Casualty Recording Amendment to the Armed Forces Bill Withdrawn

Hat tip to John Sloboda of Every Casualty for sending me a transcript of the discussion on civilian casualty recording held in the the House of Lords yesterday.  I paste the whole thing to the bottom of this post.

My reading is that Earl Howe, whose many titles include Minister of State (Minister of Defence) prevailed against the amendment by saying that the UK military takes exceptional precautions to prevent civilian casualties, would certainly inform the Parliament if they caused one but, in fact, haven’t caused any in recent air strikes targeting ISIS.

Here are my thoughts on Howe’s speech.

  1.  It’s hard for me to grasp the point of resisting a formal requirement to report on something that you claim almost never happens and that you would certainly report on the rare occasions when it does happen.
  2. This gobbledigook makes me lose confidence in the guy:

    This amendment would create a legislative obligation on the Ministry of Defence regarding civilian casualties following military operations, including sharing the details of any investigations with Parliament. This would be inappropriate for several reasons, not least that each military operation is different, so respective arrangements are likely to vary, depending on which forces are involved. It also risks prejudicing the operational and personnel security of our Armed Forces.

Say what?

Well, I guess next time I write a research paper I will decline to explain my methodology on the grounds that each research project is different and methodologies vary from paper to paper depending on the techniques used.

His second point appears to be that news of civilians killed by UK Armed Forces might lead to retaliation against our men and women in uniform (Did I get that wrong?).  This is true but, as we’ve seen, Howe promises later to disclose such information; he just doesn’t want disclosure to be a legal obligation.  As long as he fulfils this promise the risk of retaliation will still be there.

More importantly, the perception (reality?) that the UK might cover up civilian casualties  can easily increase the risks facing UK military personnel.  Having a credible system for disclosing civilian casualties is the best antidote to rumour-mongering about widespread hidden civilian casualties.  In other words, resisting casualty recording places military personnel at risk.

Finally, please have a look at the Airwars website.  Airwars does a great job of tracking civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.

After my own perusal this morning I’m left with a question which, hopefully, someone from Airwars can answer.  It appears that official reports of coalition air strikes generally resolve only down to the coalition level.  So you might see convincing evidence that civilians were killed in a coalition air strike but it will be difficult to attribute such a strike to a particular coalition member.  Thus, you can easily have a situation where the coalition has caused a certain number of civilian deaths but every coalition member claims that they haven’t caused any such thing.  In fact, we seem to be in approximately this situation now.  Is this right?


Here is the transcript:

After Clause 14, insert the following new Clause—

“Reporting obligation on overseas deployments (civilian casualties)

(1) The Commander responsible for review of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted to the Ministry of Defence in connection with UK deployments overseas shall report to the Minister for the Armed Forces, at least once every quarter or at any more frequent intervals as the Secretary of State may specify, on—(a) the number of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted by independent bodies during the period since his or her last report;(b) the number of reports on civilian non-combatant casualties submitted by the civilian casualties tracking unit in that period;(c) the number of reviews on civilian non-combatant casualties carried out in that period;(d) the sum and allocation of funding for any awards made as a result of the civilian casualty review procedure in that period.(2) A report under subsection (1) shall include—(a) a copy of the relevant civilian casualty review procedure;(b) the relevant part of the standard operating procedures in place to enable review of reports of civilian non-combatant casualties.(3) In this section “UK deployment” includes but is not limited to any airstrikes carried out by UK personnel operating manned or unmanned aircraft remotely from the United Kingdom or United States.(4) On receipt of any report under subsection (1), the Minister for the Armed Forces shall—(a) lay a copy of the report before Parliament, and(b) lay a copy of the Government’s response to the report before Parliament, making particular reference to the operation of the civilian casualty review procedure, and any relative increase in reports, reviews or awards.”

Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)

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My Lords, in Grand Committee I welcomed a probing amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, which referred to a duty to report on civilian casualties. At that point I raised certain questions. In particular, the noble Lord’s amendment sought working definitions of “civilians” and “combatants” every three months. It almost suggested that there would be rolling definitions.

