Air strikes

Increased British transparency on civilian harm from conflict? AOAV responds.

Action on Armed Violence welcomes the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Defence’s written statement of 27th February that commits the Ministry of Defence to increased transparency by publishing the number of “all civilians admitted to UK military field hospitals” in areas where the United Kingdom’s armed forces are deployed and active. At a time when the number of civilians killed or injured because of airstrikes continues to increase, any mechanism that facilitates the recording of civilian casualties is a step in the right direction –

However, with Action on Armed Violence’s monitoring of deaths from explosive weapons showing that over 15,000 civilians were killed in the first 11 months of 2017 alone, much more is required of the UK – and others – in terms of ensuring that civilian harm is avoided in conflict areas.

2017 was the worst year for civilian deaths from explosive weapons since AOAV’s records began. This rise, constituting a 42% increase from the same period in 2016, when 10,877 civilians were killed, is largely because of a significant increase in airstrikes, which saw an 87% increase on the year before. When explosive weapons were used in populated areas, 92% of casualties (both deaths and injuries) were said to be civilians.

Again, while Action on Armed Violence welcomes the Secretary of State for Defence’s comments that, “this information will provide the public with an informed picture of the efforts the UK Government takes whilst undertaking operations to provide urgent medical care to civilians,” we would also urge the Ministry of Defence to demonstrate similar transparency and accountability to the UK public by openly stating what processes it utilises to determine whether civilians have been injured or killed because of an air-to-surface strike. Such transparency would not only reassure the UK public that British forces are not killing civilians in their areas of operation but would set an example to other governments.

We understand the claim that “the Ministry of Defence does everything it can to minimise the risk to civilians” through its targeting processes, but such targeting processes does not preclude civilians being killed or injured, particularly in urban settings, no matter how accurate the weapon system. To claim that there is no evidence to suggest that UK airstrikes have killed any civilians, as the Ministry of Defence continues to claim, would seem to be, at best, naïve and, at worst, intellectually dishonest. With hundreds of Paveway IV bombs, Brimstone missiles and Hellfire missiles being dropped on, or launched at, targets across Iraq and Syria, AOAV points to recent comments by Greg Bagwell, former RAF Air Marshall, that it is not, “credible to the average listener that we have not caused any civilian casualties just because you have got no evidence to the contrary.”

While it is right and proper that the Secretary of State for Defence recognises, “the important work being done by a number of UK registered charities, including Every Casualty Worldwide, Save the Children, and AirWars, to ensure that all lives lost to armed violence anywhere in the world are properly recorded”, AOAV would equally invite the Secretary of State to comment on AirWars’ research that has uncovered US concerns that the UK and other allies are not quick enough to come forward and admit they have caused civilian casualties. The MoD stated confidently in 2017 that, since RAF deployment to Iraq and Syria to combat IS, British jet and drone strikes had killed more than 3,000 terrorists. However, can the Ministry of Defence truly be as confident in stating that UK airstrikes have not caused significant civilian casualties?

Only through providing transparency on how it assesses whether British airstrikes have caused civilian casualties can the Ministry of Defence convince the UK public that its targeting processes are indeed rigorous.