Stephen Goose, director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, was instrumental in bringing about the 2008 convention banning cluster munitions, the 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel mines, the 1995 protocol banning blinding lasers, and the 2003 protocol requiring clean-up of explosive remnants of war. He and Human Rights Watch co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. Goose created the ICBL’s Landmine Monitor initiative, the first time that non-governmental organizations around the world have worked together in a sustained and coordinated way to monitor compliance with an international disarmament or humanitarian law treaty. In 2013, he and Human Rights Watch co-founded the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1993, Goose was a US congressional staffer and a researcher at the Center for Defense Information. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a B.A. in History from Vanderbilt University.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you for the floor, Chairman.

I am pained to have to say that the CCW is failing. It is failing to address the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems in an urgent manner, as is demanded, as is required. We do not want the CCW to fail on this, as the implications could be catastrophic.

Ambassador Gill has been promoting a multi-pronged approach to dealing with lethal autonomous weapons systems, with action at the international, national, and industry levels. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which Human Rights Watch co-founded, has been following that model since its inception in 2013. Indeed, that approach is the only one that will be successful in bringing about a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons.

On the industry side, the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics communities have been outspoken in support of a preemptive ban. It has been an astounding level of engagement from the scientific community, which is usually reluctant on what some may see as a political issue.

You are all aware that thousands of scientists and AI and robotics experts have signed an open letter calling for a preemptive ban. More recently, in August, at the very time this Group of Governmental Experts should have been meeting, more than one hundred founders of AI companies issued an open letter consistent with the call for a ban, and they urged the CCW to take immediate action. CCW states parties need to listen to these true experts.

On the national level, there are legislative initiatives in many nations, including calls for a ban.

And while we have congratulated CCW states parties for taking up this issue in a timely fashion in 2013, the biggest disappointment in this multi-pronged approach has been the foot-dragging at the international level, here in the CCW.

We share the disappointment expressed by many countries that there is only one week of work on lethal autonomous weapons systems this year, and so far this week, we are treading water at best.

We appreciate the many calls for a preemptive ban this week, and we appreciate the hard and thoughtful work of many delegations, including those who submitted working papers.

We take note of the potential steps forward proposed by a number of states, including a political declaration, best practices, guidelines, a code of conduct, and enhanced weapons review processes.

There may be useful aspects to some of these proposals, but they are clearly inadequate as a response to the dangers of fully autonomous weapons. They all seem to pre-suppose the pursuit of lethal autonomous weapons systems and they all would serve to slow progress toward the only real solution: a preemptive ban.

When will the CCW move from talk shop or graduate seminar to action? GGEs are for government deliberations, not government Q and As with academics and outside experts.

When will the CCW get down to drawing the line, to determining the nature and level of meaningful human control needed for autonomous weapons? The groundwork has been laid. Please build on it.

As our Campaign Coordinator noted, we support the continuation of the GGE next year, but you should do more than just roll over the existing mandate. The time devoted to the issue should be expanded to at least four weeks. That is the only time the CCW has been successful on an issue, when it devotes that amount of time or more.

In addition, the objective of the GGE should be more ambitious. It should not just be aimed at formulating “options” for future work. Those four or more weeks should be seen as preparations for negotiations. 

States Parties should then agree to a formal negotiating mandate at the end of 2018, and conclude a new protocol, Protocol VI, by the end of 2019 – a protocol that bans the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you Mr. Chair.

We sincerely appreciate all the work that you and your team and the CCW implementation support unit have done in preparing for this meeting. We are grateful to states for the preparation you have undertaken for this meeting, including the working papers available from the CCW website. We also appreciate the preparation and new reports that we have seen for this meeting from UNIDIR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the SIPRI.

You will hear in a minute from some of our member organizations of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, but I wanted to make some remarks on behalf our global coalition established in October 2012 with the goal of preemptively banning fully autonomous weapons, known here at the Convention on Conventional Weapons as lethal autonomous weapons systems.

This is the first-ever meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts, but it is the fourth time since 2014 that states have met at the CCW to discuss “questions relating to the emerging technologies of lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

We hope by now that is is clear our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots is not trying to stifle innovation in artificial intelligence, robotics or science more generally. We are not trying to prohibit autonomous systems in the civilian or military world.

Rather our concern is that technological advances are making it increasingly possible to design weapons systems that would target and attack without any meaningful human control.

We have heard many states affirm that lethal autonomous weapon systems “do not exist” and pledge not to acquire or develop them. Such commitments are welcome, but policy can expire, be overridden, and replaced. This is why we see an urgent need for national legislation and new international law to preemptively ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons.

While the capabilities of future technology are uncertain, there are strong reasons to believe that fully autonomous weapons could never replicate the full range of inherently human characteristics necessary to comply with fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Existing mechanisms for legal accountability are ill suited and inadequate to address the unlawful harm that fully autonomous weapons would be likely to cause.

As you have seen, thousands of experts from the artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics community are calling for a new treaty to prohibit weapons systems that lack meaningful human control. The short film released this week illustrates their strong concern over the potential for these weapons to proliferate and fall into the wrong hands.

And as you know, our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots fundamentally objects to permitting machines to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control, and other circumstances. For us this is a moral “red line” that should never be crossed.

After four years we believe the time has come for states to make explicit where they draw the line in increasing autonomy in weapons systems and determine how to ensure the line into full autonomy is not crossed.

We urge you to dedicate significant time to holding substantive meeting to foster common understandings and lay the groundwork necessary to begin negotiations on a new international instrument.

Agree to a mandate at the next week’s Meeting of High Contracting Parties that continues the Group of Governmental Experts. Require that it meet for at least four weeks in 2018, including during the first half of the year.

The Non-Aligned Movement has shown how more than 100 states now see an urgent need to move to negotiating new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems. As Brazil noted, there is enough of a critical mass now to move to a more structured approach by developing a new legally binding instrument.

Dozens of states have now affirmed the need to retain human control over the selection of targets and use of force. As the Russian Federation found in its working paper for this meeting, “The overwhelming majority of States agree on the inadmissibility of loss of meaningful human control of such weapons systems.”

A total of 20 states now support the goal of prohibiting lethal autonomous weapons systems and we welcome Iraq to this list this week. We call on all states that have not done so to articulate their support for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. At minimum, explain your rationale if your cannot endorse this call at this time.

It’s time to get down to business and start negotiations now.

Thank you.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

© 2012 Russell Christian for Human Rights Watch
The United States along with China, Israel, South Korea, Russia and the United Kingdom have been investing in developing weapons systems with decreasing levels of human control in the critical functions of selecting and engaging targets. The fear is that as the human role decreases, these so-called ‘killer robots’ will eventually take over these critical functions.

Armed drones are an example of this trend toward ever-greater autonomy, but they are still operated by a human who takes the decision to select and fire on targets.

A central concern with fully autonomous weapons is that they will cross a moral line that should never be crossed by permitting machines to make the determination to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control and other circumstances.

On 13 November 2017, representatives from about 80 countries will meet at the United Nations in Geneva to discuss questions relating to what they call lethal autonomous weapons systems. Since their last meeting on the issue in April 2016, concerns have continued to mount over these future weapons. At the same time, there is a debate about whether states at the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) can address this challenge by negotiating a new CCW protocol that bans or restricts these weapons.

Given that countries would not want to fall behind in potentially advantageous military technology, the development of these revolutionary weapons would be likely to lead to an arms race, unless action to put a stop to the whole process is taken now. High-tech militaries might have an edge in the early stages of these weapons’ development, but as costs go down and the technology proliferates, these weapons would likely be mass-produced.

Life-and-death decisions

Qualities such as compassion and empathy in addition to human experience make humans uniquely qualified to make the moral decision to apply force in particular situations. No technological improvements can solve the fundamental challenge to humanity that will come from delegating a life-and-death decision to a machine. Any killing orchestrated by a fully autonomous weapon is arguably inherently wrong since machines are unable to exercise human judgment and compassion.

Humans find it difficult in many circumstances to reliably distinguish between lawful and unlawful targets, but fully autonomous weapons are even more unlikely to reliably make such distinctions, as required by international humanitarian law. While the capabilities of future technology are uncertain, it is highly doubtful that it could ever replicate the full range of inherently human characteristics necessary to comply with the rules of distinction and proportionality.

These weapons also have the potential to commit unlawful acts for which no one could be held responsible. Existing mechanisms for legal accountability are ill-suited and inadequate to address the unlawful harm that fully autonomous weapons would be likely to cause.

One driver behind fully autonomous weapons is the desire to process data and operate at greater speed than for weapons controlled by humans at the targeting and/or engagement stages. Such weapons could also operate without a line of communication after they are deployed.

Yet because fully autonomous weapons would have the power to make complex determinations in less structured environments, their speed could lead armed conflicts to spiral rapidly out of control. And regardless of their speed, their ability to operate without a line of communication after deployment would be problematic because the weapons could make poor, independent choices about the use of force.

Since fully autonomous weapons could operate at high speeds and without human control, their actions would also not be tempered by human understanding of political, socio-economic, environmental and humanitarian risks at the moment they engage. Thus, they could trigger a range of unintended consequences, many of which could fundamentally alter relations between states or the nature of ongoing conflicts.

While fully autonomous weapons might create an immediate military benefit for some states, they should recognise that such advantages would be short-lived once these weapons begin to proliferate. Ultimately, the financial and human costs of developing such weapons systems would leave each state worse off.

Campaign to Stop Killer Robots

For these and other reasons, non-governmental organisations have established the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to work for a preemptive ban on development, production and use of weapons systems that, once activated, would select and fire on targets without meaningful human control.

Since 2013, 19 countries have endorsed this ban objective and dozens more have affirmed the importance of retaining meaningful or appropriate or adequate human control over critical combat functions of weapons systems. Yet multilateral deliberations on this topic have proceeded at a snail’s pace while technology that will enable the development of fully autonomous weapons bounds ahead.

While international humanitarian law already sets limits on problematic weapons and their use, responsible governments have in the past found it necessary to supplement existing legal frameworks for weapons that by their nature pose significant humanitarian threats.

Some contend that conducting weapons reviews before developing or acquiring fully autonomous weapons would sufficiently regulate the weapons. Weapons reviews are required under Article 36 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions to assess the legality of the future use of a new weapon during its design, development and acquisition phases.

Yet weapons reviews are not universal, consistent or rigorously conducted, and they fail to address the implications of weapons outside of an armed conflict context. Few governments conduct weapons reviews and those that do follow varying standards. Reviews are often too narrow in scope sufficiently to address every danger posed. States are also not obliged to release their reviews, and none are known to have disclosed information about a review that rejected a proposed weapon.

A binding, absolute ban on fully autonomous weapons would reduce the chance of misuse of the weapons, would be easier to enforce, and would enhance the stigma associated with violations.

Moreover, a ban would maximise the stigmatisation of fully autonomous weapons, creating a widely recognised norm and influencing even those that do not join the treaty. Precedent shows that a ban would be achievable and effective.

After three years of informal talks with no outcome, it’s time for states to negotiate and adopt an international, legally binding instrument that prohibits the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons. If that is not possible under the auspices of the CCW, states should explore other mechanisms to ban fully autonomous weapons without delay. The future of our humanity depends on it.

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A still image taken from a video distributed by Yemen's pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station shows what it says was the launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Riyadh's King Khaled Airport on November 4, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Beirut) – The ballistic missile strike by Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen on Riyadh’s main international airport on November 4, 2017, is most likely a war crime, Human Rights Watch said today. Saudi Arabia responded to the attack by claiming Iran, which it accuses of aiding the Houthi rebels who control much of northern Yemen, smuggled the missile to Yemen and announcing a “temporary” closure of all Yemeni land, sea, and air ports. Saudi claims about the missile’s origin could not be verified and, according to media reports, Iranian officials denied the allegation.

Houthi-Saleh-aligned media reported that the armed group fired a Burkan H2 ballistic missile at King Khalid International Airport, northeast of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Saudi media reported that its missile defenses intercepted the missile in flight, but that some missile fragments fell inside the airport area. No casualties were reported. On November 6, the Saudi government said it was “temporarily” closing all Yemeni ports in response to the attack, but that humanitarian aid could continue to enter Yemen under strict coalition vetting procedures. Further restrictions on aid to Yemen would likely violate international law on humanitarian access, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Houthis’ launching of an indiscriminate ballistic missile at a predominantly civilian airport is an apparent war crime,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “But this unlawful attack is no justification for Saudi Arabia to exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe by further restricting aid and access to the country.”

Col. Turki al-Maliki, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, told the governmental Saudi Press Agency on November 4 that Houthi-Saleh forces fired the missile at 8:07 p.m. from Yemen toward Riyadh, but that the Saudi Patriot air and missile defense system intercepted the missile on the eastern side of the airport.

King Khalid International Airport is about 35 kilometers northeast of the densely populated areas of Riyadh. The airport compound includes a company that services and maintains military aircraft. While the site where Houthi-Saleh forces launched the missile is unclear, the airport is approximately 850 kilometers from the Yemeni border. An attack with an unguided ballistic missile such as the Burkan H2 from this range is indiscriminate since these weapons are not capable of the necessary accuracy to target military objectives. When deliberately or indiscriminately directed toward populated areas or civilian objects, such attacks violate the laws of war, and may amount to war crimes.

The attack on Riyadh’s international airport is the latest in a series of indiscriminate Houthi-Saleh ballistic missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, though it was the first to reach the capital. In October 2016, Saudi Arabia accused Houthi-Saleh forces of targeting the holy city of Mecca with a missile, which they claimed Saudi defenses intercepted 65 kilometers south of the city. Houthi forces admitted they had launched a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia, which they described as a Burkan 1, but claimed the target was Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport. In another attack, on July 22, 2017, Houthi-Saleh forces struck an oil refinery near the port city Yanbu, 300 kilometers northwest of Jeddah, with a Burkan H2 ballistic missile.

