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Expanding UK military partnerships: accountability and civilian harm comes under the spotlight

A recent report by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights warns that the expansion of the United Kingdom’s partnered military operations could lead to increased civilian harm and decreased accountability. Titled “Avoiding civilian harm in partnered military operations: The UK’s responsibility,” the report highlights that partnered operations have become the predominant form of UK military engagement over the past two decades. However, this shift has resulted in a reduction in accountability for civilian harm and, in some cases, an increase in civilian casualties.

The complexity of these engagements has allowed for the evasion of responsibility for violations of international humanitarian law, including potential war crimes. Although recent UK defense policies advocate for expanded military partnerships, the country’s policies and practices on civilian harm mitigation have not been updated accordingly.

Investigations have linked airstrikes causing civilian casualties during the ongoing campaign against ISIS in Iraq to UK forces. The UK Ministry of Defence has long claimed that the Royal Air Force did not harm a single civilian in Iraq, but the UK has avoided responsibility for civilian harm by participating in an international coalition supporting partner Iraqi Security Forces.

AOAV has found that at least 29 civilians were killed in nine Royal Air Force (RAF) airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between 2016 and 2018, raising questions over the RAF’s civilian casualty recording and accountability. AOAV has also been examining allegations of extrajudicial killings by British Special Forces (UKSF) in Afghanistan.

Report co-author Mark Goodwin-Hudson, former Deputy Chief Current NATO Operations in Afghanistan, identifies several problems with civilian casualty mitigation in the context of UK partnered military operations. He notes that the civilian casualty review board lacked adequate time, access, and authority to visit incident sites or conduct interviews when allegations of civilian harm arose from NATO operations. Additionally, the board had very limited access to intelligence used to support Special Forces operations, making it challenging to determine whether a victim was a civilian or not.

The report warns that accountability for partnered military operations is likely to deteriorate further, as units like the new Ranger Regiment, which play an increasingly important role in UK operations, operate without external scrutiny. These units support military forces in countries with concerning human rights records, such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia, without being subject to parliamentary or judicial oversight.

Lydia Day, Ceasefire’s Advocacy Officer and co-author of the report, commented that the UK urgently needs to strengthen its civilian harm mitigation policies to better protect civilians. She adds that partnered military operations often allow the UK to evade responsibility for civilian harm, undermine accountability, and provide military support to countries with poor human rights records. If these operations are to continue, the UK’s approach to civilian harm mitigation must change.

The report suggests that a statutory duty should be placed on ministers to prevent military assistance or cooperation where there is knowledge, belief, or a real risk of serious violations of international humanitarian law or human rights (a UK ‘Leahy Law’). It also recommends warning UK officials and service personnel involved in partnered military operations, including arms exports, of potential criminal liability for aiding and abetting if they know the assistance provided will be used to commit war crimes or other crimes under international law.