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Fri 17 September 2021

The decision to refuse a Freedom of Information request that aimed to clarify civilian casualties related to UK airstrikes raises concerns about MOD transparency

A request to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) asking how many recent airstrikes were conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) over populated areas in Iraq and Syria has been rejected, with the MOD not holding “the information on the subject”.

This refusal, following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) asking for details of airstrikes between 2018 and 2020 over Syrian and Iraqi cities, towns and villages, raises questions as to how the RAF is able to properly monitor civilian harm from its operations.

The RAF has been involved in extensive air-strikes in recent years over these countries in their efforts to fight the so-called Islamic State.

The FOI request by AOAV used the working definition of “populated areas” from the definition created by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This is “any ‘concentrations of civilians”, be it a city, a town, a village; be it permanent or temporary, such as camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs)”.

In refusing the request, the MOD explained that while it “does likely” hold “the relevant building blocks” of information, and to find out how many times their strikes were over town or cities “would require sophisticated judgement…by Subject Matter Experts”.

A successful appeal to the refusal was also preempted, with the response stating “requests for the underlying information the MOD would likely use for any analysis of populated/non-populated areas would be subject to exemptions under the FOI Act”.


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A Lack of Transparency

This lack of transparency in military operations raises serious questions as to how the British military is able to properly monitor potential harm to civilians in towns and cities. 

AOAV’s data on a decade of explosive harm globally has shown that air-launched explosive weapons killed and injured 60,202 civilians in the last decade, accounting for 23% of all recorded civilian casualties from all explosive weapon types. 

Of all those harmed by airstrikes since 2011, civilians accounted for 59%. 

However, that number increased dramatically when global airstrikes were recorded in areas reported as being “populated’. In these cases, 90% of those killed and injured were civilians.

Despite this high likelihood of civilian harm from urban airstrikes, figures released by the MOD in April 2021 showed that RAF airstrikes had targeted some 4,369 militants in Iraq and Syria since 2014, but only killed one civilian.

News reports, such as one in May 2018 from the BBC, cast doubt on claims this was the only known death of a civilian, with a source inside the coalition fighting the Islamic State group telling the BBC’s Defence Correspondent Jonathan Beale that he believed more civilians had been killed as a result of RAF airstrikes. The source said it was “impossible” to conduct a bombing campaign in highly-populated areas, like Mosul, without killing civilians.

The airstrike monitoring body Airwars has indicated that at least 8,300 civilians have likely died as a result of US-coalition air and artillery strikes against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The great majority of deaths occur in urban areas. The United Kingdom has confirmed conducting several thousand airstrikes during the war.

Airwars’ UK Advocacy Officer Georgia Edwards told Byline Times: “it’s extremely concerning that the MOD can’t offer accurate and transparent data on RAF airstrikes in populated areas, particularly as we know the lethal and long-lasting effects of explosive weapon use in recent military campaigns such as Mosul and Raqqa”.

The MOD claimed in its FOI reply that “targeting within populated areas is done with great care to avoid civilian casualties”. It went on to state that “any activity, regardless of location, is conducted with the expectation of zero civilian casualties”.

Given that the MOD is unable to specify whether the locations of its strikes are towns or cities, and that when other militaries conduct airstrikes over towns and cities, an average of 90% of casualties have been found to be civilians, such an expectation by the MOD of zero civilians harmed raises significant questions.

“We believe UK systems for identifying civilian harm from its own strikes are presently unfit for purpose,” Georgia Edwards said. “It’s therefore vital that the MOD is able to properly monitor, investigate, and clearly communicate all civilian harm incidences from its operations”.

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