Human Rights Watch has documented the Houthi-Saleh forces’ indiscriminate launching of short-range unguided artillery rockets from northern Yemen into populated areas of southern Saudi Arabia since May 2015. Some of these attacks killed civilians.

After the attack, on November 5, Saudi authorities published a wanted list of 40 Houthi officials, offering financial rewards of between US$5 million and US$30 million for anyone who provides information leading to their arrests. The next day the coalition announced it would close all sea, land, and air ports to Yemen temporarily, while declaring that humanitarian aid would continue to be allowed in after strict vetting procedures. While warring parties may impose blockades during an armed conflict, a blockade is unlawful if it has the sole purpose of starving the civilian population or denying the population goods indispensable for its survival. A blockade also violates the laws of war if it has a disproportionate impact on the civilian population, when the harm to civilians is, or may be expected to be, greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the blockade.

The Saudi-led coalition’s restrictions on imports existing before the recent announcement have already worsened the dire humanitarian situation of Yemeni civilians. Yemen is experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than seven million people on the brink of famine and hundreds of thousands suffering from cholera.

Previous coalition claims that they would abide by international law when imposing a blockade have proven false, Human Rights Watch said. The coalition has delayed and diverted fuel tankers, closed a critical port, and stopped life-saving goods from reaching the population. The coalition has also closed the country’s main airport for more than a year, blocked rights groups from entering Yemen, and repeatedly interfered with United Nations flights carrying humanitarian workers into Yemen. Houthi-Saleh forces, who control the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country, have also violated international legal obligations to facilitate humanitarian aid to civilians and significantly harmed the civilian population.

Since March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out military operations against Houthi-Saleh forces including scores of unlawful airstrikes that hit homes, markets, hospitals, schools, and mosques. From June to August, Human Rights Watch documented six coalition airstrikes that killed more than 50 civilians in Yemen. On November 5, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen stated that he was “horrified” by the continued violence by all sides to the conflict, singling out a November 1 coalition airstrike on a busy market in Saada governorate that killed 31 people, including six children, as well as recent indiscriminate shelling of Taizz city that killed five children.

The laws of war prohibit deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks on civilians. Attacks that are not directed at a specific military objective or cannot distinguish between civilians and military objectives are considered indiscriminate. An attack is unlawfully disproportionate if the anticipated loss of civilian life and property is greater than the expected military gain from the attack. Warring parties must do everything feasible to verify that targets are military objectives and minimize civilian casualties.

Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent – that is, intentionally or recklessly – may be prosecuted for war crimes. Individuals may also be held criminally liable for assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime.

“The large casualties suffered by Yemeni civilians provides no excuse for Houthi-Saleh forces to commit indiscriminate missile attacks on Saudi cities,” Whitson said. “The laws of war apply to all sides, and all sides need to minimize harm to civilians whatever their nationality.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

A poison hazard danger sign is seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on April 5, 2017.

© 2017 Abdussamed Dagul/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As members of the UN Security Council debate this week about whether to renew their Syria chemical weapons investigation, they might want to read Wilfred Owen’s World War One poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” It describes an attack in which a man dies from exposure to a chemical agent on the battlefield, “stumbling and flound’ring like a man in fire:”

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.”

Owen’s gut-wrenching scene from a century ago is worth revisiting because the scene he so vividly depicted has been repeated over and over again in Syria for at least four years. Many of the victims have been civilians, including children. They have died from exposure to sarin, sulfur mustard and chlorine.

The horrors of chemical attacks in the First World War and the 1980s Iran-Iraq war are among the reasons countries have, since the 1920s, sought to end them. This culminated when the vast majority of countries came together and agreed to create the Chemical Weapons Convention, the global ban on these hideous weapons that came into force in 1997. 

In the wake of the August 2013 sarin attack on two Damascus suburbs that left hundreds of civilians dead, Russia and the United States set aside their differences and required Syria to dismantle its chemical stockpile and join the treaty. The Security Council unanimously endorsed the US-Russian plan, which brought Syria into the world’s most adhered-to weapons ban.

While the Syrian government handed over much of its chemical weapons stock for destruction, it did not stop using these weapons, as documented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is in charge of ensuring that the treaty is observed.

Security Council members need to restore the lost consensus that followed the terrible August 2013 attacks and renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a team of investigators staffed by the UN and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Its job is to identify those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria that have continued since Syria joined the chemical weapons treaty so they can be held to account for their crimes.

Last month, Russia vetoed a proposed renewal of the Joint Investigative Mechanism  due to a dispute over whether the renewal vote would be held before its report was released on whether the Syrian government was responsible for an attack earlier this year.   The JIM has confirmed that the Syrian government was responsible for that attack, a sarin attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April. But in the same report it also confirmed that ISIS was responsible for a sulfur mustard attack in 2016. The group is investigating other attacks where the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed the presence of chemical agents.

It’s not too late to renew the Joint Investigative Mechanism before its mandate expires this month. Disliking its conclusions is no reason to shut it down. The Security Council and its members have an obligation to let it continue with its work and then to impose sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for the chemical attacks. 

The United Nations Security Council should make clear to those contemplating the use of chemical weapons that the international community can track them down and prosecute them.  Shuttering the JIM would send a message to combatants in Syria and elsewhere that getting away with chemical murder is easy. It would also send a terrible message that the Security Council is unwilling to enforce one of the world’s clearest norms prohibiting a method of warfare. Does the Security Council really want that on its conscience?

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Screenshot from recording of cluster munition attack in Qalaat Al-Madiq, Syria. 

© 2017 Private
(Beirut) – The Russian-Syrian joint military operation has carried out unlawful airstrikes in recent weeks that have killed civilians trapped in northern Syria, Human Rights Watch said today. The ongoing attacks and the lack of escape routes highlight the dangers facing civilians in the area and undermine any notion that Idlib can be considered safe for civilians.
 
Russian and Syrian aircraft started the attacks on Idlib province and surrounding areas on September 19, 2017. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson stated that it was responding to a large-scale offensive in the area by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which includes fighters from the group Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda. However, evidence Human Rights Watch collected indicates that some of the attacks struck markets and populated residential areas, including camps for the displaced. The attacks used cluster munitions and explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas.
 
“Two million civilians in Idlib are sitting ducks,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than a safe zone, Idlib has effectively become in some parts a ‘killing zone’ with escape routes closed.”
 
On September 15, Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire zone in Idlib province and parts of Hama and Western Aleppo, as part of a de-escalation agreement. One of the main armed groups in the area, HTS, which includes fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, was not part of the agreement, however. The de-escalation zones are often referred to as safe zones.
 
Turkey appears to have all but closed its border with Idlib province to Syrian refugees. As fighting continues in Syria with offensives by the Syrian government, Russia, and HTS, this cuts off one escape route for civilians in Idlib, who have said they feel it is dangerous to try to reach other parts of Syria. On October 16, Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority announced that it was prepared to receive refugees from Idlib, but maintained that waves of refugees were unlikely to occur. Turkey has yet to open its border except for urgent medical cases, and only temporarily according to witnesses. The United Nations has said that 2 million civilians are currently in Idlib province, half of them displaced people.
 
Human Rights Watch investigated three air strikes conducted after September 19. The three attacks killed at least 72 people, including at least nine children, according to local witnesses and first responders. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photos and video footage showing remnants of cluster munitions in four attacks and investigated one of them, which reportedly killed two civilians, in greater depth, interviewing witnesses and residents.
 
Prior to the September offensive, fighters and civilians from other parts of the country and Syrian refugees in Lebanon had moved to opposition-controlled territory in and around Idlib province, following local evacuation agreements. In July alone, Idlib received upward of 24,000 displaced people, including thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanon and thousands more fleeing fighting in other parts of the country. Russian-Syrian strikes have hit at least two displacement camps since September 19, according to local reports, and killed at least four displaced people according to witnesses.
 
Russia has claimed that the offensive came in response to a large-scale offensive by HTS against Syrian troops in the Idlib de-escalation zone on September 18, which led to the encirclement of a platoon of 29 Russian military police in the area. Sources close to HTS told local news outlets that HTS opened its offensive to undermine the de-escalation agreement. Russia and Syria responded with massive firepower, with Russia’s military stating on September 20 that in “the past 24 hours, 187 facilities were hit by airstrikes and artillery fire, and about 850 terrorists were destroyed.” The attacks on Idlib province and surrounding areas continued for at least 10 days after that.
 
Since September 30, the intensity of attacks has reduced, but local media and the Syria Civil Defense, which provides search-and-rescue operations, reported that airstrikes continued to hit civilian areas as recently as October 8.
 
Russia has denied that it is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure and claimed that the targets were “far away” from residential areas, but Human Rights Watch has documented numerous attacks on residential neighborhoods as well as a main road lined with shops in the city of Jisr Al-Shughur. Local activists and first responders estimate that 102 airstrikes hit Jisr Al-Shughur between September 19 and 28, killing 55 people and injuring 135. The attacks destroyed significant parts of the infrastructure in the city and surrounding areas and led to the evacuation of two hospitals in the city, according to statements by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders - MSF) and the local council.
 
The attacks led people from Jisr Al-Shughur to flee to nearby displacement camps. A camp manager on the border with Turkey said that approximately 12,000 people fled the city and surrounding areas following the attacks.
 
On September 28, MSF found that the airstrikes had put four hospitals in Idlib and Hama provinces out of service. On October 5, the UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator said in a statement that between September 19 and 30, 149 people had died from airstrikes on residential areas in Idlib.
 
At least some of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented were indiscriminate and therefore prohibited under international law. Russia and Syria used cluster munitions, which are inherently indiscriminate, over the towns of Qalaat Al-Madiq, Jisr Al-Shughur, and Al-Tamaneh, among others, in populated areas.
 
They may have used enhanced blast weapons, also called fuel-air explosives or “vacuum bombs,” in populated areas. More powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions of comparable size, these weapons inflict extensive damage over a wide area and produce indiscriminate effect in populated areas. Human Rights Watch documentation shows the strikes caused what appears to be significant destruction, implying use of heavy firepower, in heavily civilian populated areas, including main roads and shopping and residential areas, potentially violating the principle of proportionality, which says that harm to civilians must be proportionate to the military gains.

Two million civilians in Idlib are sitting ducks.

Nadim Houry

Terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch

On October 12, Turkey deployed troops inside Idlib province, Anadolu Agency reported. The Syrian government responded with a statement calling on Turkey to immediately withdraw, per news reports.

Russia and Syria should comply with the laws of war in its military operations and take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, including taking adequate steps to determine that the sites targeted served a military objective and distinguishing between civilians and combatants. Russia and Syria should allow independent investigations into these strikes and make information about them available. All parties to the conflict should ensure that civilians can flee the fighting in safety, including to seek refuge in Turkey, and respect the laws of war in their military operations in Syria.

“The intense fighting in Idlib and the uncertainty surrounding the area’s future exposes the myth that Idlib is a safe area for Syrians to return to,” Houry said.

This investigation is based on 16 remote interviews by Human Rights Watch researchers with first responders, local residents, hospital staff, and relatives of victims involved in the three attacks. Human Rights Watch also reviewed images and videos available as open source information, and provided to Human Rights Watch directly by local witnesses and first responders.

Human Rights Watch has chosen to publish only the names of sources who gave permission and if Human Rights Watch determined that it would not put them at additional risk. For some sources, Human Rights Watch has used pseudonyms, or left them unidentified, either because the sources requested confidentiality, or because Human Rights Watch determined that publishing their names could pose a risk to them.

Armanaz, September 29

On September 29, aircraft attacked Armanaz, a town 20 kilometers northwest of the city of Idlib and 10 kilometers from the Turkish border, killing at least 35 people, including at least three children, according to five witnesses and photos and video footage analyzed by Human Rights Watch.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that an aircraft dropped several munitions on a residential neighborhood close to al-Zahra Mosque in Armanaz around 8:30 p.m. People interviewed said that armed groups fighting the Syrian government had no presence inside the town and that the attack killed and injured only civilians. One witness said that although HTS was in general control of the area, all the victims were civilians.

Yasser Yahya, a local resident, went to the area immediately after the attack:

We went to rescue people and we found people all over the ground and under the rubble. Everyone was trying to rescue them. We pulled out whoever was close, most were children and women. Those who were stuck deeper, they weren’t pulled out except days later. Most people who died are women and children, there are also men, and also elderly people, some in wheelchairs – they couldn’t go out of their homes.

Approximately an hour and a half after the initial attack, local residents said, an aircraft attacked the same location again. Ahmad Jabas, a first responder from Syria Civil Defense, said that his group tried to evacuate the area when they heard a warning on the radio that an aircraft was flying toward them. He said the second attack killed at least four people trapped under the rubble. “They could have survived [if it were not for the second attack],” he said.

The attacks destroyed at least 30 residential buildings, Syria Civil Defense and first responders said. Video footage and photos Human Rights Watch reviewed show a significant amount of destruction to what appear to be residential buildings.

Local residents, including relatives of victims, provided the names of 42 victims of the two attacks, saying they were civilians. More than one source included the same 35 names. The list includes at least three children. Abdelkader Khashan, a Syria Civil Defense first responder, described finding a small child under the rubble: “I thought I could save him so we took him to the nearest medical point, but he was dead. He was around 8 months.” Khashan shared with Human Rights Watch a video of himself with an infant covered in dust who appeared lifeless.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two people whose relatives were killed in the attack. Samir (not his real name) said that he was on his way to visit his relatives when the attack struck their houses:

The houses were all razed to the ground. You wouldn’t recognize the area. As we removed the rubble, we could hear people screaming, we could hear my aunt, her husband, we could hear their voices. We first saw the body of my cousin, he was already dead. Then we saw the body of his sister-in-law and her son. We kept digging for an hour and a half and we saw her son’s hand. I think he’s three or four years old. We assumed he was dead, he wasn’t moving, he wasn’t crying. But when we pulled him, he suddenly took a deep breath, and started crying.

