UK showed no real interest in monitoring civilian casualties | Iraq Body Count (on the Chilcot Report)


(IBC, 7th July 2016)

Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry Report provides damning new evidence of the UK Government’s resistance to properly acknowledging Iraqi casualties, and its conclusions clearly support the notion that it is now time for Britain to help establish a proper casualty record for Iraq and the other wars it has fought since.

This is the major contribution of a 50-page chapter (Section 17) entitled “Civilian Casualties”, which still however makes no attempt to provide its own account of the nature and extent of civilian casualties of the war. The report says:

“It is beyond the scope and abilities of this Inquiry to establish independently the number of fatalities caused by conflict in Iraq, or the broader human cost of the conflict to the Iraqi people.” (para 3)

This is a serious shortcoming for an official Inquiry whose terms of reference its Chair, Sir John Chilcot, originally described as “very broad”: Iraq Body Count has already pointed this out, including in its submission to the Inquiry. For the Iraqi bereaved, who might have hoped for an investigation that finally detailed the full extent of their suffering and consequent needs, the Inquiry is as disappointing as it ever was.

Nonetheless IBC welcomes the report because one of its clearest conclusions is that a government bears the responsibility to ensure that civilian casualties of war are recorded. Its close questioning of the UK Government’s behind-closed-doors thinking on Iraqi civilian casualties reveals how narrowly the Government regarded this question: not as something which victims of armed violence and their families might reasonably expect an answer to, but as a political tool in the ‘blame game’ of the war.

The UK’s sole and consistent interest was to bolster its tarnished image by continuing to put “public emphasis on specific atrocities against civilians” committed by “insurgents/terrorists”, as part of its “concern to sustain domestic support for operations in Iraq.” (130, 131, 270). This is a disgrace for all concerned, and the Report should be commended for very forensically and effectively laying it bare.

Chilcot shows, for instance, that Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice to Blair’s office (Oct 2004) was:

“You asked for an assessment of civilian casualties in Iraq, noting that we cannot let figures of 10–15,000 go unchallenged as if we are responsible for all of them … The FCO recommend that we stick to publicising terrorist responsibility for civilian casualties in individual incidents. Underlying this is concern that any overall assessment of civilian casualties will show that MNF [Multi‐National Force – Iraq] are responsible for significantly more than insurgents/terrorists. (131)

Chilcot also reveals for the first time that these political motives led the Government to trial a process to monitor and report on civilian casualties, only to abandon it before it could be implemented, presumably because it failed to deliver the desired result.

Nowhere in the report of the Iraq Inquiry is there any indication that the welfare of Iraqis figured in these Government calculations; while casualty figures produced by others, including “NGOs” such as Iraq Body Count, were simply assumed – perhaps rightly – to be damaging to their case.

After detailing the sorry tale of the Government’s restricted interest in the topic of Iraqi casualties, Section 17 includes among its conclusions that,

271. With hindsight, greater efforts should have been made in the post‑conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties and the broader effects of military operations on civilians. A trial monitoring exercise initiated by No.10 in November 2004 was not completed. Much more Ministerial and senior official time was devoted to the question of which department should have responsibility for the issue of civilian casualties than to efforts to determine the actual number.

IBC sees this as a clear invitation to the UK Government to rectify its failings in this matter. We urge the Government to work with all relevant interested parties, including most crucially Iraqis themselves, to arrive at a full and properly respectful public record of the casualties from the invasion to the present day.

There should be no “statute of limitations” on such efforts: lives lost cannot be brought back, but telling the full story of those losses is a responsibility with no expiry date. The evidence from other conflict-affected societies around the world is that the search for truth persists for years and decades after fatal events. There is no “moving on” for the families and loved ones of those who were killed until there is full, humanising recognition of each and every loss.

The concluding paragraphs of Section 17 make not just UK- and Iraq-specific recommendations, but points that have global application. Chilcot notes that

216. “In June 2006, along with many other states, the UK Government signed the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development. Signatories resolved to take action to reduce armed violence and its negative impact on socio‑economic and human development, including by supporting initiatives “to measure the human, social and economic costs of armed violence, to assess risks and vulnerabilities, to evaluate the effectiveness of armed violence reduction programmes, and to disseminate knowledge of best practices” (our emphasis).

It further notes that

217. “The UK became one of 15 members of the “Core Group” charged with steering the Geneva Declaration process and guiding its implementation.”

Given that commitment, the UK Government could be expected to have been playing a far more active public role than it has done to date in the development of better and more comprehensive methods of recording civilian casualties, not least in the new conflicts in which it has played a role, such as Libya and Syria.

The recording of civilian casualties should never be neglected, and absolutely form part of the role of an occupying power. However, the reality is that sustained efforts to document and publish details about the civilians killed in these new conflicts remains largely in the hands of NGOs. Most Governments, including the UK’s, have played almost no visible role in this.

Accordingly, IBC fully concurs with Chilcot’s assertions that:

277. The Inquiry considers that a Government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.

280. The Government should be ready to work with others, in particular NGOs and academic institutions, to develop such assessments and estimates over time.

_____________________________________________________________________________

1 For the global initiative, see the Every Casualty website.

For Iraq, see the Iraq Digital Memorial on this site.

These assertions are in line with the calls of a growing international movement for greater attention to civilian casualties, that sees it as an absolute responsibility for states and other parties to conflict to ensure that every casualty of armed conflict is “promptly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged.”1 Only when this is the norm can the fullest lessons be learned from the consequences of war, and the repetition of life-destroying mistakes avoided.

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