At that time, the Minister undertook to write to me to explain the Government’s working definitions of “civilians” and “combatants” in the context of wars in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. I am not sure whether the letter got lost in the post—there are rather a lot of Smiths in your Lordships’ House—but I certainly have not received a letter of that sort. Therefore, I should again like to ask the Government to explain how they define “combatant” and “civilian”. It may appear that they are definitions that can be produced from a dictionary, but the point is that some of our partners—particularly the United States—may have a rather looser definition of a combatant than one might expect in ordinary civilian life, and that it might include young men who are adjacent to conflicts but who may be seen as combatants. Therefore, I would  very much welcome an explanation of how Her Majesty’s Government understand the term “combatant”, particularly as there appears to be a marked discrepancy in the figures. Eleven of the 12 partner countries have said that they have not caused any civilian deaths. The United States has acknowledged 41 deaths, yet Airwars has said that there have been 1,118 civilian casualties in the war against Daesh. Therefore, there is some disparity there and I wonder whether it is due to a difference in the definitions.

I do not intend to test the patience of the House by testing its will or by detaining your Lordships for very long, but one point to bear in mind is that the Armed Forces Minister in the other place, Penny Mordaunt, committed in defence Questions on 29 February to review any reports of civilian casualties, and she is apparently looking for ways in which this can best be done.

The purpose behind Amendment 13 is again to suggest a type of reporting system. But, given the difficulties with definition, we could tighten the wording slightly and suggest that there should be reports on civilian non-combatant casualties, which is belt-and-braces wording. Clearly, this is not something we are expecting to take to a vote, but we believe that it is very important that the people of the United Kingdom and our coalition partners in the fight against Daesh have certainty on what we believe to be civilian casualties, and that the belief that we have not caused any civilian casualties is actually correct, on an ordinary definition of “civilian”.

Earl Attlee

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My Lords, with these issues, it is always difficult to measure casualties. That is not necessarily an argument against the amendment from the noble Baroness. Just to be really helpful to the Minister, of course, there are lawful combatants and there are unlawful combatants. So that is another issue.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

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My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, kindly said, I tabled a similar, rather less focused, amendment in Committee on 3 March and we had a useful debate then. I was grateful for my noble friend’s response, and we explored a number of the challenging aspects of this difficult matter. Now we have this more focused and more pointed amendment, redrafted in the light of those discussions and of the subsequent information that has been made available. Unsurprisingly, I am therefore inclined to support it.

In his reply to the debate, my noble friend’s argument for being unwilling to consider the amendment rested, I think, on two major planks: on the one hand, the inflexibility resulting from enshrining this sort of requirement in primary legislation; and, on the other, operational confidentiality. These two arguments were backed by a statement of general good intent on transparency. My noble friend will appreciate that I absolutely accept his sincerity on these matters, but operational confidentiality could become an elastic concept, capable of being interpreted to cover a pretty wide range of situations. When backed only by a statement of intent without any statutory teeth, this elasticity could be increased still further.

My concern about civilian casualties arises from two points. The first is the long-term fabric of the society. If women and children are traumatised by violence, it may take a generation to rebuild a stable society and it must be in this country’s interests to establish and maintain stable societies wherever possible. Secondly, and no less importantly, civilian casualties must be one of the best recruiting sergeants for extremists. If I see my village wrecked and my family and community blown apart, I am unlikely to be sympathetic to the people who have caused my world to be turned upside down.

At the core of my concern are the figures given by the noble Baroness about the discrepancy between what Airwars has said about coalition casualties, excluding the Russian casualties, of which I think there are a great deal more—some 3,000 or more. This leads me to believe that somewhere something must be going wrong. Airwars has got its figures wrong, or the coalition members are looking the other way, or the procedures for identifying and recording civilian casualties are faulty. This country, which has now carried out some 600 air strikes in Iraq and Syria and flown more than 2,000 combat missions against Daesh, should surely have a keen interest in ensuring that the truth is established and publicised. Our international reputation demands no less. This amendment, if accepted, would help in that process.

I conclude by saying that I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I gently chide his department. As a result of the issues raised in that earlier debate in Grand Committee, I referred to, which are also the raw material of our discussion this evening, I wrote to him raising a series of specific questions. My letter was dated 15 March, and I am afraid that I have yet to receive a reply. Will he be prepared to act as the man from Dyno-Rod? If so, I would be extraordinarily grateful.

Lord Touhig

My Lords, I will be very brief. When we considered an amendment very similar to this in Committee, I said that on this side we certainly welcomed the aspirations that motivated it—the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, tabled it at that time—but we certainly had doubts that it was the best way of dealing with reporting on civilian casualties. I fear that although this amendment is much more focused, as he mentioned, those doubts remain.

