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The importance of civilian casualty reporting in conflict: examining NATO member states’ practices and progress

Executive Summary

The article discusses the importance of civilian casualty reporting in conflict situations, with a focus on the practices and progress of NATO member states. AOAV determined that only four states out of the thirty NATO member states have either publicised Civilian Casualty Teams or have passed resolutions in government to publish civilian casualty reports. It highlights the need for transparency and accountability in reporting civilian casualties and examines the challenges faced by states in doing so. The article also discusses the steps taken by some NATO member states to improve their civilian casualty reporting practices, and emphasises the need for all states to prioritise the protection of civilians in conflict. The article concludes with a call for greater international cooperation to comprehensively understand the importance of civilian casualty reporting and to make it an international norm.

Background

In most conflicts, it is civilians who pay the greatest price. This trend is evident when examining civilian casualties of conflicts over the past several decades. Between 2001-2021, 387,000 civilians are thought to have lost their lives as a direct result of hostilities in post-9/11 wars.[2]  Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) found that between 2016 and 2020 in Afghanistan there were 3,977 civilian casualties from airstrikes alone.[3] More recently over the past year, Russia has deliberately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, leaving 8,006 dead and 13,287 injured.[4] While these human casualties have been reported, many civilian deaths caught up in conflicts still go unreported. Humanizing the civilian cost of warfare and protecting civilians in conflict is not always prioritized when instead it should be an ethical and strategic cornerstone to any military operation.

The implementation of civilian casualty recording by all state actors would allow an understanding into how operations in conflict situations impact civilians instantaneously, allowing for the immediate adjustment of tactics and operational policies to mitigate the impact of armed conflict on civilians. According to the United Nations Guidance on Casualty Recording, ‘casualty recording is a form of international human rights law and international humanitarian law monitoring’, whereby individualised data (i.e. date and location of death or injury, gender and age of victim, cause of death, perpetrator) on civilian deaths and injuries in conflict is comprehensively recorded and verified for the purpose of being further analysed and compared to develop a ‘deeper understanding of the prevailing context and of situations as they evolve on the ground’.[5] Data from civilian casualty recording has been used for humanitarian response planning, transitional justice, accountability processes, and memorialization efforts.[6] As importantly, is civilian casualty reporting which is the transmission or publication of information on an incident involving civilian casualties.[7] An incident can be defined as an event or situation that may warrant an investigation, either due to the likely violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law or to prevent the occurrence of violations in the future.[8] The transmission of information may be triggered by ‘either direct observation, the receipt of information from subordinates or through recording processes, or external allegations’.[9]

For this article, Action On Armed Violence will be specifically focusing on civilian casualty reporting and the prevalence of it within NATO member states. In recent years, there have been welcomed developments by some state’s governmental and military policy and practice that require civilian casualty reporting. AOAV determined through data found in the public domain that only four states out of the thirty NATO member states have either Civilian Casualty Teams or have passed resolutions in government to publish civilian casualty reports. NGO’s were found to be responsible for civilian casualty reporting in the majority of published incidents. It must be stated that some member states may be conducting civilian casualty recording, but are not publishing the details of them.

Belgium

In 2021, the Belgian Parliament approved the Belgian air force to take part in the Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), a US-led multinational military coalition formed to weaken and destroy the Islamic State. The Federal Government was requested with a Parliamentary resolution “to communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations.’[10] Although the CJTF-OIR issues monthly civilian casualty reports, NGOs appear to be the primary source of these reports, providing only basic summaries that often exclude important details such as the location and intended target of strikes.[11]

Croatia

In 1991, the Croatian government passed legislation in response to the number of casualties and missing persons as a result of their war for independence. According to Every Casualty Counts, ‘the first commission, in cooperation with the ICRC, was responsible for recording casualties and missing persons from war-affected areas. The second commission was tasked with repatriation and prisoner exchange’.[12] In 1993, the Commission for Detained and Missing Persons was formed, followed by the Office for Victims of War, both of which were later incorporated into the mandate of the Ministry of Croatian Veterans. The Ministry organises exhumations and identification of casualties found in individual and mass graves.[13] Together with the ICRC, the Department for Detained and Missing Persons published a ‘Book of Missing Persons on the Territory of the Republic of Croatia’ in 2006, 2010 and 2012.[14]