A second witness provided the names of five relatives killed in the attack, including two children.

Some of the witnesses said they believed, based on the extent of the destruction, that the aircraft dropped fuel-air explosive bombs on the area. These enhanced blast weapons are more powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions of comparable size and inflict extensive damage over a wide area. Because of these wide area effects, Human Rights Watch believes that belligerents should refrain from using enhanced blast weapons like fuel-air explosives in populated areas. The destruction seen in photos and videos is consistent with the use of an enhanced blast weapons, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to otherwise independently confirm the type of weapon used in the attack.

A network of observers monitoring aircraft movement in Syria, known as “Sentry Syria,” reported that an Su-24 aircraft – used by both the Syrian and Russian air forces – took off from the Tiyas, or T4, airbase, west of Palmyra in Homs province, at 8:13 p.m. on September 29 and was spotted heading north. At 8:26 p.m., the network reported that an Su-24 was flying north over Kafr Nabl, and at 8:27 p.m., that an Su-24 was flying northwest over Saraqib. Armanaz is 35 kilometers northwest of Saraqib. The timing could correspond to the aircraft that carried the strike in Armanaz.

Jisr Al-Shughur, September 25

On September 25, aircraft attacked a shopping area on the main road in Jisr Al-Shughur, killing at least 19 people, including at least two children, according to two activists and Syria Civil Defense.

Ibrahim Haj Ali, a local resident, said he saw aircraft “constantly” in the air above Jisr Al-Shughur the day before the attack. He said he was in the area on the afternoon of September 25:

I was having coffee with one of my friends. Suddenly, everything went black, fire erupted in our face, and we were in thrown in the air. We didn’t feel anything, we didn’t understand what had happened. Cars and people were thrown into the air. Buildings were razed to the ground, cars were on fire, it was like the apocalypse.   

Haj Ali said that the attack killed and injured several of his friends. He said that the market consisted of multi-story buildings with stores and shops on the ground floor and civilians living on the other floors. The people interviewed said there were no military bases or vehicles in the area. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm that.

Mustafa Abu Akef, a local media activist from Jisr Al-Shughur, said he could provide some of the names of those killed but not all as some of the others were unidentifiable due to the extent of their burns. He shared photos of bodies that appeared to be heavily burned, as well as a photo of a 7-year-old girl he said he had saved but who had lost her leg as a result of the attack.

Video footage circulated by local activists on social media and reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed extensive damage to what appear to be the center of Jisr Al-Shughur.

Most residents of the city had fled the airstrikes for displacement camps in the northern part of the governorate. “The situation in the city is tragic,” Abu Akef said. “Only very few of the city people are left, and they need help – food, bread, basic things. No one is left in the city. They all fled.”

On September 27, the Jisr Al-Shughur City Council announced that the city was a “devastated area,” a designation reserved for areas where disaster has struck leaving primary facilities destroyed and the majority of the population has been displaced.

Qalaat Al-Madiq, September 20

On September 20, aircraft attacked Qalaat Al-Madiq, a town 45 kilometers northeast of the city of Hama, killing at least 10 people immediately, including four children, according to four local residents.

Image of unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunitions in Qalaat Al-Madiq, Syria. 

© 2017 Private

The aircraft attacked the town at 4:15 p.m., witnesses said. Hussein Kanaj, a local resident who was about 500 meters away when the attack happened, said the airstrikes hit the market in the center of the city, as well as a residential neighborhood. Two other residents and a Syria Civil Defense first responder confirmed this.

Ahmad Nairouzi, a Syria Civil Defense first responder, said:

We could feel the impact of the explosion from across the town. We knew where it landed from the smoke and flames, and ran to the location. There was a lot of destruction. We immediately started to evacuate the wounded and collect the remains of the dead. 

When Human Rights Watch spoke to Nairouzi on October 7, he said that they were still finding human remains in areas far from the initial explosion: “That’s how powerful the explosion was.”

The consecutive strikes on Qalaat Al-Madiq killed a total of 18 people, among them seven children, with more at risk from severe injuries, the witnesses said. Residents said that people displaced from other areas in Syria were among the dead, including at least one child.

The attacks forced many people to flee. Noor Nabhan, a town resident, said that after the first attack, about 90 percent of the population of the city fled to nearby areas, including displacement camps near the border.

Cluster Munitions

Local residents, monitoring groups, local journalists, activists, and first responders have reported at least 12 occasions when aircraft used cluster munitions during attacks between September 19 and 30. In four of those attacks, photos or video footage posted online show unexploded submunitions or other cluster munition remnants. Human Rights Watch documented in detail one of these attacks, in Qalaat Al-Madiq on September 21.

Cluster munitions are delivered from the ground by artillery and rockets, or dropped from aircraft, and contain multiple smaller submunitions. A total of 119 countries have banned cluster munitions due to the harm caused at the time of attack and because their submunitions often fail to explode and threaten civilians and military alike, until cleared and destroyed. Syria and Russia should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Human Rights Watch said.

Since mid-2012, Syrian government forces have used both air-dropped and ground-launched cluster munitions. Cluster munition attacks in Syria increased significantly after Russia began its military operation on September 30, 2015.

Qalaat Al-Madiq, September 21

On September 21, an aircraft attacked Qalaat al-Madiq with cluster munitions, according to three local residents, Syria Civil Defense, and photos and video footage analyzed by Human Rights Watch. The attack killed at least two civilians and injured at least 10, according to the witnesses.

Residents said that an aircraft attacked the town with four cluster munitions shortly after 6:00 p.m. Three witnesses said that the submunitions landed in various locations in town: two payloads struck the Hay Al-Zahra’ neighborhood in the middle of the town, one struck the Haret Makhfar neighborhood, and one struck the main town’s street and market.

Hussein Kanaj, a local resident who was close to the impact site of one of the cluster munition attacks, said that the attack had a greater effect on him than other attacks he had witnessed: “After the cluster munition attack I was so terrified, so scared that I could barely feel my legs under me. I said whoever wants to stay can stay, I won’t. So I moved.”

Noor Nabhan, who was nearby when the cluster munition attack struck, said that unexploded submunitions were a real problem and that a child had found one, which she brought to Syria Civil Defense. “It is terrifying,” he said. “People are afraid of what they could find, even in their own houses.”

Both Nabhan and Ahmad Nairouzi, a Syria Civil Defense member, said that the September 21 cluster munition attacks killed two civilians, a man and a woman. Abu Muhannad Al-Ghaby, also a local resident, said that the cluster munition attack on the market injured six shop owners while the attack in the northern neighborhood injured nine civilians, he said. He provided the names.

Al-Ghaby shared a photo of remnants he said Syria Civil Defense collected after the cluster munition attacks. The photo shows more than 30 unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunitions. The ShOAB-0.5 fragmentation submunition, a tennis-ball-shaped submunition produced by the Soviet Union, is only known to be delivered by a specific type of air-dropped RBK-500 cluster bomb. Human Rights Watch documented the use of this type of cluster munition by the Syrian air force starting in March 2013.

Al-Ghaby also provided Human Rights Watch with a video he said he filmed in the northern neighborhood, which shows a flash in the sky of the bursting charge opening the weapon in mid-air followed by dozens of small explosions within seconds on a hillside. A large number of small explosions within a short period in a defined area are signature features of a cluster munition attack. The video also shows the medieval fortress in Qalaat Al-Madiq, confirming that the attack took place in the town.

A different video, which Qalaat Al-Madiq News posted on its Facebook page in the evening of September 21, shows a similar attack, but this time among a group of houses, corroborating the reports that more than one cluster munition hit the town.

All of the witnesses interviewed said the targeted areas were full of civilians. One witness said that some of the strikes hit headquarters of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups, but that HTS was not present in these areas. Human Rights Watch has no independent confirmation of this.

Other Cluster Munition Attacks

For the following attacks, Human Rights Watch has not conducted detailed investigations, but photos and video footage said to be from the attacks show remnants of cluster munitions. 

Shortly after midnight on September 25, the Edlib Media Center reported that a cluster munition attack in the town of Maarat Harma, had wounded two civilians. The center posted photos of one unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunition.

The Edlib Media Center reported in the morning of September 29 that a cluster munition attack in al-Tamanah shortly after midnight that day had killed three women and a child and injured several people. Syria Civil Defense posted photos on its Facebook page showing unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunitions and the tail section of an RBK-500 cluster munition, saying that they were found after the September 29 attack on al-Tamanah. The Syrian Network for Human Rights also posted a photo of an unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunition, saying it was from the same incident.

Syria Civil Defense posted photos of its staff members locating unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunitions in Tel’adeh.

Syria Civil Defense posted on its Facebook page photos of the tail section of an RBK-500 cluster munition, saying that it was found after a cluster munition attack on September 29. In another post, it included photos of unexploded ShOAB-0.5 submunitions that were found in Jisr Al-Shughur on September 29.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Next month, for the first time in 37 years, a UN disarmament body will have a dedicated window to address the humanitarian problems caused by incendiary weapons, one of modern warfare’s cruelest class of arms.

At their 2016 Review Conference, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed to add the topic to the agenda of their annual meeting. These states should come prepared in November to use this time for substantive discussions about the harm incendiary weapons inflict on civilians and the adequacy of CCW Protocol III, which was adopted in 1980.

Countries need not wait until then to advance the conversation, though.  In their statements at First Committee, they should condemn the use of incendiary weapons and express their support for reviewing and strengthening the restrictions in Protocol III.

Incendiary weapons cause death and excruciatingly painful injuries through a combination of heat and flame. Victims suffer from severe burns, sometimes to the bone, as well as damage to the respiratory system. People who survive their initial injuries often suffer from lifelong disfigurement, psychological trauma, and social exclusion. The fires sparked by these weapons often destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.

Protocol III was in large part a response to the widespread use of napalm in the Vietnam War, but incendiary weapons remain a problem today. According to Human Rights Watch research, this year Syrian armed forces have used incendiary weapons in at least 22 attacks in five Syrian governorates. Many of the attacks involved ZAB submunitions containing thermite. 

Also in 2017, members of the US-led coalition used ground-launched white phosphorus munitions during their operations against the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.  While Iraqi Security Forces stated that they used the white phosphorus to create smokescreens, the substance is known to cause burn injuries comparable to those of other incendiary weapons.

Protocol III has failed to prevent the irresponsible use of incendiary weapons.  Two major loopholes have undermined its effectiveness.

First, although Protocol III prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in concentrations of civilians, it has weaker restrictions on the use of ground-launched types. 

Second, Protocol III’s definition of incendiary weapons covers only weapons that are “primarily designed” to set fires and cause burn injuries. As a result, many argue it does not cover multipurpose munitions with incendiary effects, notably white phosphorus.

These loopholes would be legally straightforward to close. The protocol could be amended to prohibit all incendiary weapons, regardless of their delivery system, in concentrations of civilians. It could also adopt a definition based on the effects of a weapon, rather than the purpose for which it was designed. An absolute ban on the use of incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian impact.

An amended protocol would of course bind states parties to stricter rules.  In addition, it would increase the stigma against incendiary weapons and put more pressure on states not party and non-state armed groups to comply with the international standard.

Recognition of the problem of incendiary weapons and support for taking action against them continues to grow.  At the CCW’s Fifth Review Conference last December, about 25 states, plus the European Union, expressed concern about or condemnation of the use of incendiary weapons in their statements. The final report, agreed to by consensus, goes beyond merely expressing concerns and “condemns any use of any incendiary weapons against civilians or civilian objects, and any other use incompatible with relevant rules of International Humanitarian Law.”

At the same conference, about 15 states parties called for reviewing and in some cases strengthening Protocol III. As mentioned earlier, the Review Conference as a whole agreed to add Protocol III to the 2017 agenda. 

Given the ongoing use of incendiary weapons and the shortcomings of existing law, states should take advantage of the opportunity presented by these developments. We urge them to engage in meaningful dialogue in New York and Geneva and to work actively to better protect civilians from the horrific harm caused by incendiary weapons.

Thank you. 

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Thank you Mr. Chair.

The last multilateral meeting held at the United Nations to discuss concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapon systems, was in April 2016.

Since then, concerns have continued to mount over these future weapons, that, once activated, would select and fire on targets without meaningful human control. Funds continue to be invested in the development of weapons systems with decreasing levels of human control in the US as well as in China, Israel, South Korea, Russia, the UK, and elsewhere.

In 2014–2016, approximately 80 countries attended three informal CCW meetings on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva together with key UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. These meetings helped increase awareness and understanding of the ethical, human rights, legal, operational, proliferation, technical, and other challenges posed by these weapons.

At their Fifth Review Conference in December 2016, CCW states agreed to formalize their deliberations on lethal autonomous weapons systems by establishing a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to meet twice in 2017. We welcomed this incremental step, which we said demonstrated progress by moving the deliberations to the next level and raising the expectation of an outcome because past GGEs have led to the negotiation of draft CCW protocols.

Yet 2017 has been a lost year thus far for efforts to address lethal autonomous weapons systems. The Group of Governmental Experts still has not convened, ostensibly due to financial challenges stemming from the failure of key states to pay their outstanding CCW dues.

The GGE is now slated to meet for a week in November. From the draft programme, it still looks like a lot of talk but little action, with no concrete expected outcome. There appears to still be too much reliance on outside experts at a time when the new GGE setting has raised the expectation of more substantive engagement by the governments themselves.

At the end of September, key states such as Brazil finally paid their overdue CCW funds, but this does not solve the CCW’s broader financial problems. How are states expected to make progress if they don’t meet in the first half of the year? How are you going to make progress without dedicated Secretariat staff supporting your work?

