Since the publication of “War of annihilation”: Devastating Toll on Civilians, Raqqa – Syria on 5 June, senior figures in the Coalition and its member governments have taken to social media, the airwaves and even the UK Parliament in a bid to dismiss the report’s findings that there was prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law.
“The Coalition’s knee-jerk reactions are long on rhetoric and short on detail. They lay bare how deeply in denial the Coalition leadership is about its failure to protect civilians caught in conflict,” said Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser at Amnesty International.
“Unless the Coalition learns from its mistakes in Raqqa – and Mosul beforehand – it will be doomed to repeat them, with civilians again paying a devastating price.”
The Coalition claims to be “transparent” and to have “meticulous processes” in place to ensure everything possible is done to avoid civilian casualties. But they consistently fail to demonstrate that this is in fact the case.
Its monthly reports on civilian casualties across Iraq and Syria rely on vague descriptions and dismiss the vast majority of allegations as “non-credible”. The Coalition has acknowledged a mere 23 civilian deaths resulting from the more than 30,000 artillery rounds and several thousand air strikes it launched into Raqqa city during its four-month military campaign from June to October 2017 which left the city in ruins. This figure is neither accurate, credible, nor serious.
The only Coalition partner on the ground in Raqqa in the aftermath of the military offensive – the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) – has demonstrated a rather different understanding of events during the offensive. In a letter to Amnesty International at the end of June 2018, the SDF pointed to Coalition “mistakes” and “unsuccessful air strikes” resulting in “huge human and material losses” on the ground.
Amnesty International spent weeks in Raqqa conducting field investigations – something the Coalition has failed to do – leaving no doubt that the Coalition killed hundreds and injured thousands of civilians during its offensive. In just four cases the organization investigated for its June report, Coalition air strikes killed 70 civilians, mostly women and children – including 39 members of a single family.
The artificially low number of civilian casualties the Coalition acknowledges stems in part from poor investigation procedures that fail even to involve on-the-ground research.
“Visiting strike sites and interviewing survivors and witnesses are crucial elements of any investigation. Without them, the Coalition’s investigations are simply not credible by any stretch of the imagination,” said Benjamin Walsby, Middle East Researcher at Amnesty International.
“Both strike sites and survivors and witnesses are easily accessible, as Raqqa and Mosul are now under the control of Coalition partners. Coalition officials and Western politicians have recently travelled there, so there is no reason for the Coalition not to carry out investigations that are worthy of the term, as promised in its own methodology.”
Since early 2017, Amnesty International has engaged in numerous advocacy meetings with Coalition officials, written repeatedly to defence officials in the USA, UK and France and published four reports on the civilian casualties caused by the Coalition’s operations in Mosul and Raqqa. However, in all this time, the Coalition has either failed to respond to requests for further information, or has attempted to dismiss Amnesty International’s findings.
The Coalition and some of its members have occasionally admitted to causing civilian casualties after Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have publicized particular cases. At the end of June 2018 the Coalition announced that, in light of new evidence from Amnesty International, it would re-evaluate four previously closed cases and examine one new case.
“The blustery denials we’ve repeatedly seen and heard from senior Coalition officials are contradicted by the lived reality of the hundreds of civilians we’ve interviewed for our investigations in Raqqa and Mosul. They’re even contradicted by their own partners on the ground,” said Donatella Rovera.
“We are asking the Coalition to live up to their own standards when it comes to reporting on civilian casualties in conflict, to investigate allegations of violations and offer redress to victims and their families. We very much hope that the announcement to evaluate our findings marks the first step towards this.”