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The United Kingdom’s Obligation to Investigate, Record and Report Civilians Casualties in Armed Conflict

The Cambridge Pro Bono Project with Action on Armed Violence

The United Kingdom’s Obligation to Investigate, Record and Report Civilians Casualties in Armed Conflict

The use of airborne explosive weapons by the United Kingdom (‘UK’) in recent armed conflicts has created a risk that civilians might be the victims or unintended targets of the UK’s air strikes. This is because the use of airborne explosive weapons, by virtue of their operational characteristics and largely indiscriminate area-effects once detonated, has been documented to have a greater potential to cause civilian death and injury than other conventional weapons. The use of these weapons, in certain circumstances, may also be unlawful under international law.

This report is written for Action on Armed Violence (‘AOAV’) in the context of the UK’s recent involvement in the Syrian conflict. Over the course of that conflict, since 2014, it is claimed by the UK Government that some 1,700 British air strikes have only caused one known civilian death. However, this figure is disputed by various non-governmental organisations (‘NGOs’) and also by Coalition personnel. It is claimed that the Government’s recording and reporting practices are inadequate, and that it is obliged to do more. However, the Government considers it is under no legally enforceable obligation to do so. The first step in bridging this gulf is therefore to understand, more clearly, what the UK and its government’s legal responsibilities are. That is the purpose of this report.

While the report is written in the context of the Syrian conflict, it also reaches conclusions on the law more generally and the findings of the report apply to all conflicts in which the UK is engaged.


This research report addresses certain legal issues relating to the United Kingdom Government’s obligation to investigate, record, and report civilian casualties in armed conflict, against the backdrop of civilian casualty reports arising out of its military action in the recent Syrian conflict.

This report has been authored by members of the Cambridge Pro Bono Project (‘CPP’), an initiative run out of the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge. The CPP is established to provide independent academic research on legal issues of public importance by drawing on the expertise of the researchers who study and work at the Faculty.

This research report is provided to Action on Armed Violence (‘AOAV’) so that it might inform their work in this area. However, it is not supplied on the basis of a client-practitioner relationship, or on some other client-advisor relationship. This document, and the CPP’s communications with AOAV, are not given as legal advice. The CPP remains an independent academic team and reserves the right to collaborate with other groups or persons working in this area, and to supply its research findings to those persons or groups.


The CPP investigated the existence and rationale of an obligation to record civilian casualties through the lens of United Kingdom public law, international humanitarian law, and international human rights law. The CPP reviewed what it considered to be all relevant international instruments and domestic obligations providing for, requiring, or affected by, the obligation to record civilian casualties in the context of extraterritorial air strikes.

To produce the report, the CPP recruited a cohort of legal researchers, supervised by doctoral researchers at the University of Cambridge. Production of the final report was reviewed by senior members of the Faculty, expert in UK public law and international law.

The launch event can be viewed here:

Related AOAV reports:

Blood Money: UK Compensation Payments for Afghan Civilian Harm Examined

For All Was Lost: comparing UK & US military deaths in the War on Terror