The Group of Governmental Experts has been tasked with further exploring the issue and agreeing, if possible, on “recommendations on options.” Identifying such options at the CCW should be a swift exercise as there are only three real outcomes: 1) a ban protocol, or 2) a protocol containing restrictions (regulation), or 3) no new protocol.

Since 2013, 19 countries have endorsed the call to ban fully autonomous weapons, which is a goal shared by our Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Dozens more have affirmed the importance of retaining meaningful or appropriate or adequate human control over critical combat functions. This level of interest in taking action shows there is likely a strong foundation of support for creating new international law.

We urge all states to participate substantively in the first meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts next month, which is open to all countries regardless of whether they have ratified the CCW. We appreciate the preparations for this meeting by GGE chair Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill of India and his team.

We call on states to pursue a revised mandate at the CCW’s annual meeting on 22–24 November 2017 that continues the Group of Governmental Experts and requires that it meet for at least four weeks in 2018 to lay the groundwork necessary to negotiate a new CCW protocol on lethal autonomous weapons systems.

The window for preventative action is fast closing. The CCW process on lethal autonomous weapon systems could and should result in a new CCW protocol banning these weapons, but it should not take many years to do so. A long, drawn-out process that achieves a weak or no result must be avoided.

Permitting machines to take a human life on the battlefield or in policing, border control, and other circumstances is a moral line that should never be crossed. We state ready to work with states who share this concern and our objective of securing a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons now, before it is too late.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Setsuko Thurlow, survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, speaks at the closing of the negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Ralf Schlesener

Awarding the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is both timely and well deserved. It affirms the humanitarian disarmament path forged by many since the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator, Jody Williams, won the Nobel Prize 20 years ago.

ICAN played a leading role in breaking the deadlock surrounding nuclear weapons by reframing it as a humanitarian issue rather than a national security one. Their global coordination effort also included like-minded governments, United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations.

Humanitarian disarmament” contrasts with traditional disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation initiatives, which are driven by national security interests. Humanitarian disarmament builds on international humanitarian and human rights law and seeks to better protect civilians from suffering during armed conflict.

While receiving the Nobel Prize is a true honor, the real prize for this coalition of campaigners is the hard-won 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty was adopted by 122 countries in July and has been signed by 53 countries since it was opened for signature in New York last month. 

The treaty bans all nuclear weapons. It also contains obligations to assist victims and remediate the environment harmed by the use or testing of the weapons.

Norway, home to the Nobel Peace Prize, and other countries that have not joined the ban treaty should reevaluate their stance and take steps to sign and ratify the agreement without delay. The United States and other nuclear powers that have dismissed the treaty and dissuaded states from signing it should stand down and reconsider their position.

This award reflects international recognition that the humanitarian approach is the most effective way to address nuclear weapons and other key disarmament issues. 

Author: Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Crimes against Humanity

Human Rights Watch has found that serious violations committed by members of Burma’s state security forces against the Rohingya Muslim population in northern Rakhine State since August 25, 2017, amount to crimes against humanity under international law. The crimes against humanity alleged include: a) forced population transfers and deportation, b) murder, c) rape and other sexual violence, and d) persecution as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ad hoc international criminal courts.

Human Rights Watch previously determined that the Burmese government was responsible for crimes against humanity against the Rohingya in 2012 and 2016 when Buddhist monks and ethnic Rakhine villagers carried out killings with help from the state security forces.[1]

According to the ICC Statute, crimes against humanity are specified criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.”[2] The attack must also be part of a state or organizational policy.[3] International legal jurisprudence requires that the attack be widespread or systematic, but need not be both.[4] “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims and a “systematic” attack indicates “a pattern or methodical plan.”[5]

The "attack" does not necessarily need to be a military attack as defined under international humanitarian law.[6] Because crimes against humanity may be committed “inside or outside the context of an armed conflict, … the term civilian must be understood within the context of war as well as relative peace.”[7] Furthermore, “the term ‘population’ does not require that crimes against humanity be directed against the entire population of a geographical territory or area.”[8]

Crimes against humanity are crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and are crimes of universal jurisdiction, meaning they may be prosecuted before national courts in countries outside of Burma, even though neither victim nor the perpetrator is a national of that country.

A. Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya population have been widespread and systematic

The Burmese military’s campaign against the Rohingya population was sparked by an August 25, 2017 attack by militants belonging to the armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which targeted about 30 police posts and an army base. The military’s attacks, which include mass burning, killings, and other abuses, have caused more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Tens of thousands more are internally displaced within Rakhine State. An additional 21,000 mainly ethnic Rakhine and other non-Muslims are also displaced in Rakhine State, as a result of ARSA attacks or the Burmese military operations.[9]

Early satellite imagery showed the overall area in which burnings were found to be spread along an approximately 100-kilometer long stretch of Rakhine State, which is substantially larger than the approximately 20-kilometer long stretch in which burnings by Burmese security forces occurred from October to November 2016.[10] 

Maps of the damage seen in satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch show near-total destruction of 284 villages, with more than 90 percent of the structures in each village damaged.[11] Detailed satellite images show the destruction of tens of thousands of homes across Maungdaw and Rathedaung Townships.[12] Accounts taken from eyewitnesses, including video obtained and verified by Human Rights Watch researchers, place the blame for the vast majority of these burnings squarely on the Burmese security forces and vigilante groups acting in concert with the security forces.

B. Burmese military and government statements have indicated an intent to attack the Rohingya population

On September 16, the Burmese army commander, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, linked Rohingya demands to be recognized as an ethnic group under Burmese law with the army’s actions.[13] Using “Bengali,” a Burmese ethnic slur for Rohingya, he stated in a Facebook post that, “They have demanded recognition as Rohingya, which has never been an ethnic group in Myanmar. [The] Bengali issue is a national cause and we need to be united in establishing the truth.”[14] He described the ongoing operations against the Rohingya as “unfinished business” dating back to World War II.[15]

On September 15, the Burmese Government Information Committee of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s office, stated that, “Those who fled the villages made their way to the other country [Bangladesh] for fear of being arrested as they got involved in the violent attacks” – implying that the several hundred thousand people who fled Burma were responsible for the militant attacks against the government.[16]

On September 21, Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing referred to restoring destroyed villages of the “national races,” a reference to the official list of recognized indigenous ethnic groups – a list that does not include the Rohingya: “Regarding the rehabilitation of villages of our national races, for the national races [largely ethnic Rakhine] who fled their homes, first of all they must go back to their places. ...The important thing is to have our people in the region. It’s necessary to have control of our region with our national races. We can’t do anything if there are no people from our national races … that is their rightful place.”[17]

 

Alleged criminal acts amounting to crimes against humanity

A. Crime of deportation and forced population transfers

Since August 25, the Burmese military has subjected Rohingya to both deportation and forced population transfers.

Deportation is recognized as a crime against humanity in each of the major international criminal instruments prior to the ICC.[18] Deportation and forcible transfer of population are distinguished by whether or not the victim was forced across an international border:

Both deportation and forcible transfer relate to the involuntary and unlawful evacuation of individuals from the territory in which they reside. Yet, the two are not synonymous in customary international law. Deportation presumes transfer beyond State borders, whereas forcible transfer relates to displacements within a State.[19]

The crime of forcible transfer of populations includes "the full range of coercive pressures on people to flee their homes, including death threats, destruction of their homes, and other acts of persecution such as depriving members of a group of employment, denying them access to schools, and forcing them to wear a symbol of their religious identity."[20]

The requisite elements of the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer consist of coercing movement to another location of people lawfully in the area with the intent of permanently relocating them.[21]

As noted, since late August, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and tens of thousands have been forcibly displaced within Burma, along with members of other ethnic groups. In early September, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 Rohingya refugees who had fled across the border to Bangladesh and obtained detailed accounts from about a dozen people. The Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that Burmese government security forces had carried out armed attacks on villagers, inflicting bullet and shrapnel injuries, and burned down their homes. They described the military’s use of small arms, mortars, and armed helicopters in the attacks.

Satellite images corroborate accounts gathered by Human Right Watch from refugees who have described abuses by the Burmese military, police, and ethnic Rakhine mobs to force them to leave their homes.[22]

The Burmese military alleges that ARSA militants and Rohingya villagers have burned down their own homes but has provided no evidence to substantiate this claim. The scale, scope, and timing of the burnings, many of which occurred after hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had already fled, is inconsistent with this claim. The pattern of burnings over time suggests government responsibility for the destruction.[23]

B. Crime of Murder

Murder is recognized as one of the prohibited acts that may constitute a crime against humanity in the ICC statute and in the ad hoc criminal courts.[24] It has been defined as “the death of the victim which results from an act or omission by the accused, committed with the intent either to kill or to cause serious bodily harm with the reasonable knowledge that it would likely lead to death.”[25]

Human Rights Watch interviewed [a number of] Rohingya refugees who had described the murder of relatives and neighbors by the Burmese military. 

Momena, a 32-year-old Rohingya woman from Maungdaw Township, said that she fled to Bangladesh on August 26, a day after security forces attacked her village. She first hid with her children when the soldiers arrived, but upon returning to the village she saw 40 to 50 villagers dead, including some children and elderly people: “All had knife wounds or bullet wounds, some had both. My father was among the dead; his neck had been cut open. I was unable to do last rites for my father – I just fled.”

Usman Goni, 20, said that he and five friends were in the hills outside their village, tending cattle, when they were attacked. He saw a helicopter flying overhead and then something fall out of it. He later realized he had been hit by whatever the helicopter dropped. Four of his friends died from fragment injuries while villagers transported Goni to Bangladesh for treatment.

Hasina, a 20-year-old Rohingya woman, said that the Burmese army attacked her village of Tu Lar To Li in late August. The villagers ran when the soldiers came, but some were trapped on a riverbank and she saw dozens murdered on the beach. She said the soldiers forced her and many other women to stand waist-deep in water and watch while soldiers dug a pit to burn the bodies of those they had killed. She tried to hide her infant daughter under her shawl, but a soldier noticed the baby, snatched her away and tossed her into the fire.

Hasina said that several hours later the soldiers took her, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, and three other relatives, all children, to a nearby house. The soldiers tried to rape the women, knifing her mother-in-law to death when she resisted and beating Hasina and her sister-in-law unconscious. They beat the young children to death with spades. She said the soldiers tried to burn her and her sister-in-law alive in the house; they managed to escape the flames, but with serious burns.[26]

Witnesses described dozens of killings in the village of Maung Nu in Buthidaung Township at a single house. One man said he saw soldiers kill three men; one of them while handcuffed and in their custody. He also saw soldiers beat two children to death with the butts of rifles after they were taken from their mothers.

Another man said that while hiding in an adjacent building, he saw two soldiers execute his elder brother, shooting him in the back and then cutting his neck with a long knife.

A woman said that a soldier entered the house she was hiding in, tore her 10-year-old nephew out of her hands, dragged him into the next room, and shot the boy in the head with a rifle, killing him instantly.

Witness accounts, independent reporting, and photo and video recordings also described Burmese soldiers in recent weeks deliberately laying antipersonnel landmines at key crossing points along the Burma-Bangladesh border that are used by the fleeing Rohingya population. Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that Burmese military personnel also planted mines on roads inside northern Rakhine State prior to their attacks on predominantly Rohingya villages.[27]

C. Crime of Rape and Other Sexual Violence

Rape and other acts of sexual violence are recognized as prohibited acts that may be prosecuted as crimes against humanity, including in the ICC statute.[28] There are many reports of the military carrying out rapes, including gang rapes, of Rohingya women during the security crackdown in Burma in recent weeks, as well as in 2016.[29]

UN and other health workers said that after this most recent August 2017 military crackdown, they treated dozens of Rohingya women and girls who had escaped to Bangladesh for injuries consistent with violent sexual attacks.[30]

One woman told Human Rights Watch that she and four other women were taken to a hut, slashed with knives, and sexually assaulted. The soldiers then set the hut on fire. She is the only one to escape alive. Another woman who was raped still has injuries from the machete attack and beatings that accompanied the rape, and said she also barely managed to escape from a burning house.

One man told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed an army soldier rape three women in Maung Nu village. Two other woman from the same village told Human Rights Watch that soldiers stripped them and several other women who were hiding from the military naked and that they were “touched everywhere.”

D. Crime of Persecution

Persecution is recognized as among the offenses that can constitute a crime against humanity.[31] The ICC statute defines persecution as “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.”[32] The crime of persecution consists of an act or omission that 1) entails actual discrimination and denies a fundamental human right, and 2) was carried out deliberately with the intention of discriminating on one of the recognized grounds.[33] These include for political, national, ethnic, and religious reasons.[34] Persecutory acts have been found to include murder, sexual assault, beatings, destruction of livelihood, and deportation and forced transfer, among others.[35]

Acts of violence, restrictions on fundamental rights, and other discriminatory actions – such as depriving members of the population access to their livelihoods or to food – might be considered acts of persecution that amount to crimes against humanity.

Evidence of government intent to commit the crime of persecution against the Rohingya can be found in both the actions and inaction of state security forces, combined with the longtime discriminatory state practices against them, such as restrictions on freedom of movement, marriage, childbirth, education, and employment.

For decades, the Burmese government has considered the Rohingya, most of whom live in northern Rakhine State, to be foreign nationals from Bangladesh. Just over one million Rohingya lived in Burma before August 2017, and they make up a large portion of the country’s relatively small Muslim population. The Rohingya have long faced systematic discrimination in Burma based on their exclusion from citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law. As a result, the Rohingya are one of the largest stateless populations in the world.

Since the Rohingya lack citizenship, Burmese police, border guards, and local officials systematically subject them to numerous rights-abusing restrictions. Government laws, policies, and practices prevent Rohingya from freedom of movement to leave their villages; restrict their right to livelihoods; interfere with their privacy rights to marry and have children; and obstruct them from access to basic health services and education.

