In a significant development for military transparency, the UK government is being challenged in a tribunal scheduled for November 29th. This legal action, brought by the London-based civilian harm watchdog Airwars, stems from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Information Commissioner’s refusal to release details about a civilian casualty acknowledged by the UK in the past decade.
Over eight years of operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the UK has admitted to causing only one civilian casualty amidst claims of eliminating over 4,000 ISIS militants. This contrasts sharply with the US’s acknowledgment of over 1,000 civilian deaths in similar operations.
This discrepancy was first exposed by AOAV in 2019, when it revealed how the RAF had killed or injured 4,315 enemy fighters in Iraq and Syria between September 2014 and January this year, but had admitted to only one civilian killed in the airstrikes.
The lone incident acknowledged by the UK occurred on March 26, 2018, when a civilian motorbike was caught in a strike aimed at Daesh fighters. However, the MoD has since withheld details about this incident, citing national security concerns, and there are concerns as to whether this event ever took place.
Significance of the Tribunal
This tribunal represents a pivotal moment in the pursuit of military transparency and accountability. Key points underscoring the importance of this tribunal include:
- Comparative Transparency: The United States has set a precedent by releasing over 1,300 civilian harm assessments following a similar FOI request. The Dutch Government also disclosed the coordinates of every strike conducted in the anti-ISIS campaign, leading to additional civilian harm acknowledgments. In contrast, the UK’s lack of transparency has been noted, even by the Information Commissioner.
- Issues of Recording and Accountability: Investigations by AOAV, Airwars and others suggest that the UK’s recording of civilian harm incidents is inadequate. This raises concerns about the accuracy and integrity of the MoD’s claims.
- Public Trust and Legitimacy: Transparency is crucial for public trust in military institutions. Without clear insight into how civilian harm assessments are made, the legitimacy of the MoD’s claims remains questionable.
- Legal and Ethical Implications: The tribunal offers an opportunity to scrutinise the UK’s procedures for assessing and acknowledging civilian harm.
The upcoming tribunal is not just a legal proceeding; it’s a crucial step towards greater transparency and accountability in military operations. As nations like the United States and the Netherlands demonstrate greater openness in their military assessments, the UK’s continued secrecy stands out. This tribunal could be a turning point, offering a chance for the UK to align with its allies in acknowledging and addressing civilian harm, thereby restoring public trust and ensuring ethical conduct in military engagements.
AOAV’s Executive Director, Dr. Iain Overton said of the forthcoming challenge: “This tribunal is a watershed moment in our fight for transparency and accountability in military operations, highlighting the crucial need for public insight into how governments assess and respond to civilian harm. We applaud AirWars’ work in this area – one that is very much in step with AOAV’s – and hope that the outcome will mean a greater transparency for all.”
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