Today, peers will debate a proposal for new standards in civilian casualty review as part of the Armed Forces Bill. The amendment – ‘reporting obligation on overseas deployments (civilian casualties)’ was tabled as clause 22A by APPG member Lord Robin Hodgson in response to this week’s Defence Questions from Graham Allen MP. Minister for Armed Forces told the House on Monday that she was committed to ‘review any reports of civilian casualties’ and personal ‘oversight of the process including compensation.’ This is a welcome step, although details of the review (written policy, working definitions and standard operating procedures) are not clear.
The amendment builds on the Minister’s commitment, requiring quarterly reporting on reports on civilian non-combatant casualties from both independent and coalition bodies by statute. It also requires disclosure of key documents underpinning the Ministry’s civilian casualty review process. APPG members have pushed for a UK lead in coordinating a formal and transparent procedure to investigate and respond to allegations of civilian harm from drone and other airstrikes for some time. The proposal is expected to attract some cross-party front bench opposition support.
Airwars, credited by the Minister for being proactive in submitting reports, currently estimates 952 civilian casualties may have been caused by coalition airstrikes, including drone strikes and strikes supported by Reaper ISR and target designation. But only one of the 12 partners have admitted to any civilian casualties. This invites questions about the definitions of ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’; how battle damage assessments are carried out remotely; what specific procedures are in place to ensure that rigorous, independent assessments are undertaken in response to reports of civilian harm; and what discussions there have been with allies. Today’s debate may answer some of these questions, and offer a positive model for all counter-terrorism drone strikes involving civilian casualties. There are powerful strategic, legal and ethical reasons for taking civilian casualty review seriously.
The debate coincides with the date for the quarterly progress review of the mission against DAESH promised by the Prime Minister on 2 December (no sign yet), and the announcement of a £1.5 billion collaboration with France on a new ‘future combat air system’ described as ‘the advanced vehicle of its kind in Europe’: it is a good time consider the second and third order effects of remote warfare. This may feature on the agenda of the next Reaper User Group meeting scheduled for 14-18 March.
Meanwhile, Yasmin Qureshi MP asked Tobias Ellwood at the Foreign Affairs Committee about reports of a military planning meeting in Libya and elicited the statement that there had already been RAF ISR operations there this year. The basis and purpose of these missions are not clear. Members have pressed for clarification on this and the remit of the convention requiring a debate before deployment abroad. To his credit, the Foreign Secretary has now committed the Government to adhering to the convention unless there is a ‘direct emergency or where considerations of secrecy make it impossible.’ With further remote engagement on the horizon and new forms of collaborative working with partners emerging – most recently the use of RAF Lakenheath for US strikes in Libya – it is especially important to clarify and promote the highest standards in conduct and law. It is hoped that the anticipated Joint Committee of Human Rights report on UK policy on use of drones for targeted killing will lead on this shortly.