Netherlands

In April 2022, Dutch Minister of Defence Kajsa Ollongren introduced new policy changes regarding civilian casualties during military deployment. According to PAX  ‘ these steps go beyond transparent reporting alone: they also involve strengthening internal (military) procedures, decision-making processes, monitoring, evaluation and accountability with continuous development in all these areas’.[15] Pre-deployment, deployment and post-deployment decision making processes regarding transparency of civilian harm mitigation and incidents are focused on.

United States

For years, the US military has been using ‘sophisticated collateral damage software to estimate potential harm when planning attacks. Although units were expected to count both combatant and non-combatant casualties,[16] this information was not released to the public. In 2008, General David McKiernan created the Civilian Casualty Tracking Cell (CCTC) within the NATO led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to ensure timely and accurate information on civilian casualties. In 2011, General John Allen created the Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team (CCMT) to conduct more thorough analysis of civilian casualties and operational lessons that may be learned. After pressure from NGO’s, in 2018 the US Department of Defense published its Annual Report on Civilian Casualties in Connection with United States Military Operations. This unclassified report lists casualties from operations from the current year as well as previous years where assessments were still being researched. Information provided is that of the date, location of incident, operation type, civilians injured and civilians killed, ex gratia payments and steps taken to mitigate further harm. It uses casualty information from all available sources including NGO’s and IO’s as well as operational planning data and intelligence sources.

More recently, in January 2022 the US Defense Chief issued a directive to strengthen efforts to prevent civilian harm including assessing possible past incidences of civilian harm, acknowledging the harm, better ways to report it and incorporating lessons learned into the doctrine and operational plan.[17] In August 2022, the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHMR-AP) was published. Stating that the protection of civilians is both a strategic and moral imperative the plan consists of 11 objectives which operationalises civilian protection, and ensures lessons learned inform future operations. Most importantly for the NATO alliance, the plan calls for all U.S. Allies to ‘establish guidance, responsibilities, and processes for incorporating civilian harm mitigation and response during all phases of multinational operations’.[18]

The Challenges of Civilian Casualty Reporting

There are challenges with collecting data on civilian casualties in conflict situations, perhaps leading to the very low levels of NATO states actively conducting these reports. Shifts in strategic and ideological warfare are presenting new challenges. Multi-Domain warfare as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq with the ‘War on Terror’ and Syria, asymmetrical warfare seen in Ukraine currently and hybrid warfare which can be seen worldwide in the intentional targeting of civilians instead of military personnel, disinformation, purposely created political and social instability, election tampering, riots and false social media reporting have come to dominate 21st century warfare.[19] This hybrid warfare has led to a distrust in the reliability of information and the sources providing it, whether state or NGO, especially when death toll discrepancies in

civilian-targeted areas are common. Conflicting information from on the ground sources, differing governmental and military methods for reporting civilian deaths and remote warfare where precise estimates of civilian casualties are challenging, provide difficulties in accurately reporting civilian deaths.[20] Even when militaries do count civilian deaths many are undercounted and under-investigated leading to a lack of trust in official numbers provided.[21] It is often elite military units whose activities are secret who have been involved in some of the worst civilian casualty incidents,[22] and whose actions go unreported. Political motivations must also be factored in. Such publications of figures might complicate already fractious conflict and security circumstances, further situating military personnel, NGO’s workers or future missions in even greater harm. Figures if not properly researched, may be inaccurate and lead to reinflamed tensions or conflict leading to governments keeping track of figures, but not wishing to publish them.