Official restrictions and recurrent military operations against Rohingya communities have left the Rohingya highly dependent on food and other aid distributed by United Nations agencies and humanitarian aid organizations.

 

Hostility against aid agencies has grown following government accusations that international aid workers supported the Rohingya militants because some high-energy biscuits distributed by the World Food Program were found in an alleged militant camp in July 2017.[36] Some supply warehouses of international aid groups were reported looted in September, while national and international staff of the UN and international aid organizations have faced intimidation, according to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.

 

[1] Human Rights Watch, “All You Can Do is Pray;” Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State, April 22, 2013, https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/04/22/all-you-can-do-pray/crimes-against-humanity-and-ethnic-cleansing-rohingya-muslims; Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Rohingya Recount Killings, Rape, and Arson; Video Testimony Matches Satellite Images of Attacks,” December 21, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/21/burma-rohingya-recount-killings-rape-and-arson.

[2] Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC Statute), 2187 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force July 1, 2002, art. 7, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/Rome_Statute_ICC/romestatute.html . The Rome Statute entered into force on April 11, 2002 and the ICC has the authority to prosecute the most serious international crimes since July 1, 2002. Burma is not a party to the Rome Statute.

[4] Ibid., art. 7(1); Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadic, ICTY, Case No. IT-94-1-T, Opinion and Judgment (Trial Chamber), May 7, 1997, para. 646, http://www.icty.org/x/cases/tadic/tjug/en/tad-tsj70507JT2-e.pdf.

[5] See Prosecutor v. Akayesu, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Case No. ICTR-96-4-T, Judgement (Trial Chamber I), September 2, 1998, para. 579. In Akayesu the Trial Chamber defined widespread as “massive, frequent, large scale action, carried out collectively with considerable seriousness and directed against a multiplicity of victims.” http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/ICTR/AKAYESU_ICTR-96-4/Judgment_ICTR-96-4-T.html ; see also Prosecutor v. Kordic and Cerkez, ICTY, Case No. IT-92-14/2, Judgement (Trial Chamber III), February 26, 2001, para. 179; Prosecutor v. Kayishema and Ruzindana, ICTR, Case No. ICTR-95-1-T, Judgement (Trial Chamber II), May 21, 1999, para. 123; Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadic, ICTY, Case No. IT-94-1-T, Opinion and Judgment (Trial Chamber), May 7, 1997, para. 648. See also Prosecutor v. Kunarac, Kovac and Vokovic, ICTY, Case No. IT-96-23 and IT-96-23-1A, Judgement (Appeals Chamber), June 12, 2002, para. 94. In Kunarac the Appeals Chamber stated that “patterns of crimes – that is the non-accidental repetition of similar criminal conduct on a regular basis – are a common expression of [a] systematic occurrence.”

[6] Rodney Dixon in Otto Triffterer (ed.), Commentary on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1999), p. 124.

[7] ICTR, Kayishema and Ruzindana, (Trial Chamber), May 21, 1999, paras. 127-29.

[8] ICTR, Bisengimana, (Trial Chamber), April 13, 2006, para. 50.

[9] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Myanmar: Humanitarian Bulletin, Issue 2 2017 | June – 22 September, September 22, 2017, https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/myanmar-humanitarian-bulletin-issue-2-2017-june-22-september ; Jurawee Kittisilpa, “Myanmar army chief urges internally displaced to return to Rakhine,” Reuters, September 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-commander/myanmar-army-chief-urges-internally-displaced-to-return-to-rakhine-idUSKCN1BW1HD “Nearly 400 Die in Rakhine State As Myanmar Army Steps Up Crackdown on Militants,” Reuters, September 1, 2017, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/nearly-400-die-rakhine-state-myanmar-army-steps-crackdown-militants.html.

[10] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Military Burned Villages in Rakhine State,” December 13, 2016,

https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/13/burma-military-burned-villages-rakhine-state.

[11] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Satellite Imagery Shows Mass Destruction,” September 19, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/19/burma-satellite-imagery-shows-mass-destruction

[12] Human Rights Watch, “Satellite Imagery: Myar Zin village,” September 18, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/satellite-imagery/2017/09/18/satellite-imagery-myar-zin-village; Human Rights Watch, “Satellite Imagery: Nwar Yon Taung village,” September 18, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/satellite-imagery/2017/09/18/satellite-imagery-nwar-yon-taung-village.

[13] Min Aung Hlaing urges unity over Rakhine crisis, AFP, September 17, 2017, https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/min-aung-hlaing-urges-unity-over-rakhine-crisis.

[14] Ibid.

[15] James Hookway, “Myanmar Says Clearing of Rohingya Is Unfinished Business From WWII,” September 2, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/myanmar-army-chief-defends-clearing-rohingya-villages-1504410530.

[16] Ministry of Information, “Local people arrive back home in peace,” MOI Webportal Myanmar, September 17, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/MOIWebportalMyanmar/posts/1311640255630504.

[17] Jurawee Kittisilpa, “Myanmar army chief urges internally displaced to return to Rakhine,” Reuters, September 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-commander/myanmar-army-chief-urges-internally-displaced-to-return-to-rakhine-idUSKCN1BW1HD.

[18] These included the Nuremberg Charter, the Tokyo Charter, the Allied Control Council Law No. 10, and the statutes of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR). See Roy Lee (ed.), The International Criminal Court: Elements of Crimes and Rules of Procedure and Evidence (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2001), p. 86; M. Cherif Bassiouni and Peter Manikas, The Law of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1996), pp. 627-38 (arguing that the crime of "deportation" under the Nuremberg Charter included "all unjustified transfers [including] internal displacement.").

[19] Prosecutor v. Krstic, (Trial Judgment) IT-98-33-T (2 August 2001), para. 521.

[20] Christopher K. Hall in Otto Triffterer (ed.), Commentary on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1999), p. 162.

[21] See Prosecutor v. Milomir Stakić, Case No. IT-97-24-T, ICTY, Appeals Chamber, Judgment, paras. 686-87.

[22] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Military Torches Homes Near Border,” September 15, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/15/burma-military-torches-homes-near-border.

[23] Human Rights Watch, “Arson Attacks on Villages in Rakhine State, Burma,” December 12, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/video-photos/interactive/2016/12/12/arson-attacks-villages-rakhine-state-burma.

[24] ICC Statute, art. 7(1)(g).

[25] See e.g., Blagojevic and Jokic (ICTY Trial Chamber), January 17, 2005, para. 556.

[26] Peter Bouckaert, “Witness to Carnage in Burma’s Rakhine State,” Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/22/witness-carnage-burmas-rakhine-state.

[27] Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Landmines Deadly for Fleeing Rohingya,” September 23, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/23/burma-landmines-deadly-fleeing-rohingya.

[28] See ICC Statute, art. 7(1)(g)

[29] Claire Cozens, “Gang rape horrors haunt Rohingya refugees,” AFP, September 24, 2017, https://au.news.yahoo.com/world/a/37204578/gang-rape-horrors-haunt-rohingya-refugees/?cmp=st ; Human Rights Watch, “Burma: Security Forces Raped Rohingya Women, Girls,” February 6, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/06/burma-security-forces-raped-rohingya-women-girls.

[30] Simon Lewis, Tommy Wilkes, “U.N. medics see evidence of rape in Myanmar army 'cleansing' campaign,” Reuters, September 24, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-rape-insight/u-n-medics-see-evidence-of-rape-in-myanmar-army-cleansing-campaign-idUSKCN1BZ06X

[31] See ICC Statute, art. 7(1)(h); Nadhimana, Barayagwiza and Ngeze, ICTR Appeals Chamber, November 28, 2007, para. 985.

[32] ICC Statute, art. 7(2)(g).

[33] Prosecutor v. Krnojelac, ICTY judgment, IT-97-25T, March 15, 2002, sec. 431.

[34] ICC statute, art. 7(1)(h).

[35] See Antonio Cassese, ed. The Oxford Companion to International Criminal Justice, (Oxforcd: Oxford University Press, 2009) p. 454.

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Rohingya refugees shortly after arrival in Bangladesh. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – Burmese security forces are committing crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. The military has committed forced deportation, murder, rape, and persecution against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, resulting in countless deaths and mass displacement.

The United Nations Security Council and concerned countries should urgently impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on the Burmese military to stop further crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said. The Security Council should demand that Burma allow aid agencies access to people in need, permit entry to a UN fact-finding mission to investigate abuses, and ensure the safe and voluntary return of those displaced. The council should also discuss measures to bring those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice, including before the International Criminal Court.

“The Burmese military is brutally expelling the Rohingya from northern Rakhine State,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “The massacres of villagers and mass arson driving people from their homes are all crimes against humanity.”

Crimes against humanity are defined under international law as specified criminal acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Burmese military attacks on the Rohingya have been widespread and systematic. Statements by Burmese military and government officials have indicated an intent to attack this population, Human Rights Watch said.

Crimes against humanity are crimes that fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and are crimes of universal jurisdiction, meaning they may be prosecuted before national courts in countries outside of Burma, even though neither victim nor perpetrator is a national of that country.

The Burmese military is brutally expelling the Rohingya from northern Rakhine State. The massacres of villagers and mass arson driving people from their homes are all crimes against humanity

James Ross

Legal and Policy Director

Research by Human Rights Watch in the area supported by analysis of satellite imagery has found crimes of deportation and forced population transfers, murder and attempted murder, rape and other sexual assault, and persecution. “Persecution” is defined as “the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.” The abuses being committed also amount to ethnic cleansing, a term not defined under international law.

Since August 25, 2017, when the armed group the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked about 30 police outposts in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces have carried out mass arson, killing, rape, and looting, destroying hundreds of villages and forcing more than 400,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has, since 2012, found that the Burmese government has committed crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population in Rakhine State.

“Attaching a legal label to the ghastly crimes being committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya families may seem inconsequential,” Ross said. “But global recognition that crimes against humanity are taking place should stir the UN and concerned governments to action against the Burmese military to bring these crimes to an end.”

Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am

Summary

In Syria, civilian casualties from airstrikes by the US-led military coalition fighting the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) significantly increased in March 2017. During a July mission to Tabqa and Mansourah, two towns near Raqqa that ISIS controlled until recently, Human Rights Watch investigated several such airstrikes. In the two deadliest attacks, the US-led coalition struck a school and a market killing at least 84 civilians. Although ISIS fighters were also at these sites, the high civilian death toll raises concerns that military forces of the US-led coalition failed to take necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties, a requirement under international humanitarian law.

The Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), established by the US Central Command to coordinate military efforts of the coalition of countries fighting ISIS, has been conducting military operations in Syria since 2014. As part of their campaign to capture Raqqa from ISIS, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the CJTF launched an offensive on March 22 to capture the Tabqa dam, a strategic location 40 kilometers from Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital. In the days prior and weeks following, CJTF airstrikes significantly increased in the surrounding area. Local residents said that many of these strikes hit ISIS bases or fighters with relatively little civilian harm.

However, a number of strikes caused significant civilian harm as documented in this report. A local activist provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 145 civilians, including 38 women and 58 children, whom he says were killed in airstrikes in Tabqa town alone between March 19 and May 10, when SDF captured the town. The civilian harm caused by these airstrikes was not limited to casualties. Some of the airstrikes caused significant destruction of civilian property and infrastructure, as Human Rights Watch observed on the ground, and residents said that strikes that killed civilians instilled fear and pushed many to flee, adding to Syria’s displaced population.

 

Two aerial attacks near Raqqa, Syria in March killed at least 84 civilians, including 30 children, and raise concerns that US-led coalition forces fighting the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) did not take adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

 

In two of the deadliest attacks in Tabqa and Mansourah, aircraft struck a school housing displaced people in Mansourah on March 20 and a market and a bakery in Tabqa on March 22. In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk acknowledged that coalition forces carried out the Mansourah attack, saying that coalition forces targeted what they believed to be an ISIS intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility.

As of September 18, the CJTF press desk said that the coalition was still assessing the allegations that coalition aircraft killed dozens of civilians in the Tabqa market attack. However, the circumstances of the attack – a major military offensive by Syrian ground forces allied to the CJTF to capture a strategic location just two kilometres away – make it unlikely that another actor such as Russia or Syria was responsible. In addition, a US military spokesperson acknowledged sho"rtl"y after the Tabqa attack that CJTF aircraft had carried out strikes in the vicinity and the CJTF press desk stated that coalition forces had attacked the same area in December 2016.

During a visit to Mansourah and Tabqa on July 1-4, 2017, Human Rights Watch spoke to 16 local residents. While denying that the locations were military bases, the residents said that ISIS members were present in both locations at the time of the strikes. In the case of the Mansourah school attack, they said ISIS members and their families displaced from Iraq had moved into the school prior to the attack. Some local residents also said that a vehicle equipped with an anti-aircraft cannon had been operating in the vicinity. In the case of the Tabqa market attack, local residents said that ISIS members frequently used an internet café in the market, and that there was an ISIS administrative office near the market to handle housing affairs for ISIS members.

 

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But local residents, relatives of those killed, and survivors also said that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians at each location at the time of the strikes. They said the Mansourah school housed a large number of civilians, including many completely unaffiliated with ISIS, and that the Tabqa market, which included a bakery, overwhelmingly served civilians, many of whom were queuing at the bakery at the time of the attack.

Both attacks killed dozens of civilians, they said. Human Rights Watch gathered the names of 84 civilians whom locals and relatives identified as killed in the two attacks, including 30 children. For both attacks, local residents claimed that the actual number of civilians killed is significantly higher than those they were able to identify; they said that there were large numbers of civilians present at the sites of the attacks, that bodies are still buried under the rubble, and that they did not know the names of many who were killed because they had been displaced from other areas.