Of course it is right to report on civilian casualties caused by air strikes, but we should also be made aware of all civilian casualties, including those caused by the actions of ground forces. I can only repeat a key point I made in Committee when I stressed that reporting on civilian casualties is not an Armed Forces role alone but needs to involve the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. This is a matter for a cross-government approach that seeks an agreement on how to report on civilian casualties caused in a conflict in which our Armed Forces are involved. However, it must be done in a way that that gives everybody confidence, and such an approach must also ensure that we maintain operational security. That is important; I am not sure whether the noble Lord who has just spoken feels it is quite that important, but certainly that point was made, rightly, by the Minister in Committee.

We do not need primary legislation to achieve the aims of this amendment, but if the Government were minded to consult on finding a better way to embrace the aims of the amendment and to consult so that we could find a solution which we could all support on properly reporting on civilian casualties, we would certainly want to co-operate with them on that. However, this amendment is not the solution and we will not support it.
Earl Howe

My Lords, I begin by offering my apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. If I have been guilty of failing to fulfil an undertaking to write to her on the questions she raised in Grand Committee, I will certainly look into that as a matter of urgency. I must also apologise to my noble friend Lord Hodgson for the delay in responding to his letter of last month. I can, however, tell him that a reply was dispatched to him today.

This amendment would create a legislative obligation on the Ministry of Defence regarding civilian casualties following military operations, including sharing the details of any investigations with Parliament. This would be inappropriate for several reasons, not least that each military operation is different, so respective arrangements are likely to vary, depending on which forces are involved. It also risks prejudicing the operational and personnel security of our Armed Forces.

First and foremost, I re-emphasise that the Government take the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties when planning and conducting any form of military operation. Every care is taken to avoid or minimise civilian casualties and our use of extremely accurate, precision-guided munitions supports this aim. By way of an example, the authorisation process for air strikes is extremely robust. All military targeting is governed by strict rules of engagement in accordance with both UK and international humanitarian law.

I will make absolutely clear that we will not use UK military force unless we are satisfied that its use is both necessary and lawful. This tried and tested process brings together policy, legal and targeting experts—and, of course, the men and women of our Armed Forces are highly trained, including in the law of armed conflict. After a strike has been carried out, we conduct a full review to establish what damage has been caused, specifically checking very carefully whether there are likely to have been civilian casualties.

The Government have always taken very seriously any allegations of civilian casualties. We have thorough processes in place to review such reports and will launch investigations where appropriate. We will continue to consider all available evidence to support such reviews, and the Defence Secretary has made a personal commitment that the department will review all claims.

In the event of a credible allegation of a civilian casualty, an independent service police investigation would take place. The department has a process in place to inform Ministers on a case-by-case basis, but this has not been necessary to date, given that we have had no confirmed incidents of civilian casualties in Iraq or Syria caused by UK action. We are also committed to updating Parliament with information regarding any confirmed civilian casualty caused by UK military action in Iraq or Syria.

9.45 pm

I assure the House that the Ministry of Defence is committed to transparency as far as possible. However, I hope that noble Lords will agree that it is also paramount that we maintain personnel and operational security. This includes not revealing details about our targeting processes, which may endanger personnel and our ability to operate. To disclose that information, even in part, would prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of the UK Armed Forces.

A requirement in primary legislation to publish data on a regular basis may seem to be a way of holding the current and future Governments to account, but it would impose an unnecessary and inflexible burden. For example, we would have had nothing to report thus far on our operations in Iraq and Syria. The care that we take on operations means that civilian casualties are a rare occurrence. It is far more effective and timely for the department to notify Parliament by exception, which allows for proper due diligence to be paid to individual cases, rather than to have it imposed as a regular reporting obligation.

As I have made clear, the MoD has clear processes and procedures to minimise civilian casualties. The principle of openness on this issue is something which we strongly support and which we have demonstrated during our current operations in Iraq and Syria. We have been very open and transparent about the air strikes that we are conducting in Iraq and Syria: reports are posted online two or three times a week. These reports explain where a military operation has taken place and what effect has been achieved in the fight against Daesh. Where information is not disclosed, it is for very good operational reasons. In the light of what I have said on this matter, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree to withdraw her amendment.

Earl Attlee

Before the Minister sits down, he said that we have not caused any civilian casualties in Iraq. I take it that he is referring to current operations and not Operation Telic.
Earl Howe

My noble friend is right. I am referring to Operation Shader.

Baroness Smith of Newnham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his very thorough response, and in particular for reiterating the care that is taken with the precision of UK targeting. It is very clear that the Minister and the Secretary of State have committed to informing us of any civilian casualties should they arise. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 13 withdrawn.

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