Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference on September 9, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

(Sydney) – As civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria rise in the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the Australian government should take all feasible measures to protect civilians during military operations and improve the transparency of its operations, Human Rights Watch said today. The Australian government is an active member of the United States-led coalition against ISIS and has dropped thousands of munitions on targets in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, but has been one of the least transparent members of the coalition.

On May 8, 2017, the Australia Defence Force (ADF) began releasing fortnightly reports on strikes taken by the Australian air force as a member of the US-led coalition, but more detailed reporting is urgently needed.

“The rise in reports of civilian casualties raises questions about the precautions and procedures in place to protect civilians,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “New fortnightly Australian defense reports are a welcome step, but the government needs to provide more detailed information to ensure greater transparency and accountability for its military operations in Iraq and Syria.”

On May 1, 2017, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Minister of Defence, Marise Payne, calling for the government to improve the transparency of its operations and strike reporting. Throughout its campaign against ISIS, Australia has failed to be transparent. Airwars, a United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization that monitors airstrikes, said in a December 2016 report that the Australian government is “one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting the so-called Islamic State.” Australia’s stated reason for this lack of transparency was to protect operational security and prevent information about strikes taken by the Australian government from being used as propaganda.

On May 2, 2017, the Australian Ministry of Defence announced a review of its airstrike reporting, saying it would henceforth publish fortnightly reports “summarizing the targets and locations in Iraq and Syria struck by Australian aircraft.” According to the statement, the decision to increase transparency was made after weighing the importance of reporting over “the potential propaganda advantages” the reports might provide and risks to ADF personnel and operations. On May 8, the first report was released, detailing seven engagements between April 18-30. It gave the date and described in general terms the location, targets, and type of weapon used. The statement made no reference to any civilian or combatant casualties or active investigations.

While regular reporting is a welcome step toward more transparency, the Australian government should release data on its operations occurring in Iraq and Syria since the campaign began in 2014, and not just those after April 18, 2017, Human Rights Watch said. In these reports, the Australian government should detail instances in which they have investigated reports of civilian casualties, the outcome of these investigations, and to what extent compensatory or punitive actions have been taken. Publishing these reports would demonstrate Australia’s commitment to transparency and allow independent monitors to check reporting against allegations of civilian casualties.

The Australian government should also work directly with human rights organizations and independent monitors like Airwars to help it determine whether its operations may have resulted in civilian casualties. This has been done by other members of the coalition, including the US and the UK.

Heavy fighting in recent months in Iraq and Syria, especially in the densely populated neighborhoods of Mosul, Iraq, has exacerbated already dire conditions for hundreds of thousands of civilians caught between ISIS and those fighting to defeat them, increasing the importance of an emphasis on protection of civilians. Intensified operations against ISIS by the members of the US-led coalition operating under the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve have resulted in a sharp increase in the number of alleged civilian casualties in both Iraq and Syria since March 2017.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch urged the Department of Defence to maintain measures to require the maximum levels of target verification and authorization prior to taking all strikes (air and ground-launched). Measures that can be taken include the use of a central decision-making node, such as a Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve’s “Strike Cell” in Baghdad, which can provide military forces with additional targeting information and targeting recommendations. Additionally, the Australian government should maintain a multilevel approval process to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized. Human Rights Watch remains concerned that recent changes to the manner in which the US forces authorize some airstrikes may be contributing to the surge in casualties and urges the Australian government to press the US government to roll back this change.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Australian government to utilize all available intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance assets to identify the presence of civilians in the immediate vicinity of a target area prior to strikes and to verify information received by partner forces prior to acting on it. The Australian government admits that it is operating in a “dynamic and complex environment” and that “[ISIS] fighters capture civilians, holding them hostage and using them as human shields.” These conditions make it imperative that the Australian government act with extreme caution, taking all feasible measures to protect civilians and civilian objects.

Where there are allegations of civilian casualties, the Australian government should ensure that they are investigated. To date, the Australian government has not acknowledged it has taken part in any strike in Iraq or Syria that has resulted in civilian casualties, though it has acknowledged it has taken part in operations where there were “credible claims of civilian casualties.” The government later determined that it could not substantiate these allegations.

The government is also obligated under international law to conduct thorough, prompt, and impartial investigations of alleged serious violations of international humanitarian law, appropriately discipline or prosecute those responsible, and provide adequate redress for victims of serious violations. Information about civilian casualties should be drawn from a wide range of sources and should not be reliant on self-reporting or Battle Damage Assessments (BDA), which may only capture a partial picture of the consequences of a strike. A recent acknowledgment in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request that the government “does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) date on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics” is troubling insofar as it raises questions about government efforts to seek or collect information about civilian casualties and to take remedial measures, Human Rights Watch said.

Results of any investigations should be made public with an explanation of what accountability measures have been taken, including any redress provided to victims or the members of their families. Redress should include providing compensation for wrongful civilian deaths and injuries and appropriate compensation under the Tactical Payment Scheme for civilian harm where the Australian government has determined that its actions were lawful.

“If the Australian government is committed to protecting civilians, it should not only take precautions before striking targets, but also fulfill its individual duty to investigate allegations of unlawful civilian casualties and make every effort to ensure accountability and redress,” said Pearson.