As far as Human Rights Watch knows, the victims named in this report had no affiliation with ISIS. But even people affiliated with ISIS could be civilians. Family members of ISIS fighters and members who carry out exclusively administrative or other non-combat functions are also considered civilians under international humanitarian law and may not be targeted unless and only for as long as they are directly participating in hostilities.

International humanitarian law obliges US-led coalition forces and all other parties to the conflict to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to ensure that the objects of an attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects. The parties to the conflict are required at all times to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible. In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered a civilian. Where civilians are present at the site of a military objective, coalition forces must determine that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property is proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated in the attack.

In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk said coalition forces determined prior to the Mansourah attack that there was no civilian activity at the site. While the press desk shared limited details, they said that coalition forces observed the location on multiple occasions to assess the pattern of civilian life. German media reported that a German aircraft, part of the CJTF, photographed the school the day before the attack. The CJTF press desk also said the coalition took other precautions, such as striking the school at night and selecting the size and fuzing of the munitions to minimize potential harm to civilians.

The CJTF press desk has not responded to Human Rights Watch’s question whether coalition forces knew of any civilian presence at the Tabqa market at the time of the attack, saying that they were still assessing the incident. The CJTF did not include the Tabqa market attack among cases to be investigated for civilian casualties in its monthly reports until August.

All local residents Human Rights Watch interviewed said that it was well known that there were many civilians at both sites. According to local residents, the Mansourah school had long hosted displaced civilians fleeing other parts of Syria, and civilians had used the Tabqa market throughout the years-long war. Any person with local knowledge would likely have been able to identify the substantial risk that the two sites contained significant numbers of civilians.

If the CJTF failed to detect the presence of dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians at these two sites, this raises serious concerns about how coalition forces ascertain whether civilians are in the vicinity of a target and therefore whether coalition forces took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. It also raises questions about how the CJTF determines whether a person is a civilian or combatant, and therefore whether coalition forces complied with the requirement to treat a person as civilian if there is doubt and its obligation to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

If, however, the CJTF knew about the civilian presence but decided to attack nonetheless, they may have violated the principle of proportionality.

The CJTF press desk told Human Rights Watch that in their attempt to mitigate civilian harm, coalition forces “leverage all the intelligence capabilities of the Coalition and our partner forces, including human intelligence and multi-source intelligence” and that ahead of operations and targeting, they “invest a significant amount of intelligence and analysis characterizing the area to include ISIS activity, where civilians are, their pattern of life, and how structures are used.” In the case of the Mansourah strike, the CJTF press desk stated that coalition forces conducted “a pattern of life [analysis] prior to the strike but that video footage did not reflect any evidence of civilian activity prior or after the strike.” However, there is no indication in the information that the CJTF provided that coalition forces used any human intelligence to verify the target in the Mansourah strike. In response to follow-up questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk declined to provide further details about the pattern of life analysis, saying that such information is classified and would reveal sensitive sources.

Witness statements collected by Human Rights Watch suggest that aerial monitoring of the two sites over time would have shown civilian activity. An 11-year-old child who survived the attack on the school said that children played in the school courtyard, and witnesses of the market strike confirmed that civilians were queuing at the bakery.

Finally, even if coalition forces attacked the two sites based on time-sensitive information, they should have been aware that the targets were a functioning market and a school where dozens if not hundreds of civilians were sheltering: because SDF and coalition forces were launching a military offensive that had presumably been long planned, the CJTF should have familiarized themselves with the civilian presence in the area. This raises questions about the degree to which the CJTF prioritized the limitation of civilian harm and suffering over the perceived benefits of these strikes.

The attacks on the Mansourah school and the Tabqa market are not unique. For example, on March 16, US aircraft struck a mosque near al-Jinah, west of Aleppo, killing dozens of people whom local residents identified as civilians. In a similar failure to understand the nature of the target and detect the presence of civilians, the authority that approved the strikes did not know that the target was a mosque, according to a subsequent military investigation. The investigation, however, denied the presence of large numbers of civilians and only admitted that one civilian was likely killed.

The failure of the CJTF in the Mansourah school attack, the Jinah mosque attack, and possibly also in the Tabqa market attack to adequately understand the nature of the targets and the extensive presence of civilians is particularly concerning since none of the attacks were in support of friendly ground troops in contact with enemy forces, situations that might require urgent action.

Statements from US government officials indicate that US authorities have changed the process for approval of strikes in ways that could have contributed to higher civilian casualties. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that US President Donald Trump ordered the military to accelerate the campaign and to delegate the authority to approve strikes to a lower level; Mattis said this would allow it “to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.” The previous US administration implemented similar changes in December 2016.

In correspondence with Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk said that there has been no change to the coalition’s rules of engagement or compliance with the law of armed conflict. However, it is hard to imagine that delegating the strike authority to a lower level in order to more aggressively attack the enemy would not impact the extent or effectiveness of precautions coalition forces take to minimize civilian harm. In the absence of more details about these changes, it is difficult to assess their precise effects, but the CJTF’s apparent failure to understand the nature of the targets and detect civilian presence in the cases described above are worrying.

The US-led military coalition should use all available means to check whether civilians are present in or near targets when conducting attacks; take "all feasible precautions" to minimize loss of civilian life; and attack military objectives only when the anticipated harm to civilians is not excessive in relation to the military gain.

In addition to the attacks on the Mansourah school and the Tabqa market, Human Rights Watch investigated three other attacks that resulted in significant civilian casualties. In two of the attacks, coalition forces carried out airstrikes apparently to support allied Syrian ground forces in combat with enemy forces. In one case, for example, SDF engaged in ground fighting with ISIS forces appear to have requested a coalition airstrike on a house where they might have believed ISIS members were hiding. However, local residents said that the 18 bodies they retrieved from the rubble a few days later were all civilians.

These attacks show the danger of using explosive weapons, which would include any air-dropped munition, in a fluid and chaotic combat environment in populated areas. Belligerents should curtail as much as possible the use of explosive weapons in populated areas due to the risks they pose to civilians.

The cases described in this report also illustrate the limitations of the CJTF’s methodology for assessing whether coalition airstrikes injured or killed civilians. In the two cases for which the CJTF had conducted assessments at the time of publication, the CJTF found that the allegations of civilian casualties were not credible. The information provided by the CJTF suggests that it did not visit the sites of the strikes or interview local residents and witnesses. This shortcoming is particularly striking since the coalition’s partner forces have been in control of these areas for months and it would have been possible for coalition investigators to visit the sites. Human Rights Watch’s own investigation suggests that had CJTF investigators visited the sites and interviewed witnesses they would not have concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties lacked credibility.

While the CJTF’s civilian casualty reports focus on whether civilians were injured or killed in specific attacks, these reports do not comment on the lawfulness of individual attacks. The CJTF should launch full investigations into all attacks that cause higher civilian casualties than expected, including those listed in this report, using the full range of investigative tools, including interviews with victims and their families, as well as local residents.

The US-led coalition should also take responsibility when its attacks kill civilians. International law requires compensation for civilian victims in the event of violations of international law. When losses occur, even in the absence of violations of international humanitarian law, civilians will be in need of assistance or redress. This can take the form of payments for loss of civilian life and property (often known as ex gratia payments) made without legal obligation and non-monetary acknowledgement of the harm done, such as apologies. In Syria, there is no clear mechanism for civilian victims or surviving relatives to obtain any form of redress from coalition forces – or any other warring party.

Beyond the human tragedy, high civilian casualties – whether from lawful or unlawful conduct – should always be cause for concern for a military force, as the damage to its reputation can be considerable. This is particularly true in the campaign against ISIS where coalition forces are seeking to deprive ISIS of future support.

Recommendations

To the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve

Minimizing civilian harm

  • Take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize civilian harm, in line with international law;
  • Whenever possible, use the full range of intelligence sources available, including human intelligence, to ascertain the nature of a target and any civilian presence. Whenever possible, exercise patience to allow for proper verification of the target;
  • If there is doubt about the status of a person, assume that the person is a civilian, in line with international law;
  • Assume presence of civilians in residential areas, including in areas with heavy fighting given that ISIS fights from populated areas and has at times used civilians as human shields; adjust tactics to take civilian presence into account;
  • Limit the use of explosive weapons in populated areas to the extent possible;
  • Provide greater transparency about changes to the strike approval process;
  • Conduct a review of the extent to which these changes may have contributed to the increasing civilian casualties and publish the findings.

Civilian casualty assessments and reporting

  • Increase resources dedicated to assessing allegations of civilian casualties from CJTF airstrikes and publish findings;
  • Publish the methodology used in such assessments, including how the assessments distinguish between civilians and combatants;
  • Review the methodology used with a view to improve the accuracy of the assessments;
  • Improve assessment of civilian casualty incidents by interviewing witnesses and conducting site inspections where feasible.

Investigations

  • As a first step, launch investigations into airstrikes that resulted in significantly higher civilian casualties than expected, including the attacks described in this report;
  • Whenever possible, conduct on-site investigations and interviews with victims and witnesses. If on-site visits are not possible, find other ways to conduct interviews with victims and witnesses, such as by secure means of communication or by interviewing victims and witnesses who have fled to areas where such interviews can be conducted;
  • In the investigations, pay particular attention to whether CJTF forces complied with the requirements in international law to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm and to designate a person as civilian if there is doubt;
  • Promptly release the investigation reports including their conclusions with as much details as possible.

Redress for civilian victims

  • Set up a mechanism to communicate the results of the investigations to civilian victims and their relatives, and consider non-monetary acknowledgements of the harm done, such as apologies, regardless of lawfulness of the attack that caused the harm;
  • Create a unified, comprehensive mechanism for providing ex gratia payments to those who suffer losses due to the operations of the CJTF regardless of lawfulness of the attack that caused the harm.

Methodology

This report is based on in-person interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch staff with residents, victims, their relatives, first responders, and medical personnel during a mission to Tabqa and Mansourah, two towns west of Raqqa in northern Syria, in July 2017. Human Rights Watch visited the sites of the attacks in Tabqa and Mansourah from July 1 to 4, and interviewed locals who were present at the time of the attacks. We conducted interviews in Arabic or in English through an interpreter.

For each attack we also reviewed statements, updates, and relevant media interviews of the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), the operation established by US Central Command to coordinate military efforts of the coalition of countries fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Because ISIS prohibited local residents from taking photos or video and tightly controlled communication, there is less audiovisual information published online about these attacks than attacks in other parts of Syria.

Human Rights Watch has chosen to publish only the names of sources who gave permission to do so and if Human Rights Watch determined that doing so would not put them at additional risk. For some sources, Human Rights Watch has used pseudonyms, either because the sources requested confidentiality, or because we determined that publishing their names could pose a risk to them.

The number of people reported killed in each case is the number of victims for whom neighbors or relatives provided basic information, such as name, gender, and age.

The massive displacement of civilians in the area, however, made it difficult to compile an exhaustive list of victims. In some of the cases, residents said that they did not know the names or identities of many of the victims because they were displaced from other areas. Many survivors also fled to other locations after the attack, making it difficult to locate and interview them. For some attacks, local sources said that the number of killed were higher than the number of names we collected. We have noted so in the text when this was the case.

I. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS

In September 2014, the US government announced the formation of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a coalition of 69 governments and four international institutions. In October US Central Command established the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF) to coordinate military efforts of members of the Global Coalition in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The CJTF is carrying out military campaigns in Iraq and Syria to capture ISIS-controlled territory, mainly by conducting aerial attacks in support of local ground forces.[1] At least nine CJTF members have conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Syria: United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.[2]

In Syria, the CJTF supports the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of mainly Kurdish and Arab ground forces fighting against ISIS. In November 2016, SDF officially announced the start of Operation Wrath of Euphrates, a military operation to capture Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria with a pre-war population of more than 200,000 people that has served as ISIS’ de facto capital.[3]

On March 22, SDF and the CJTF launched an offensive to take control of the Tabqa dam, a strategic location about 40 kilometers west of Raqqa.[4] In addition to being the main electricity source for the region, the Tabqa dam is the main entry point from the north to Tabqa town (also known as al-Thawrah), which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 people. The offensive also involved the CJTF airlifting into ISIS-controlled territory south of the Euphrates river 500 SDF members who attacked Tabqa from the west.[5] On May 10, SDF announced that it had completely captured Tabqa town and the Tabqa dam from ISIS.[6] SDF captured Mansourah, located between Tabqa and Raqqa, in the beginning of June.[7]

Targeting

In briefings and interviews with journalists, CJTF military officials have distinguished between two types of airstrikes: deliberate and dynamic.

Deliberate strikes are those launched against targets chosen well in advance. According to Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of the US Air Force Central Command, “Deliberate targeting involves an extensive development process to ensure each one is legitimate and meets established strike criteria. This process can take from days to weeks to develop, depending on the target and the time needed to observe daily patterns of life and behavior.”[8] For these attacks, “targeteers” study the target, evaluate the weapons available, and calculate how to destroy it. For each target, the targeteers also conduct a Collateral Damage Estimation (CDE), a process to predict and mitigate collateral damage.[9]

Dynamic targeting involves strikes on “targets of opportunity,” whether unplanned or unanticipated, such as those on enemy positions in response to requests from ground forces during combat or targets identified during the course of an operation.[10] Lt. Gen. Harrigian notes that “dynamic targeting is much more responsive to emerging threats, taking anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the type of target and environment. These are frequently discovered by ground forces or overhead aircraft.”[11] He also noted, “as with deliberate targets, we still carefully validate them and secure approval from the appropriate authority as we do with deliberate strikes.”[12] He assured journalists that “every target goes through our refined process to ensure it's not only a legitimate target under the law of armed conflict, but that it meets a threshold of proportionality and necessity.”