Prioritising Casualty Recording

Despite these challenges, an international effort to comprehensively understand the importance of civilian casualty reporting can be a strategic focus and successfully implemented. A step toward the success of implementing these standards is for governments and intergovernmental organisations to support the casualty recording work often undertaken by small underfunded NGO’s and civilian experts. In recent years, the importance of casualty recording has been a key focal point of international guidelines and declarations. The United Nation’s Guidance on Casualty Recording lists five criteria of standard methodology for states to optimise such casualty recording.[23] (1) Assess the credibility and reliability of every source of information, (2) Evaluate information on each incident to ensure its validity, (3) Verify information gathered to ensure that the data is as accurate as possible, (4) Have an internal quality control process to review data and (5) Ensure that casualty data and the broader qualitative analysis of international human rights and humanitarian law issues are linked. In 2021, NATO published its Protection of Civilians Allied Command Operations Handbook,[24] which aims to integrate the NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians and the Military Committee Concept for the Protection of Civilians into all NATO planning and operations. The Handbook acknowledges the importance of military engagement with casualty recording initiatives, as well as recommending greater standardisation of casualty recording practices.[25] Most recently, in 2022 at the EWIPA Dublin Conference, eighty-three countries formally adopted the ‘’Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences Arising from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’.[26] The Declaration formally recognises the importance of civilian casualty recording and further appeals for that data to be shared and made public. These guidelines pave the way for the immediate prioritisation of all NATO states to build internal capacity to monitor, investigate and respond to civilian harm allegations. Doing so will work toward alleviating the discrepancies in the implementation of civilian casualty recording among NATO states which will in turn address the discontinuity in reporting practices. Without these first steps, transparent civilian casualty reporting will remain unattainable.

Civilian Casualty Reporting as an International Norm

Over the past decade, the general public, policy makers and NGO’s have demanded more accountability and transparent civilian casualty reporting. States seldom engage in this practice for both civilians and combatants, many focusing solely on combatant casualties. Across the four NATO states that were found to engage in civilian casualty reporting, there are huge discrepancies with regard to what methodology is used to record and investigate these casualties, and what civilian deaths are being counted and shared with the public. While NATO itself has pledged to ‘make every effort to communicate known civilian casualties to the host nation, local populations and media’,[27]greater responsibility must be taken by all NATO states to ensure this actually occurs. Militaries must have a real-time understanding of how civilians are being harmed, with a dedicated team to advise strategically to prioritize civilians as well as to track civilian harm to ensure that they are truly being protected. Any harm to civilians- property damage, injury or death- should be acknowledged, and those individuals and communities assisted appropriately. These amends, whether through apology or monetary contribution aligned with local customs and individual preferences, contribute to the preservation of human dignity and community healing, potentially minimizing any hostility that may arise from a lack of reparation.[28]

The only NATO state currently publishing annual civilian casualty reports is the United States. Their example of this along with the CHMR-AP ‘provides ample guidance and impetus for other allies and partners interested in operationalizing civilian protection[29] and civilian casualty reporting to follow suit and do similarly. Three main CHMR-AP action points that seek to better incorporate attention for civilian needs and the civilian protection in military operations, as highlighted by PAX are: The focus on enhancing understanding of the ‘civilian environment’, improving civilian harm assessments and investigations, and improving responses to civilian harm incidents.[30] Crucially, as the CHMR-AP explicitly states the expectation for allies and partners to implement similar strategies, more NATO members will be expected to carry out similar protocols and report civilian casualties with accountability and transparency. The United States should be liaising with NATO allies and partners on CHMR-AP so that NATO state operations on civilian protection are strengthened at every level from planning, to operations and response.

As long as wars are fought, the protection of civilians should be a primary objective. Protection of civilians is a matter of political will, not just military might.[31] The more NATO states individually and collectively make the protection of civilians a strategic focus, the greater success their future endeavors will have.


