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AOAV’s analysis raises concerns over RAF’s civilian casualties: urgent need for transparency and accountability, Minister Heappey responds


Recent analysis conducted by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) on civilian casualties resulting from Royal Air Force (RAF) airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has raised serious concerns about transparency and accountability. Our findings reveal a significant discrepancy between the number of civilian casualties documented by AOAV and the official reports from the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

Such revelations, however, appear to be having an impact. In a letter – seen by AOAV – the Right Hon. James Heappey, UK Minister of State (Minister for Armed Forces and Veterans), told Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton, that the MOD was committed to compliance with international humanitarian law. Furthermore, the Minister said the MOD was committed to working with civil society organisations to address any evidence of civilian casualties.

AOAV’s analysis indicates that at least 29, and potentially up to 35, civilians were killed in nine RAF airstrikes between 2016 and 2018. This contradicts the MOD’s claim of accepting responsibility for only one civilian death during the same period. Such a significant disparity raises doubts about the accuracy and transparency of the RAF’s casualty recording and assessment procedures.

In his letter, dated the 9th May 2023, Heappey acknowledged the importance of working with civil society organisations to consider evidence of civilian casualties that may have gone unnoticed. AOAV agrees. Collaborating with independent organisations is essential to evaluate the true extent of civilian harm and ensure accountability. By actively engaging with civil society, the MOD can promote transparency and facilitate independent scrutiny, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of civilian casualties.

Of note, Heappey also highlights the MOD’s intention to learn from the US Department of Defense’s Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. Given the scale of US operational activity, including airstrikes, adopting best practices from the US can help improve the MOD’s own processes and enhance efforts to mitigate civilian harm.

To address the concerns raised by AOAV’s analysis and ensure greater transparency and accountability in RAF operations, several steps should be taken. The RAF should provide detailed and comprehensive information, including the precise location and time of airstrikes, enabling independent assessments of civilian casualties. The MOD should conduct thorough and independent evaluations of civilian casualties, acknowledging the possibility of unintended harm and striving for accurate casualty reporting. Continued collaboration with civil society organizations will allow for independent scrutiny of RAF operations and contribute to a comprehensive understanding of civilian casualties. Regular updates to Parliament on assessed civilian casualty incidents resulting from RAF airstrikes will ensure transparency, democratic oversight, and accountability.

Dr Iain Overton, the Executive Director of AOAV, said of the letter: “”We are deeply troubled by the significant gap between the documented civilian casualties in RAF airstrikes and the official reports from the Ministry of Defence. The discrepancy raises serious concerns about transparency and accountability in assessing the true human cost of these operations. It is encouraging to see Minister Heappey’s commitment to working with civil society organisations, and we urge the MOD to collaborate closely with independent groups to ensure accurate reporting and independent scrutiny of civilian harm.”

In conclusion, the findings from AOAV’s analysis, along with the letter from Heappey, emphasises the urgent need for transparency and accountability regarding civilian casualties in RAF airstrikes. It is imperative for the MOD to address these concerns, enhance reporting mechanisms, and actively collaborate with civil society organisations. By taking these steps, the RAF can fulfil its commitment to protecting civilian lives, upholding international humanitarian law, and ensuring transparency and accountability.