UK Government makes new commitment on casualty recording

First published 2nd Mar 2018

The UK Government has committed itself in future to reporting numbers and non-personal details of civilian casualties admitted to UK military field hospitals during combat operations.

This development was announced in a written ministerial statement issued on 27th February 2018 by Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williams.

He wrote:

Recognising the important work being done by a number of UK registered charities, including Every Casualty Worldwide, Save the Children, and AirWars, to ensure that all lives lost to armed violence anywhere in the world are properly recorded, the Ministry of Defence is making a commitment to increase transparency by publishing the number of all civilians admitted to UK military field hospitals.

He went on to specify that

This information will detail the following: 
  • Type of civilian (e.g. UK civilian, Local civilian, Detainees. The split by type of civilian vary dependent on the nature of the operation)
  • Casualty type (e.g. Battle Injury, Non Battle Injury, Disease/Natural causes)
  • Disposal (e.g. Death in hospital, Discharged home, Discharged to another hospital).

This policy advance is one tangible outcome of a series of consultative meetings between officials at the Ministry of Defence and representatives of Every Casualty and its NGO partners. These meetings took place in the context of broader initiatives by Government to make practical responses to the insights and recommendations of the Chilcot Report (Iraq Inquiry) of 2016.

Although the Chilcot Report ranged broadly over all aspects of the planning, conduct, and aftermath of the Iraq Invasion of 2003, it devoted its 17th, final chapter solely to the issue of civilian casualties. Among the report’s conclusions and recommendations were:

274. The Inquiry has considered the question of whether a Government should, in the future, do more to maintain a fuller understanding of the human cost of any conflict in which it is engaged.

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.

We welcome this week’s Ministerial Statement as a first step by the UK Government in the direction of greater transparency in casualty reporting, in conformance with the Standards on Casualty Recording that Every Casualty published in 2016 with endorsement from key international bodies including the ICRC. The Statement also resonates with the central call of the widely-endorsed Charter for the Recognition of Every Casualty of Armed Violence, calling on states to ensure that all casualties are promptly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged.

Although this commitment to future action is welcome, it would be better still for the UK government to take action in the present by releasing the data it already holds on casualties received or treated in its field hospitals in recent conflicts. Such tangible action would be in keeping with the ideals expressed in the Statement and demonstrate more than good intent alone.

In any case, there are many more measures needed to fully implement recommendations 277 and 280 across all aspects of conflict and post-conflict operations, and we are therefore heartened by the public commitment made by Stephen Walgrave, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, that the government will implement the recommendations of Chilcot in full (video), and we look forward to seeing that commitment realised over time. One promising sign is the recent publication by the MOD of The Good Operation: a Handbook for those involved in operational policy and its implementation. Among the handbook's practical recommendations are that

someone in Government...should be given clear responsibility for monitoring performance. They should establish robust objectives and associated metrics with which to measure the success of the plan, with agreed, credible criteria for progress  (particularly with regard to the stability of any political settlement, violence levels, governance and Security Sector Reform [our emphasis]

The safety and protection of civilians must be a central concern of any such monitoring, and this provides a strong incentive for effective (comprehensive, rapid, reliable and consistent) casualty recording.

We stand ready with partners to assist the UK Government to take further steps towards the full accounting of civilian casualties in all the conflicts in which it has direct involvement or interest. It is fortunate that – to no small extent through the work of Every Casualty and its local and international partners – there now exists a growing body of knowledge regarding good practice, and an ever-growing range of organisations both official and non-governmental able to both undertake effective casualty recording, and offer expert advice regarding implementation.

As the Chilcot Report pointed out

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.

It further noted that

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

The Iraq inquiry is this century’s most detailed and thorough review into the consequences and policy implications flowing from a military engagement and its aftermath. The Inquiry’s conclusions and recommendations, including the extracts on the recording of civilian casualties quoted above, carry unprecedented force.

There could be no more fitting indication of the seriousness of its commitment to humanitarian principles such as embodied in the Geneva Declaration and reiterated in the Iraq Inquiry than for the UK Government to take the remaining steps necessary to ensure that every casualty of armed violence is indeed properly recorded.