the results of these assessments?
2. Will the FCDO publish its most recent assessment to show how it plans to meet commitments in the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians?
3. Will the FCDO and MoD publish a document showing how they both intend to work together on civilian harm mitigation, including with the Conflict Centre and conflict strategy?
Meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations using open source data
The MoD and FCDO commitment to work with civil society organisations to better protect civilians in regions where the UK is operating has decreased to concerning levels. Airwars has been keen to offer meaningful feedback on policies and operations and to work together with MoD to investigate and re-investigate instances of potential civilian harm when it has been flagged from our monitoring and investigations. For example, the UK still admits evidence of only one civilian casualty from its actions as part of the US-led Coalition. We note with concern that recently, the Pentagon wrongly claimed responsibility to Congress for civilian harm from a series of historical strikes, that were actually carried out by its allies, including the UK.
Airwars remains the primary public reference for locally reported reported civilian harm events from international and domestic military actions tracked across Syria, Libya, and Iraq, involving air delivered munitions – and is therefore a critical reference point for affected local communities, for media and analysts, and for both the Pentagon and US combatant commands. There has never been the same level of engagement with the UK and MoD. We feel that this is a wasted opportunity; meaningful dialogue between the MoD and civil society organisations could contribute significant value to the planning, design, implementation and evaluation of military operations and security partnerships, while reinforcing effective governance and oversight.
As the new Foreign Secretary, we reiterate our calls to you for the UK to create and institutionalise systematic engagement with civil society organisations, where civil society can play an essential role in fostering accountability and transparency in the conduct of operations and civilian harm monitoring.
4. Will the MoD consider investigating and re-investigating where necessary specific instances of civilian harm caused by UK airstrikes with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria flagged by civil society monitoring organisations, and publish the results?
5. Will you recommend MoD and FCDO officials to meet with Airwars to discuss better practise recommendations and to encourage a meaningful relationship between civil society organisations and your Departments?
Thank you for taking the time to note our concerns, and we wish you the best in your new role, while looking forward to working with you on these issues.