Statements from US government officials indicate that the CJTF has recently changed the procedure for authorizing airstrikes in ways that may have removed some safeguards and thereby contributed to higher civilian casualties. After a review of the campaign against ISIS, US President Donald Trump ordered the military to accelerate the campaign and to delegate the authority to approve strikes to a lower level; US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said this was “to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.”[13] These changes together with similar changes in December appear to have given military advisors at the brigade level the authority to directly deliver support such as airstrikes and artillery fire to friendly forces.[14] These changes may have limited the extent to which the military take precautions to minimize and avoid civilian casualties, thereby contributing to increased civilian casualties.[15] Because the CJTF has shared limited information about the two main attacks described in this report, it is not possible to say whether these changes affected the procedure for authorizing these attacks.

Civilian Casualties

Airstrikes in and around Tabqa increased significantly in the days just before and after March 22. Between March 19 and 23, the US-led coalition carried out 85 airstrikes in the Raqqa area, compared to 45 strikes in the five days just prior to that period, according to its daily strike reports.[16]

According to Airwars, a UK-based non-governmental organization that compiles published information of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria, the increase in airstrikes in March also resulted in a significant increase in civilian casualties.[17] By April 13, Airwars had documented 52 incidents causing civilian casualties in Syria in March, most of them around Raqqa, resulting in an estimated 320 to 860 civilian deaths, compared to an estimated civilian death toll of 65 to 142 in February.[18]

A significant number of the March civilian casualties happened in Tabqa, which accounted for 15 of the incidents and likely a minimum of 100 civilian deaths that Airwars recorded.[19] A local activist provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 145 civilians, including 38 women and 58 children, whom he said were killed in airstrikes in Tabqa town alone between March 19 and May 10, when SDF captured the town.[20]

In contrast to Russian and Syrian authorities, the CJTF regularly publishes reports about strikes it has conducted. It also has a process by which it assesses whether the strikes caused civilian casualties. As of September 1, 2017, the CJTF had determined that “more likely than not, at least 685 civilians have been unintentionally killed [in Syria and Iraq] by coalition strikes since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve” in August 2014.[21]

The CJTF states that it:

Takes all reports of civilian casualties seriously and assesses all reports as thoroughly as possible. Although we are unable to investigate all reports of possible civilian casualties using traditional investigative methods, such as interviewing witnesses and examining the site, the Coalition interviews pilots and other personnel involved in the targeting process, reviews strike and surveillance video if available, and analyzes information provided by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, partner forces, and traditional and social media. In addition, the Coalition considers new information when it becomes available in order to ensure a thorough and continuous review process.[22]

An Airwars review of the CJTF’s civilian casualty investigations published in December 2016 made several critical remarks, but also noted that the July 2016 US Executive Order on Civilian Casualties appears to have led to key improvements in US monitoring and reporting on civilian casualties, such as, for example, greater engagement with external actors.[23] Since December 2016, the CJTF has regularly published monthly civilian casualty reports, which provide basic information about the CJTF’s own assessment of civilian casualties. In June, the US military increased the number of its staff within the CJTF assessing civilian casualties, adding five full-time members to a team of two full-time and two part-time members.[24]

Since April 2017, the monthly civilian casualty reports have included not only civilian casualties from CJTF strikes carried out by US forces but also those resulting from other members of the CJTF. This provides a more complete picture of the civilian toll from the anti-ISIS campaign. The downside, however, is that the reports do not specify which country is responsible for which strike, making it virtually impossible for victims to seek accountability.[25] Apart from the US, none of the CJTF members that fly in combat operations have admitted that airstrikes conducted by their forces caused civilian casualties, although US military officials have told Airwars that coalition partners were responsible for at least 80 civilian deaths.[26] Human Rights Watch and others have also criticized US military authorities for not making use of the full range of investigatory methods, including phone interviews with witnesses, when investigating civilian casualties from airstrikes in Syria.[27]

II. Concerns about Precautions to Protect Civilians

In two of the deadliest attacks in Tabqa and Mansourah, aircraft struck a school housing displaced people in Mansourah on March 20 and a market and a bakery in Tabqa on March 22. Both attacks killed dozens of civilians, according to witnesses, first responders, relatives, and survivors whom Human Rights Watch interviewed.

If those in the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) planning the attacks were unaware of the civilian presence at these two sites, this raises concerns that the CJTF failed to take all feasible precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties. It also raises concerns about how the CJTF determines who is a civilian and who is a combatant. If, on the other hand, the CJTF knew about the civilian presence, it may have violated the principle of proportionality.

Under international law, warring parties are under the obligation at all times to take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event to minimize, civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible. According to Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, warring parties have an obligation to do everything feasible “to verify that the objectives to be attacked are neither civilians nor civilian objects…but are military objectives.”[28] In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered a civilian. The protocol also includes the obligation to refrain from launching any attack that may be expected to cause “incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[29] These obligations are also considered customary law and therefore binding on states that have not become party to Additional Protocol I.[30]

Photo from the opening of the Badia school in Syia in 2009. 

© 2009 ESyria

Attack on Badia School in Mansourah, March 20

  • Date/time: March 20, 2017, around 11 p.m.
  • Location: Raqqa governorate, Mansourah
  • GPS location of strike: 35.817220, 38.756306
  • Civilian casualties: At least 40, including 16 children; likely higher

At about 11 p.m. on March 20, a CJTF airstrike destroyed almost completely a three-story boarding school in Mansourah. While local residents reported that ISIS maintained a presence at the school, they also said that the school hosted large number of displaced civilians.

Human Rights Watch visited the school on two separate days in early July after SDF captured the area. It interviewed 11 people with firsthand knowledge of the attack, including two survivors, first responders, and men who buried some of the dead.

The Badia school in Mansourah, a three-story structure, was a boarding school that opened in 2009 to receive students from Syria’s semi-nomadic areas.[31] According to multiple local residents, after the Syria crisis erupted in 2011, the school closed and displaced Syrians, notably from Homs and Palmyra, moved in.

Human Rights Watch interviewed in person two displaced people from Maskanah, a town west of Tabqa, who were in the school at the time of the attack: Awash, a 24-year-old woman, and her 11-year-old niece ‘Ahed:

On the day of the strike everything was normal. I was sleeping in the school. There were two strikes. My face and body got hit. I didn’t hear the explosions, only felt them. My mother went out to the corridor to get my nephew. I tried to follow, but couldn’t. I screamed out to my mother, to my brother, but couldn’t find them. In the courtyard, I found ‘Ahed and her mother. She had no clothes on and shrapnel all over the body. After I covered her with the sheets I passed out and then woke up in the Raqqa hospital.[32]

A local man who said he lived about 100 meters from the school described the immediate aftermath of the attack:

I was sleeping when loud explosions woke me. I heard about four bombs. I rushed to the school. There were bodies of men, women, and children everywhere. About 50 people were rushed to the hospital.[33]

Photo of the Badia school posted on the internet shortly after coalition aircraft attacked the school on March 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently

Another first responder said that he and his brother helped move 60 wounded from the area.[34] He said they initially took many of the wounded to a small clinic in Mansourah. According to Dr. Moussa Muhammad al-Ali, who works at the clinic:

It was chaos. They brought between 70 to 100 people, including both wounded and killed. Our local clinic did not have the capacity to do much for them, so we just told them to take them directly to the hospital in Tabqa.[35]

Entrance to the Badia school that was struck by coalition aircraft on March 20, 2017. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

Photos of the school posted in the immediate aftermath of the attack show that the attack caused near total destruction of the building, but that parts of the building frame were still standing.

When Human Rights Watch visited the site in early July, the building was further demolished. Local residents said that this further destruction was due to the search for bodies and ISIS removing usable building materials from the site.

According to local residents, initially after taking over the area, ISIS had no presence in the school but this changed in the period leading up to the strike when families of ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq moved into the school.[36] The survivors confirmed that families of ISIS members lived in the building as well as displaced people with no ties to ISIS, such as their families.[37]

A local notable who used to pass by the front of the school reported that he started seeing ISIS fighters driving in and out of the building or sitting as a group near the entrance in the evening.[38] He believed that these men were ISIS fighters visiting their families. He also said that he heard that ISIS had held one of its Sharia courses in the school. The two survivors also said that ISIS had set up a mosque inside the school compound.

An ISIS fighter whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in the custody of Kurdish security forces (Asayish) in Qamishli also said that there were some ISIS members with their families in the school, but that it was otherwise full of displaced civilians.[39]

Two men from the area also said that ISIS fighters may have used a pickup truck equipped with an anti-aircraft cannon on the main road near the school.[40] One local resident also reported a rumor that ISIS may have driven the vehicle with the cannon into the school compound, but Human Rights Watch was not able to find anybody who had personally seen this.[41]

Despite the ISIS presence, all witnesses and local residents indicated that large numbers of civilians remained in the school.[42] The 11-year-old survivor said that children played in the school’s courtyard.[43]

In reply to questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk acknowledged that it struck the school building on March 20, saying that the strike hit an ISIS intelligence headquarters and weapons storage facility where more than 30 ISIS militants typically stayed.[44]

The CJTF said that it observed the target on multiple occasions to assess the pattern of life, and that it struck the target at night and selected the size and fuzing of the munition to minimize potential harm to transient individuals.[45] According to German media outlets, German forces flying Tornado jets took pictures of the building a day before the airstrike and shared them with their coalition partners.[46] German media also reported that Germany flew a follow-up mission to assess the impact of the airstrikes. General Volker Wieker, the German military inspector general, reportedly met with parliament's defense committee in a closed-door session to discuss the incident on March 29.

The CJTF press desk said that video footage did not reflect any evidence of civilian activity prior to or after the strike; that it determined that the building was exclusively used by and under the control of ISIS; and that no civilians were harmed in the strike.[47] In its July “Monthly Civilian Casualty Report,” the CJTF noted with respect to the strike that “after review of available information and strike video it was assessed that there is insufficient evidence to find that civilians were harmed in this strike.”[48]

However, Human Rights Watch’s investigation shows that civilians did die in the strike. Relatives, survivors, and local residents Human Rights Watch interviewed provided the names of 40 people who died in the strike, whom they said were civilians, including 15 women and 16 children.

A number of factors indicate that the actual number of civilians killed is higher. A local municipal worker in charge of operating rubble-removing machinery said he went to the school the following morning:

I made it to the site by 7 a.m. Those at the site told us that they had removed 25 bodies the night before our arrival. After we got there, we removed 54 bodies, mostly men, but some women and children too. They were all civilian. You could tell from their clothes. An ISIS member, Abu Aisha, also was there and helped to remove the bodies. He pulled out nine bodies. ISIS members continued to remove bodies. I heard someone say that ISIS members had removed 65 bodies about 20 days later.[49]

Site where local residents said they buried dozens of people killed in a March 20 attack on a school in Mansourah that housed displaced civilians. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

The worker said they took many of the bodies to a nearby cemetery and buried them in mass graves. Human Rights Watch visited the site of the mass grave on July 2. A local resident and a grave-digger pointed out the graves where they said they buried some of the bodies from the attack.

The exact names and number of the victims are hard to establish because witnesses and first responders said that ISIS did not allow locals to take photos or properly document the deaths. The task is made harder by the fact that residents said that the civilians who died came from other areas and accordingly had few connections with the local community. Human Rights Watch also was unable to gather names of ISIS fighters or family members killed in the attack.

Residents said that rescuers sent most of the wounded to the hospital in Tabqa, which was also under ISIS control at the time. Human Rights Watch later visited the Tabqa hospital, after SDF forces had captured the area from ISIS, to see if there were any records that may indicate the number of bodies and wounded brought to the hospital after the attack. Security forces stationed at the hospital said that ISIS had destroyed all records before withdrawing.[50]

Survivors, local residents, and local activists provided Human Rights Watch with the following details about the dead that they knew.

21 dead from families displaced from the village of Maskanah (information collected from relatives):

  1. Dahiya Ramadan, female, around 60 (wife of Adel al-Farhoud)

Family of Ibrahim al-Ibrahim al-Farhoud

  1. Ibrahim al-Ibrahim al-Farhoud, male, around 40 (son of Dahiya)
  2. Halima al-Hamdi, wife of Ibrahim
  3. Ahmad, boy, around 5
  4. Isma’il, boy, around 2

Family of Isma’il al-Ibrahim al-Farhoud

  1. Isma’il al-Ibrahim al-Farhoud, male, 35 (son of Dahiya)
  2. Ala’, girl, around 7
  3. Amal, girl, around 5
  4. Malak, girl, around 3
  5. Adel, boy, 2 months old

Family of Ahmad al-Farhoud (cousin of Ibrahim and Isma’il)

  1. Ahmad al-Farhoud, male
  2. Nuha al-Farhoud, wife of Ahmad al-Farhoud
  3. Aylan, girl, age under 10
  4. Lana, girl, age under 8

Family of ‘Idan Ramadan

  1. ‘Idan Ramadan, male, 50
  2. Zahra, first wife of ‘Idan
  3. Naser Ramadan, son of ‘Idan and Zahra, around 13
  4. Mansour Ramadan, son of ‘Idan and Zahra, around 9
  5. ‘Alia, second wife of ‘Idan
  6. Muhammad, son of ‘Idan and ‘Alia, around 15
  7. Kafa’, daughter of ‘Idan and ‘Alia

Dead from families displaced from the Tadmor (Palmyra) and Sukhna areas (information collected from relatives):

Family of al-Khaled[51]

  1. Maha Khalid al-Salameh, around 30
  2. Ali Zuheir al-Khalid, boy, around 7
  3. Mohammad Zein Zuhair al-Khalid, boy, around 5

Family of al-Kharaz[52]

  1. Muwaffaq Jum’a al-Kharaz, male, 40
  2. Khitam Khaled Salama al-Du’as, female, 38
  3. Malak Muwafaq al-Kharaz, girl, 8
  4. Hanin Muwafaq al-Kharaz, girl, 5
  5. Kafa’ Jum’a al-Kharaz, female, 33
  6. Jawhara Jum’a al-Kharaz, female, 30

Family of Salama (provided by local activist)[53]

  1. Khaled Salama, male, 70
  2. Muna Mahmoud al-Kubba, female, 57
  3. Muhammad Khaled Salama, male, 28
  4. Ahmad Khaled Salama, male, 25
  5. Asma’ Khaled Salama, female, 22
  6. Yasmine Khaled Salama, female, 20
  7. Maha Khaled Salama, female, 18
  8. Nur Khaled Salama, female, 15
  9. Munaf Hussein al-‘azab, male, 35
  10. Fatima Akram Muhammad al-Eid, female, 33

Attack on Market, Second Neighborhood, Tabqa, March 22

  • Date/time: March 22, 2017, just before 5 p.m.
  • Location: Raqqa governorate, Tabqa
  • GPS location of strike: 35.845879, 38.540913
  • Civilian casualties: At least 44, including 14 children. Likely higher.

