Civilian casualties of war: Syria conflict shows UK is still in denial about need to do more to reduce the death toll – Alyn Smith and Megan Karlshøj-Pedersen

Wherever conflicts occur, it is always civilians who suffer the most. This year, images of significant civilian harm at the hands of Russian forces in Bucha, Kharkiv and Kherson have become all too familiar, highlighting the plight of millions caught in conflicts that they are not part of – but which affect them more than anyone else.

A man carries a young bombing casualty to safety after a reported air strike by Syrian regime forces or their allies on the jihadist-held town of Maaret Al-Noman in 2019 (Picture: Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP via Getty Images)
A man carries a young bombing casualty to safety after a reported air strike by Syrian regime forces or their allies on the jihadist-held town of Maaret Al-Noman in 2019 (Picture: Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP via Getty Images)

In many of the conflicts with the most severe harm, the UK plays no active role in the combat. This is the case for conflicts such as Tigray, for instance, where the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that there are 20 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. The same is true for Myanmar, where the Rohingya people have been targeted for genocide, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimating that over 940,000 refugees have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017.

Yet in other conflicts, the UK has played an active role – and in these, it has a responsibility to protect civilians, not only from others, but also from its own actions. Take the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq for instance. In this conflict, a US-led coalition, including the UK, has been fighting Isis for the last eight years. In this context, children living in Syria are now seven times more likely to be killed by explosive weapons than the combatants directly involved in the conflict. Conflict watchdog Airwars estimates that 8,194 to 13,249 civilians have died as a result of coalition strikes.

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However, while allies such as the US and the Netherlands have engaged in constructive processes with civil society to improve their approaches to the protection of civilians, as well as the monitoring and response to allegations of harm, the UK has fallen behind. There is a lack of basic transparency on how allegations of civilian harm are treated, and a lack of accountability to those affected. As a result, the UK Ministry of Defence maintains that only one civilian person has been killed as a result of the 3,024 bombs and 1,298 missiles used by the UK during its contribution to the US-led coalition – this is simply not possible.

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Organisations like Airwars do a great deal to try to address this by conducting research and investigations that monitor, assess, and archive allegations of civilian harm, as documented by those affected and their communities. Yet if states such as the UK do not engage in a process of learning from these instances, and if they fail to strategise on how to improve in the future, the harm will continue to occur.

This week, SNP MPs published a paper on this very issue, which set out a path for Scotland to not simply catch up to allies, but to become a part of the group that is setting a new standard for protecting civilians in conflict. In its 2019 General Election manifesto, the SNP committed to increasing pressure on the UK Government to introduce mechanisms to prevent identity-based violence and mass atrocities.

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Whilst the SNP has been active on this issue, the paper goes further in outlining not only what an independent Scotland can do to protect civilians but also what the UK could do now. The paper is unique to the extent to which it has allowed for meaningful societal engagement, with Airwars coordinating and leading the process of gathering input from a wide array of experts and civil society organisations with a global reach. This allowed the paper to incorporate lessons from recent conflicts, and to consider best practice in the area of protection.

An independent Scotland will aim to be a good global citizen in the world. The paper includes a range of proposals from increased funding for international development and climate mitigation to monitoring civilian harm and ensuring parliamentary scrutiny of arms exports. An independent Scotland would also join more than 80 states in signing up to the international declaration limiting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We will not just offer warm words but take an active role to help create global norms which ensure civilians are protected from the worst excess of violent states and individual groups.

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There is no reason also why the UK cannot follow this example and do more – now. The UK has joined many allies in signing the explosive weapons declaration; now the work must begin to improve national policy and practice to reflect the commitments made in this declaration. Yet beyond this, many of the paper’s proposals can also be adapted by the UK and would go a long way towards helping rebuild some of its reputation after brutal aid cuts, Brexit, and its lack of accountability for harm in recent conflicts.

The US is already taking steps to learn from past mistakes and earlier this year published its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. The Netherlands is undergoing a similar process and has made promising commitments during its roadmap process. As the UK Government looks to update its integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, it would do well to listen to others at home and abroad.

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The world is going through a period of unprecedented instability and the risk of conflict will only increase as climate change reaps its effects. It is vital that states around the world take proactive steps to prevent violence breaking out in the first place and to ensure the protection of civilians when it does. A better world is possible. But it’s up to governments to take that first step forward to ensure that when conflict breaks out, civilians are protected wherever possible, and states are transparent and accountable when civilians have been harmed.

Alyn Smith is SNP MP for Stirling and his party’s foreign affairs spokesperson; Megan Karlshøj-Pedersen is a policy specialist at Airwars, a not-for-profit transparency watchdog which investigates civilian casualties from explosive weapons use

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