An Interview with Airwars on Monitoring Civilian Harm from Airpower

Airwars is a non-profit, collaborative project of journalists and researchers across the Middle East and Europe dedicated to monitor international military actions in conflict zones such as Iraq, Libya and Syria. In an interview with founder Chris Woods, we asked about Airwars work exposing the shadowy consequences of the use of armed drones.

Chris authored some of the key investigations into covert US drone strikes and their true effects from 2011 onwards. Moreover, he set up and ran the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award-winning Drones Project, and is the author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars.

How did your organization get involved with the issue of armed drones and why is this important for your organization objectives?

Airwars was founded in 2014 to help improve the understanding of airstrike related civilian harm on the battlefield – and consequently help bring about harm reduction through better casualty modeling and mitigation. Airwars tracks, archives and assesses international military actions in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria and Libya – all of which are aerial battlefields in which armed drones fight alongside manned aircraft.

Armed drones are one of the defining weapons of post-9/11 conflicts. To truly grasp the impact of remote warfare, it is crucial to understand the role that drones play both uniquely and in a broader context on modern battlefields.

What would count as a success in your work on drones for your organization? What is the impact you hope to achieve in the coming five years?

Working with Dr Jack McDonald of King’s College War Studies, and APPG Drones, Airwars was able to alert the UK Ministry of Defence to significantly poorer public reporting of its drone strikes in 2016. This in turn led the MoD to overhaul its public reporting, with no discernible difference today between the reporting of manned and unmanned actions.

While Airwars considers the UK to be the most transparent active member of the US-led Coalition against Daesh, the MoD has only admitted to one civilian casualty. The Ministry has reviewed 120 allegations brought forward by Airwars in which British airstrikes might have resulted in civilian harm. However, for each of these incidents the UK has determined that there was no evidence to suggest UK involvement in civilian casualties. Moreover, the UK struck almost 1,000 targets during the recent urban battles of Mosul and Raqqa – assaults in which more than 10,000 civilians likely died at the hands of all belligerents.

This discrepancy between the UK military’s civilian harm claims and public casualty estimates has raised questions about British battle damage assessment capacities, and whether they are fit for purpose. At present, Airwars has identified hundreds of additional allegations of civilian harm in which the UK might have been involved.

Airwars hopes the UK will properly investigate the potential civilian harm events its aircraft have recently been implicated in – and in the long run achieve more accountability and a more honest portrayal of how it perceives harm. This scrutiny of specific nations is key to the work of Airwars: to hold individual Coalition members to account. Indeed, while nations are part of a military alliance of many members, a government remains responsible for its own actions and the way it reports on the weapons it deploys. Greater transparency and military accountability from Coalition members such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark will set a vital longer term precedent for involvement in future air-based conflicts. This long-term approach is vital to securing lasting impact in the way in which militaries report to the public, to media and to parliaments; and in addressing the present lack of transparency of investigation into civilian harm.

If you had one chance to educate/influence your Minister of Defense and/or Minister of Foreign Affairs on the deployment of armed drones, what would you do?

The concepts of all-knowing observation and ‘absolute precision’ are unrealistic and crucially, harm long-term goals for military operations. If the UK cannot adequately determine civilian harm, local populations risk losing faith in its capabilities and intentions. Accountability for civilians harmed in conflict is not only a moral obligation, but a military necessity.

Unlike the UK, the Dutch government still has no plans to disclose where or when in Iraq or Syria its airstrikes might have harmed civilians – despite recent improvements in transparency. When asked in a parliamentary debate if the Defence Minister did not want to rule out possible responsibility for specific incidents, she simply replied : “that just how we do it”.

Despite the ministry’s stance on this issue, there is a clear public interest imperative both in this information being made public as well as the Defence Ministry outlining how a civilian casualty incident occurred – and what safeguards were put in place for future actions.

How do you experience working on this issue in the UK/The Netherlands? What is your take on the transparency situation of the Dutch/UK government, regarding the use of armed drones and/or complicity?

Airwars assesses the UK to be the most transparent of current international actors operating in both Iraq and Syria, setting good practice benchmarks for other states. Moreover, the UK’s concession of a civilian fatality as a result of a missile fired from a Reaper drone this March in eastern Syria is a welcome step towards greater accountability. Still, it is concerning that it has taken the MoD almost four years and 1,600 strikes before making any such admission. The Defence Ministry simply needs to do better.

In April 2018, the Netherlands also admitted to causing civilian harm. However unlike the UK, the Dutch Defence Ministry chooses to withhold the locations and dates of these strikes and even refuses to identify the number of civilians killed or injured. As noted in a recent Airwars briefing for Dutch MPs , this clearly sits at odds with actions by other allies in the Coalition. While on paper the Defence Ministry has improved its public transparency, in practice it is still near-impossible to hold the Netherlands accountable for its recent military actions.

The recent improvement in casualty reporting by the Dutch was a small step in the right direction, but caused little to no change in attitude at the ministry. Transparency and public accountability are still very much considered as boxes that need to be checked instead of as vital steps on the road to durably improving democratic control over military operations .


Date: December 6, 2018

Author: EFAD

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