Ann Clwyd and Tom Brake: We need to act - 85% of casualities in conflict are civilians

Posted On: 
14th June 2019

As the penholder at the UN Security Council, we have the perfect platform to lead the way in upholding the global commitment to the protection of civilians in conflict, writes Ann Clwyd and Tom Brake

People clear debris after airstrikes hit Sanaa, Yemen
Credit: 
PA Images

During the Second World War, civilians represented 50% of total casualties but by the 1990s civilians are believed to have accounted for between 80% to 85% of casualties in armed conflict, with the trend continuing into the 21st century (ODI Briefing Paper May 2019 – Sarah Adamczyk). Something is going terribly wrong.

Militaries are increasingly moving away from large-scale ground interventions, and relying on airpower and the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas as the key means of achieving their military objectives. This has significant costs for civilians, and brings with it a number of challenges that must be addressed to ensure continued adherence to International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

In conflicts around the world, civilians’ right to life is being violated. Civilians are used as human shields; vital civilian infrastructure and humanitarian actors are deliberately targeted; essential humanitarian access is blocked. All armed parties, state and non-state actors, have been, and continue to be, responsible for serious and systematic violations in war. Humanitarian organisations and NGOs are working hard in extremely difficult circumstances to fill the gaps in civilian protection, however their neutrality is repeatedly compromised, opening them up to attacks and thwarting their efforts to reach those in most need.

Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council Protection of Civilian (PoC) mandate, our Westminster Hall debate will reiterate the on-going importance of fundamental IHL principles, i.e. proportionality, distinction and precaution, so that civilians in armed conflict are better protected. With the UK currently the pen-holder for the UN Security Council’s PoC mandate, we have the opportunity to take a stand – both at the domestic and global level – for those caught up in conflict around the world.

Currently, however, it is clear we do not yet have an adequate understanding of the impact of our own operations on civilian populations. By acknowledging only one civilian casualty as a result of more than 1,900 strikes conducted by the UK in Iraq and Syria (70% involving 500lb bombs), we have revealed an inability to accurately record civilian casualties and track civilian harm.

"If the UK is to be a more credible global champion of PoC, the first step is being accountable for our own operations."

If the UK is to be a more credible global champion of PoC, the first step is being accountable for our own operations. There needs to be the collation of both external and internal sources of evidence to the highest evidentiary threshold, and, most importantly, the willingness across Government to learn from mistakes. External sources of information and expertise are particularly vital to bridge existing gaps in knowledge, capacity and understanding of realities on the ground. 

Given the UK’s increased reliance on, and involvement in, partner- and coalition operations, intelligence sharing, arms sales and international security sector capacity building, the UK can also do better in upholding our positive responsibilities to promote IHL adherence and ensuring PoC is a central pillar and condition in assistance and arms sales.

Serious and systematic violations of IHL in conflicts like Yemen show a failure to uphold these obligations, by the armed parties to the conflict as well as by those supporting them. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians while crippling hospitals and critical infrastructure, contributing to a humanitarian crisis of a magnitude not seen since World War II, including widespread famine and a cholera epidemic – and yet the UK continues to support, and export arms, to the Saudi military.

The Government is currently reviewing our national PoC strategy. PoC requires a proactive policy that is part of the core military mission, and ensures that IHL is interpreted and applied so the well-being of civilians is prioritised. Today’s conflicts are not just about fighting to win territory, but also to win over the affected populations. Civilian deaths can be used to fan extremism and radicalism and recruit those affected by military action, acting as a force multiplier for our adversaries.

The new strategy needs to have a strong mandate for action, including clear guidance on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and when working with partners. To address these issues comprehensively, we need a whole-of-Government approach. We commend the Government’s current efforts in this area, but emphasise that this revised strategy document must be the start of a whole-of-Government effort and global conversation. As the penholder at the UN Security Council, we have the perfect platform to lead the way in upholding the global commitment to the protection of civilians in conflict. Let’s make the best use of it.

 Ann Clwyd is Labour MP for Cynon Valey and Tom Brake is Lib Dem MP for Carshalton and Wallington. Their Westminster Hall debate takes place on Tuesday 18 June.