[1] https://press.un.org/en/2022/sc14904.doc.htm

[2]Dr. Karolina MacLachlan, ‘Protection of Civilians: a constant in the changing security environment.’ (17 June 2022). https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2022/06/17/protection-of-civilians-a-constant-in-the-changing-security-environment/index.html

[3]https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/40-all-civilian-casualties-airstrikes-afghanistan-almost-1600-last-five-years

[4]https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/02/turk-deplores-human-cost-russias-war-against-ukraine-verified-civilian#:~:text=GENEVA%20(21%20February%202023)%20%E2%80%93,the%20conflict%20in%20eastern%20Ukraine.

[5] United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, ‘Guidance on Casualty Recording’, New York and Geneva, 2019, p4.

[6]https://www.inew.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Article-36-Casualty-Tracking-and-the-Political-Declaration-on-EWIPA-1.pdf

[7] AOAV, ‘The United Kingdom’s Obligation to Investigate, Record and Report Civilian Casualties in Armed Conflict’. March 2021. p13.

[8] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), ‘Guidance on Casualty Recording’ (New York and Geneva, 2019).

[9] See International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ‘Guidelines on Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law: Law, Policy, and Good Practice’ (Geneva, 2019) para 46.

[10] Laurie Treffers, Belgian Air Strikes and the Myth of Zero Civilian Casualties, Airwars (2 October 2020). https://airwars.org/news/belgian-airstrikes-and-the-myth-of-zero-civilian-casualties/

[11] Simon Bagshaw, Committing to civilian casualty tracking in the future political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, Article36, April 2022.

[12] ‘Not just a number: Croatia’s national experience of casualty recording’, Every Casualty Counts 11 May 2021.

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15]https://protectionofcivilians.org/report/the-dutch-mod-announces-policy-changes-regarding-civilian-harm/

[16] Thomas Gregory, ‘Calibrating Violence: Body counts as a weapon of war’, Cambridge University Press, 7 March 2022, European Journal of International Security, Vol 7 Issue 4.

[17]https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/2914764/department-of-defense-releases-memorandum-on-improving-civilian-harm-mitigation/

[18] Marc Garlasco, Andrew Hyde, ‘Civilian Harm Mitigation: An Opportunity for Values-Based U.S. Leadership at NATO’, Lawfare, 2 February 2023.

[19] Amir Khorram-Manesh, Frederick Burkle, Krzysztof Gonewicz and Yohan Robinson, ‘Estimating the number of Civilian Casualties in Modern Armed Conflict- A Systemic Review’, Frontiers Public Health, 28 October 2021.

[20]https://www.lemonde.fr/en/les-decodeurs/article/2022/09/26/war-in-ukraine-why-it-is-so-hard-to-estimate-the-number-of-dead_5998268_8.html

[21] ‘Civilian Casualties, Accountability, and Prevention, Brookings, Session 18 of the Congressional Study Group, 5 October 2022. https://www.brookings.edu/research/civilian-casualties-accountability-and-prevention/

[22]https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/12/us/civilian-deaths-war-isis.html

[23] United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner, ‘Guidance on Casualty Recording’, New York and Geneva, 2019, p. 10.

[24]https://shape.nato.int/news-archive/2021/the-protection-of-civilians-allied-command-operations-handbook

[25]https://everycasualty.org/casualty-resources/new-nato-handbook-incorporates-guidance-on-casualty-recording/

[26] https://www.dfa.ie/our-role-policies/international-priorities/peace-and-security/ewipa-consultations/

[27] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133945.htm

[28] Marla B. Keenan, Alexander W. Beadle, ‘#Operationalizing Protection of Civilians in NATO Operations, ASPJ Africa & Francophonie, 2017.

[29] Marc Garlasco, Andrew Hyde, ‘Civilian Harm Mitigation: An Opportunity for Values-Based U.S. Leadership at NATO, LAWFARE, 2 February 2023.

[30] https://protectionofcivilians.org/news/new-us-civilian-harm-policy-5-takeaways-for-the-netherlands/

[31] Marla B. Keenan, Alexander W. Beadle, ‘Operationalizing Protection of Civilians in NATO Operations, ASPJ Africa & Francophonie, 2017.