It was a question put to me that neither I nor, it seems, any elected representative nor any member of the defence forces is accurately able to answer. Why? If we participate in illegal military incursions into sovereign nations, what responsibilities do we have for documenting the loss of life? If we honour lives shouldn't we also value them? Lest we forget the innocents?
A 2016 report by Airwars, 'Limited Accountability A transparency audit of the Coalition air war against so-called Islamic State', found that Australia was one of a group of countries that has
... chosen to wage semi-secret' conventional wars – with affected civilians on the ground, citizens at home - and monitoring agencies unable to hold these governments to account. The most widely cited reason given by nations when refusing to disclose the dates and location of their airstrikes is national security or domestic security concerns. While these are legitimate worries, other states have made clear that improved public reporting has not led to an increase in such security concerns. British and Canadian defence officials in particular argue that greater public transparency on military actions can be beneficial when engaging domestic populations. The adoption of similar good practice by all Coalition partners can and should be pursued with some urgency.
In response to a Freedom of Information request issued on the Department of Defence, calling for information relating to civilian casualties – rather crudely referred to as "civcas" – together with information about the dates and locations of airstrikes the Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC), provided the following advice:
The Department does not specifically collect authoritative (and therefore accurate) data on enemy and/or civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria and certainly does not track such statistics. The Battle Damage Assessments received from the Coalition HQ focus specifically on the achievement of the "commander's intent" and while this reporting does reflect any assessed collateral damage, this is normally material in nature and not specific WRT casualties. Authoritative and accurate casualty statistics would need to be sought from the coalition HQ in theatre (run by the US) and any such requests are highly unlikely to be successful.
In summary, the Department does not hold or track the statistics requested and would need to source such data from the U.S.-run coalition HQ in theatre. Any such request is beyond third-party/international partner consultation and would require dedicated effort in theatre from the U.S. We would anticipate that any such request, under FOI, would be dismissed by the U.S. and, if provided, would require excessive time and effort to collate especially within an active, operational HQ.
A chilling response, is it not? Particularly when the Coalition has always been clear - that it is for each individual ally to monitor and respond to the civilian casualties caused by its own airstrikes.
In contrast, the Airwars report noted that:
Canada was an active member of the Coalition between November 2nd 2014 and February 10th 2016, at which point Justin Trudeau's new government ended kinetic involvement. In total, the Hornets and Super Hornets of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) reported 251 airstrikes during a 15-month campaign against ISIL - all but five of which took place in Iraq. For the duration of its campaign, Canada was consistently the most publicly accountable member of the Coalition - setting a good benchmark against which to measure other partners. As a matter of routine, CAF reported the location, target and date of all airstrikes conducted in both Iraq and Syria.
It went on to state:
By identifying in a timely manner not only the nation, region and locale bombed - but also the targets believed struck - CAF provided enough information to enable Airwars and others to cross-reference whether Canadian aircraft may (or may not) have been potentially involved in any alleged civilian casualty incident …. there were no common rules within the Coalition for the monitoring or reporting of civilian casualties by member nations, leading to troubling variations between allies when it came to being held publicly to account for their actions …. The final and most troubling cluster includes Australia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Belgium, along with Jordan and the Netherlands. While each has issued very limited information on their military actions against ISIL - for example some overarching data, or reports on occasional single incidents - in effect these six nations have waged war without any real public accountability for their actions. And while each claims to have killed no civilians [with the exception of members of the Syrian military]in the air war against ISIL, it remains impossible to verify this against the public record.
On the back of this, the Federal Government – with the support of the Opposition – has now weakened domestic Australian law so that airstrikes could now target 'those who may not openly take up arms but are still key to Daesh's fighting capability'. The objective was to 'clarify that certain war crimes offences applicable in non-international armed conflict do not apply to members of organised armed groups'.
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