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US-led Coalition Needs to Improve ‘Opaque, Ad Hoc’ Process for Reporting Civilian Casualties, New Report Says

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President Barack Obama’s July 2016 Executive Order on Civilian Casualties has improved U.S. monitoring and reporting of civilian casualties caused by its airstrikes, but far more transparency is needed, according to a new report from Airwars.

The US-led coalition’s civilian casualty assessment process remains “opaque, ad hoc, and significantly biased towards internal military reporting,” the report says.

Airwars, a self-described “journalist-led transparency project,” monitors reports of civilian casualties in international airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya. It undertook the transparency audit at the request of Remote Control, a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by the Oxford Research Group.

Airwars believes that after conducting roughly 14,200 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the US-led coalition’s official civilian casualty count is off by more than 1,000. The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the US has acknowledged 173 civilian casualties since the coalition began strikes against the Islamic State in the summer of 2014. 

“In stark contrast, Airwars monitoring indicates that at least 1,500 non-combatants died as a result of Coalition actions during this period. With the public record indicating an underreporting of civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes of 90 per cent, this suggests systemic failings among all militaries when it comes to counting casualties inflicted from the air.”

Airwars cites official U.S. government and UN data for Pakistan and Afghanistan that indicates “one civilian dies at a minimum, on average, for every 7 to 10 precision airstrikes.” But based on the official data from the US-led coalition, it’s averaging one fatality per every 93 airstrikes in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This discrepancy demands explanation, the report says.

“Conflict casualty monitors are sometimes called upon to justify their ‘high’ casualty estimates. It must instead be for the US-led Coalition to explain why its own casualty estimates are unfeasibly low – particularly when compared with other recent air campaigns.”

So how can the US-led coalition improve its civilian casualty reporting?

Understanding that the “rules of engagement must necessarily be set at a national level,” Airwars recommends that both formal and ad hoc military coalitions should have “common rules and procedures when it comes to the monitoring of – and public accounting for – reported civilian casualties.”

The report applauds the recent decision by U.S. Central Command to engage with external monitors tracking civilian casualties, and says, “there is significant value to this approach being applied to other theatres and conflicts moving forward.” With the uptick in U.S. operations in Libya, U.S. Africa Command may be one place to start.

In recent months, the Defense Department has also started to provide journalists more information about when US-led coalition strikes have killed civilians. And as Just Security recently reported, Congress has authorized the Pentagon to make condolence payments to the families of civilians killed or injured by American airstrikes in Syria, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress passed the annual defense authorization bill, which includes the provision, on Dec. 8.

But more can be done, Airwars argues. For the US to continue to improve its reporting practices, the State Department’s small casualty assessing team needs additional resources, the organization contends.

The report praises British and Canadian defense officials who “argue that greater public transparency on military actions can be beneficial when engaging domestic populations. The adoption of similar good practice by all Coalition partners can and should be pursued with some urgency.”

The report also calls out a handful of countries for waging “semi-secret conventional wars,” making it impossible for civilians and monitoring agencies to hold these governments to account.

“Coalition partners Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia – along with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey – are all urged to declare in a timely manner both the dates and locations of their airstrikes. Claims that such declarations might jeopardise national or domestic security do not appear borne out.”

The report’s final recommendation is a message to the incoming Trump administration: “Retain the 2016 Presidential Executive Order on civilian casualties, which can not only play a significant role in reducing harm to civilians on the battlefield – and aid strategic and tactical military objectives – but also help to maintain the United States’ position as a belligerent that declaredly places a premium on the preservation of civilian lives.”

Image: U.S. Navy F-18 Hornet fighters fly over Iraq, March 3, 2016. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook.

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About the Author

Deputy Managing Editor of Just Security, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, Former Senior Reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).