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British government doesn’t record or estimate how many civilians it has killed on operations

The British military does not record or estimate the number of civilians it has killed or injured on its operations around the world, a Freedom of Information response from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has revealed. 

When asked by the London-based research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) for the number of civilian casualties linked to British military activity in a variety of countries over the past 20 years, the MOD responded that the information is “not held”. 

It also refused to confirm or deny whether there was any record of civilian casualties that Britain was potentially responsible for, in a series of different countries. 

The response did, however, point to annual reports which list the number of UK civilians working for the MOD who suffered an injury whilst on operation. Between 2015-March 2021, there 38 cases. 

These were predominantly (82%) Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) personnel providing logistical support on Op KIPION – the maritime mission in the Gulf. 

No such level of detail is extended to civilians not hired by the MOD killed or injured by British warfighting activity. 

The MOD has been repeatedly challenged over its claim that its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria (Op SHADER) has killed and injured an estimated 4,315 enemies, but only resulted in one civilian casualty between September 2014 and January 2021. 

It claims that, of those harmed, all but one were militants.  Of these, 4,369 (94%) were killed, and 303 (6%) were injured.

In Iraq, 3,036 were killed and 235 wounded. In Syria, 1,030 died and 68 were hurt. These militants were killed by bombing raids from Typhoons (37%) Tornados (31%) and Reapers (32%)

In May 2018, the MOD admitted that a Reaper drone armed with a Hellfire missile fired at three suspected Islamic State fighters on 26 March. A civilian on a motorbike entered the target area and was killed too. The then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, in a written statement to parliament described the fatality as “deeply regrettable”.

It’s highly likely that civilian deaths have been under-reported, as 1,000 targets were hit by the RAF during its bombing campaign in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul. 

In August, AOAV revealed that the RAF does not keep a specific record of how many bombs they have dropped on populated areas, raising questions over how they are measuring civilian harm. 

A decade of data on explosive violence collected by AOAV shows that when airstrikes are deployed in populated areas 90% of the casualties are civilians. 

A factor in the underreporting of civilian casualties by the MOD is that the UK has a higher evidential threshold than its allies. In fact, there have been three airstrikes, identified by Airwars and for which the MOD confirmed responsibility, that the US has recorded as killing 15 civilians and injuring six more. However, the UK military denies any civilian harm from the trio of strikes. 

The divergence in casualty counts for the same events is largely due to the UK’s requirement for ‘hard facts’ – a higher threshold than the US military’s ‘balance of probabilities approach’ or even than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ used by UK courts. The American approach allows them to use credible local reports in their investigations.

Chris Cole of the advocacy group Drone Wars UK has described the MOD’s approach as “a kind of internal structural self-denial, where it has become seemingly impossible for the MoD even to accept that civilian casualties have occurred.”

Criticism of the British government, for not attempting to quantify the civilian harm caused by its operations, is not new. Just weeks after the bulk of UK forces left Iraq in May 2009, the Iraq Inquiry (known as the Chilcot Inquiry) was launched to “get to the heart of what happened”. Seven years later, when the report was released, it’s conclusions on civilian casualty counting were damning. 

“The Government’s consideration of the issue of Iraqi civilian casualties was driven by its concern to rebut accusations that coalition forces were responsible for the deaths of large numbers of civilians, and to sustain domestic support for operations in Iraq.”

“More time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than it was to efforts to determine the actual number.”

Extracts from the Chilcot report says (Pdf. Section 17, p.170). 

Last year, casualty recording was recognised as an essential component of human rights at the United Nations for the first time.

The Myanmar resolution at the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva describes casualty recording as a component of victims’ and survivors’ right to an effective remedy. Similarly, the Prevention of Genocide resolution describes casualty recording as “ensuring accountability, truth, justice, reparation, [and] guarantees of non-recurrence”.