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Published

May 18, 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

Archive of civilians killed and injured in Ukrainian region among the most in-depth public documentation to date

A mother killed cradling her child in her arms, an elderly woman hit by shrapnel while feeding stray cats, a family buried under rubble for weeks – these are among hundreds of devastating human stories recorded in Airwars’ new Ukraine research portal, among the most in-depth public documentation of the war’s human impact to date.

Over nine months, Airwars’ new Ukraine research team documented every publicly reported civilian harm allegation from explosive weapons in the ‘Battle of Kharkiv,’ which lasted from the Russian invasion on February 24th until May 13th 2022.

▲ A member of the Ukrainian Emergency Service looks at the City Hall building in the central square following shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavel Dorogoy)

Published

April 5, 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

Tribunal follows Ministry of Defence and Information Commissioner's refusal to release details of incident

Airwars is to challenge the Ministry of Defence and the Information Commissioner at a tribunal over the refusal to release basic information about the sole civilian the UK accepts killing in the war against the Islamic State, it announced on Wednesday.

During the eight years of the UK’s contribution to the Anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq and Syria, British aircrafts dropped more than 4,300 munitions, and the Ministry of Defence claims to have killed more than 4,000 ISIS militants. Yet the strike on March 26, 2018 remains the only time the UK government has officially accepted harming civilians.

▲ US and British Reapers are playing a major role in the war against ISIL (Library image via US Air Force/ Staff Sgt. John Bainter)

Published

April 4, 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

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لقطة شاشة من تحقيق الحروب الجوية في الأضرار التي لحقت بالمدنيين جراء غارات المملكة المتحدة

كشف تحقيق استمر لمدة عام عن مقتل عشرات المدنيين جراء غارات جوية محتملة للمملكة المتحدة

قضت الحروب الجوية و الجارديان العام الماضي في التحقيق في الغارات الجوية البريطانية في العراق وسوريا ، بين عامي 2014 و 2020. ووجدنا أدلة على ما لا يقل عن ست غارات جوية وقعت في الموصل ، يُرجح أنها كانت هجمات بريطانية ، قتلت وألحقت الأذى بالمدنيين في المدينة.

▲ لقطة شاشة من تحقيق الحروب الجوية في الأضرار التي لحقت بالمدنيين جراء غارات المملكة المتحدة

Published

March 24, 2023

Written by

Airwars Staff

Year-long investigation identifies dozens of civilians killed in likely UK strikes

A new Airwars and The Guardian investigation has identified dozens of Iraqi and Syrian civilians killed by likely UK airstrikes, as part of a widespread package picking apart the British claim to have fought a near victimless eight-year war.

Since 2014, the UK has dropped more than 4,000 munitions in the war against the so-called Islamic State. It claims that those strikes have killed more than 4,000 ISIS militants, but has only accepted responsibility for the death of one civilian.

▲ A screengrab from Airwars investigation into UK civilian harm

Published

November 25, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

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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

November 23, 2022

Written by

Airwars Staff

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The SNP Foreign and Defense front bench launch the new policy approach, "A Scottish approach to the protection of civilians in conflict" in Westminster on November 22nd 2022 (Image via Airwars staff)

The Scottish National Party launched a protection of civilians paper on Tuesday, becoming the largest European party to have such plans. The paper was written with significant civil society input, coordinated and led by Airwars.

The newly-launched paper dictates how a future independent Scotland would conduct conflict and protect civilians before, during, and after Scottish operations.

It includes a pledge to introduce oversight of special forces, a strong focus on the importance of tracking civilian harm and being transparent about the findings, as well as a commitment to limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

As SNP Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Alyn Smith MP said during the launch, “making these points isn’t just about an independent Scotland but it’s about what we can all do to get the world to a better place than where we are now. The protection of civilians needs to be higher up the agenda.”

The SNP currently controls Holyrood, the devolved Scottish parliament, and is the third largest party in the UK national parliament. It advocates for an independent Scotland and is campaigning for a fresh Scottish independence referendum in the coming years.

A small, but growing number of countries have declared civilian harm mitigation policies. In response to civil society and media pressure, the United States recently rewrote its entire policy to try and reduce the number of civilians it kills. The Netherlands is undergoing a similar process through its Roadmap Process.

Yet the UK has not kept up with allies and lacks a detailed, transparent policy on how it will mitigate harm, and respond when it does occur. With this paper, the SNP distances itself from this approach. As well as dictating how a future independent Scotland would engage in conflict, the policy also outlines the key beliefs of the SNP in regard to how the UK should fight wars. These include a firm commitment to monitoring the civilian impact of conflicts, as well as to transparency about where and when strikes are committed.

It also commits the party to a UN-backed declaration to limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which disproportionately kill civilians who make up more than 90% of those killed when such weapons are used. Last week, delegates from over 80 countries, including the US and the UK, signed an agreement committing to limit their use in Dublin.

🌎Today @ChrisLawSNP, @AlynSmith & I have published a new policy paper on the protection of civilians in conflict. UN Security Council Resolution 1265 was adopted more than 20 years ago, but the failure to protect civilians in conflict is stark. The world needs a fresh approach. pic.twitter.com/HNJDxClzs8

— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) November 22, 2022

Airwars coordinated the extensive civil society input into the policy, ensuring that each section was written – and reviewed – by experts on the respective areas covered in the paper, such as women, peace, and security, climate change and atrocity prevention.

“With the release of their paper, Scotland is joining others in setting a new standard for how to protect civilians caught in conflict,” said Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen, Policy Specialist at Airwars. “The policy is unique in the extent to which it has allowed for meaningful civil society engagement, and its focus on civilian harm tracking is a nod to the vital importance of acknowledging when harm has occurred and learning important lessons.

While the ongoing war in Ukraine has brought civilian harm to the forefront of news outlets and political debate, such harm is not new. Over the last eight years, the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria caused 8,197–13,252 deaths, yet contributors to the coalition have all failed to account for these. To date, the UK acknowledges only a single civilian casualty from its own contribution. With their new paper, SNP are outlining that an independent Scotland would distance itself from this approach and instead become a leader on the protection of civilians.

Read the full policy approach here.

▲ The SNP Foreign and Defense front bench launch the new policy approach, "A Scottish approach to the protection of civilians in conflict" in Westminster on November 22nd 2022 (Image via Airwars staff)

Published

October 27, 2022

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Airwars and PAX release briefing for Dutch MPs ahead of Parliamentary debate, expected to cover civilian casualties from Dutch military operations and the impact of 2015 airstrike on Hawija.

In preparation for a debate in the Dutch Parliament on November 3rd, in which the Minister of Defence is expected to cover a range of topics including progress on the Roadmap process and improvements within the protection of civilians from Dutch military actions, Airwars and PAX released a briefing for Dutch MPs today.

The briefing gives an overview of Dutch efforts to improve the mitigation and response to civilian harm to date, and the challenges that are yet to be addressed to ensure that the Dutch protection framework is up to scratch. It suggests specific areas MPs should remain aware of, including continued questions on the level of transparency offered by the MOD, the importance of the Ministry of Defence maintaining clear milestones as it implements stronger PoC systems, and rehabilitation payments to Hawija, Iraq.

Click on the briefing below (note this is an informal translation from the original Dutch briefing, which you can find here):

 

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

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.)