Just before 5 p.m. on March 22, an airstrike hit a market in the Second Neighborhood of Tabqa. The market consisted of a series of stores, including an internet café, a bakery, a hair salon, and food shops.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that the market was full of civilians at the time of the attack. People had just exited a nearby mosque after afternoon prayers, and many were lining up at the bakery for bread. “The timing of the attack was very bad,” one survivor said. “There were so many people at the bakery and the market.”[54] Hassan Khalif, 33, whose 12-year-old son was killed in the attack while queuing to buy bread, told Human Rights Watch that the queue was particularly long as it was Wednesday and the bakery was closed on Thursdays.[55]

Muhammad al-Hussein, a local resident, told Human Rights Watch that he had gone to the bakery with his two daughters, Asma’, 12, and Ala’, 8, that afternoon. There were separate queues for men and women, he said. Because the women’s queue was shorter that day, his daughters queued while he stood across the street a few meters away.

While I was standing there, I saw the plane in the sky. We did not feel particularly concerned as Coalition planes usually don’t hit during the day and they avoid civilians. But seconds after I saw the plane, the bombs hit. I was injured as rubble fell on me and a piece of metal struck my leg. My daughter Ala’ was injured, but survived. But my daughter Asma’ died. She is still buried under the rubble to this day.[56]

Reem, a 16-year-old girl who managed the women’s section of the internet café at the market said that the café was busy when the attack happened. “There were many women there. Many of them were my friends from the neighborhood. And suddenly, everything went dark.” Reem said she was wounded in the attack, while her sister Wala’, who was also in the internet café, died. Mohammad, 17, the manager of the internet café, said he had momentarily left his shop to get something from his house; he said that there were about 40 women in the women’s section, and that he knew of 12 who survived.[57]

According to multiple witnesses and survivors, ISIS maintained an office for administrative affairs in the market, which served nearby apartments occupied by its members. Local residents also said that there were a number of ISIS members in the market, particularly in the internet café. Taha, the internet café owner, said a handful of the 12 men in the male section were ISIS members.[58] Mohammad’s friend, “Ahmad,” who looked after the internet café while Mohammad stepped out, gave a similar account. “About 50 percent of those in the internet café for men were ISIS members,” he said. “There were a few ISIS members in the market as well, but not as many as in the internet café.”[59] Only two of the people in the internet café survived, he said. Human Rights Watch observed injuries to Ahmad’s foot and hand, which he said he sustained in the attack.

The ruins of a market and bakery in Tabqa after an airstrike on March 22, 2017.

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

Some local residents also said that they believed that a pick-up truck parked near the market belonged to ISIS; one said that he saw two ammunition boxes on the truck.[60] Human Rights Watch researchers examined the vehicle, which had been destroyed in the attack, but were unable to confirm whether the vehicle carried ammunition.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that an airstrike had hit the area a few months earlier as well. On December 20, 2016 an airstrike hit a building adjacent to the market, which ISIS used to collect taxes; the attack destroyed the building, but left the market intact. One local resident said that the December attack had killed his sister's children, aged 6 and 12, two civilian men, and a person to whom he referred as an "ISIS woman" from Turkey.[61]

In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk acknowledged in an email that the CJTF had conducted the December attack, targeting an ISIS financial storage facility.[62] The press desk said that the CJTF had observed the target on multiple occasions to assess a civilian pattern of life; that it struck the target at night; and that it selected the size and fuzing of the munition to minimize potential harm to civilians.[63] Following questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk said the CJTF conducted an assessment of “intelligence reports, video footage, etc” and concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were “non-credible.”[64]

While the CJTF has not confirmed that it conducted the March 22 attack on the market, the circumstances of the attack indicate that it was responsible. The attack took place on the day that SDF launched an offensive to retake the Tabqa dam, two kilometers northeast of the market.[65] The offensive included the US military airlifting SDF fighters behind enemy lines and a US military spokesperson said that they provided them with fire support.[66] Immediately after the attack on the market, Colonel Joseph Scrocca, in response to a query from a journalist, said that the US had carried out strikes in the area, but did not confirm that a US strike had hit a bakery or the market, saying that the military would look into the allegations.[67] In addition, as noted, the CJTF has acknowledged that it struck the immediate vicinity of the market before, on December 20, 2016.

Two witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that the plane they saw carrying out the attack on the market was larger than the fighter jets they normally saw in the sky. Based on the size and shape of the plane, they believed that it was a B-52, an American long-range bomber, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to corroborate this claim.[68] According to a CJTF spokesman, the US began using B-52s in its fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in April 2016.[69] Neither Russian nor Syrian forces use B-52 bombers.

In its daily strike update, the CJTF said that it conducted eight strikes near Raqqa, which includes Tabqa, on March 22, but the descriptions of the destroyed targets do not allow Human Rights Watch to determine whether the market strike was one of them.[70] The CJTF listed the March 22 attack on the Tabqa market in its monthly civilian casualty reports for August, but said that it was still assessing the allegations that it carried out the strike as of September 18.[71]

Human Rights Watch has collected the names of 45 civilians whom local residents and survivors say were killed in the attack. The actual number might be higher. A survivor who said he was injured in the attack said he saw 77 bodies at the Tabqa hospital when he went there for treatment immediately after the attack.[72] Local residents said that they buried some of those killed in Tabqa, but buried others in Mansourah. A man from Mansourah who often helped bury people told Human Rights Watch that he buried 23 bodies brought from the strike on the market in Tabqa. Of the twenty-three, he said, two were foreign ISIS members.[73] Residents said that a number of the dead, including 12-year-old Asma’, remained under the rubble when Human Rights Watch visited the site.

Local residents and survivors provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 28 people who were killed in the attack. A local activist provided Human Rights Watch with 16 additional names that he said he collected from local residents, bringing the number of documented deaths to 44, including at least 14 children.

 

Name

Gender

Estimated Age

1.

Khadija Ahmad al-Ibrahim (also known as Khadija al-Botoshe)

Female

40

2.

Daad Mansour

Female

42

3.

Wala'

Female

 

4.

Muhammad al-‘Alwi

Male

 

5.

Isma’il (Hussein) Hajj Aref

Male

 

6.

Issa Muhammad al-Mudkhir

Male

13

7.

Abdallah Muhammad al-Mudkhir

Male

14

8.

Haytham Khalluf

Male

32

9.

Ra’ed Obeid

Male

 

10.

Su’ad Taje

Female

12

11.

Hadeel Rabih

Female

16

12.

Mohammed (Jamil) Assad

Male

26

13.

Ahmad al-Abed

Male

25

14.

Ibrahim Shehade al-Abed

Male

15/16

15.

Shehade Shehade al-Abed

Male

13

16.

Ahmad al-Mustafa

Male

55/60

17.

Muhannad Barko

Male

35

18.

Khaled (Ahmad) al-Salal (or al-Hilal)

Male

45

19.

Hussein Rashid al-Ahmad

Male

11

20.

Sabri Rashid al-Ahmad

Male

10

21.

Waleed Rashid al-Ahmad

Male

6

22.

Ammar Kenhat

Male

 

23.

Mayyadah Qashash

Female

50

24.

Hassan Kassab

Male

42

25.

Manar Hussein

Female

 

26.

Mohammad Bibars al-Hussein

Male

12

27.

Fatima al-Hendi

Female

 

28.

Mahmoud Ahmad Mostafa/Ahmad Ali Mostafa

Male

60

29.

Mahmoud Dahham al-Mohammad al-Abdullah

Male

 

30.

Yosra Fattah

Female

 

31.

Hamoud Staif

Male

 

32.

Mariam al-Masri

Female

 

33.

Uday Hassan Khleif

Male

12

34.

Fayez Mohammed al-Abdullah

Male

 

35.

Ahmad Abdul-Hay al-Juneidi

Male

 

36.

Lina Hasan Hajja

Female

12

37.

Mustafa Rajab Abdo

Male

13

38.

Mansour al-Haji

Male

 

39.

Hajy Alehaim

Male

 

40.

Asma’

Female

12

41.

Mohammd al-Omar

Male

 

42.

Shaker al-Omar

Male

 

43.

Mohammed Hamdo Alosh

Male

44.

Majed Mohammed Mahmoud Alosh

Male

III. Other Strikes Causing Civilian Casualties

Human Rights Watch investigated other strikes carried out in March and April by the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) that caused significant civilian casualties in the same vicinity. Human Rights Watch has not yet collected sufficient information to reach a determination as to the lawfulness of these attacks, but the high death tolls raise concerns about whether the CJTF took the necessary precautions to minimize risks to civilians.

In two of the attacks, the CJTF conducted airstrikes that were likely in response to requests from SDF ground forces as they were in close proximity to and fighting with ISIS forces in the immediate vicinity of the airstrikes. While it is more difficult to determine what precautions the CJTF could have taken in these cases, the significant civilian casualties demonstrate the risk to civilians if using explosive weapons in populated areas. In one case, Human Rights Watch found remnants of a Hellfire missile, an air-to-surface missile that can carry up to 10 kilograms of explosives. In the other cases, Human Rights Watch did not find any remnants of the weapons used, but the pattern of destruction at the locations of the attacks is consistent with the use of air-dropped bombs.

The phrase “explosive weapons in populated areas” is an emerging term in the field of international humanitarian law. The weapons involved and the impact such weapons have on civilians, however, are not new. Explosive weapons are weapons that “affect an area around the point of detonation, usually through the effects of blast and fragmentation.”[74] Such weapons range from hand grenades to air-dropped bombs, including the bombs the CJTF is now using in its war against ISIS in Syria, and the attacks documented in this report. International conventions have completely banned two types of explosive weapons – antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions – due to their devastating impact on civilian populations.

Human Rights Watch believes that, as a matter of policy, warring parties should, in populated areas, curtail the use of explosive weapons and stop using those with wide-area effects entirely.[75]

Attack on House in al-‘Ajrawi neighborhood, Tabqa, April 25 or 26

  • Date/time: April 25 or 26, 2017, between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.
  • Location: Raqqa governorate, Tabqa, just north of the al-‘Ajrawi roundabout
  • GPS location of strike: 35.820467, 38.537615
  • Civilian casualties: 16 killed, including 5 women and 9 children

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that there was heavy fighting between SDF and ISIS on April 25 and 26 in the area around the al-‘Ajrawi roundabout located at the southern entry of Tabqa.[76] They said that ISIS fighters were moving through the streets and using at least one house in the neighborhood to attack the advancing SDF forces. Around 11:30 p.m. on April 25 or 26, they said, an airstrike hit a residential house where the al-Jasem family was hiding. The al-Jasem house was located across the street from the house ISIS was using. The witnesses said they were hiding in their homes at the time of the strike so they were not able to say whether ISIS was present on top of or near the al-Jasem home. Human Rights Watch visited the site. The damage to the house is consistent with damage from an airstrike.

By the following morning, SDF were in control of the area. Local residents said that they collected the bodies of sixteen civilians, including nine children, from the targeted house several days after the attack. They provided Human Rights Watch with the names of the casualties and showed Human Rights Watch the place where they were buried.

A residential house in Tabqa city that was hit by a coalition airstrike April 25 or 26, 2017, in an attack that killed 16 civilians, including nine children

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

In response to questions from Human Rights Watch, the CJTF press desk said that coalition forces conducted precision strikes in the vicinity of the location provided. On September 18 the press desk said that the CJTF was still assessing whether the strike resulted in civilian casualties.[77]

Graves of 16 civilians, including nine children, killed in a coalition airstrike on April 25 or 25, 2017, in Tabqa city. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

The local residents provided Human Rights Watch with the following names:

 

Name

Gender

Estimated Age

1.

Mustapha al-Jasem al-Abid

Male

40

2.

Buchra al-Melhem

Female

39

3.

Fahima Ahmad al-Jasem

Female

44

4.

Fatima Ahmad al-Jasem

Female

20

5.

Hussein Ali al-Jasem

Male

17

6.

Hala Ali al-Jasem

Female

9

7.

Ali Muhammad al-Jasem

Male

47

8.

Maryam Muhammad al-Jasem

Female

44

9.

Nur Mustapha al-Jasem

Female

7

10.

Fadia Mustapha al-Jasem

Female

6 months

11.

Saja Mustapha al-Jasem

Female

11

12.

Fawza Ali al-Jasem

Female

38

13.

Lulu Ali al-Jasem

Female

14

14.

Kais Ali al-Jasem

Male

16

15.

Khaled Ali al-Jasem

Male

5

16.

Mariam Ali al-Jasem

Female

9

Attack on House near Palestine Street, Tabqa, Unknown Date

  • Date/time: Unknown (before May 5)
  • Location: Raqqa governorate, Tabqa
  • GPS location of strike: 35.827932, 38.547741
  • Civilian casualties: 18 killed, including 3 women and 11 children

Likely in late April, CJTF airstrikes struck a house in an eastern neighborhood of Tabqa, near Palestine Street, reportedly killing 18 members of the Dalo family. Two residents who said they lived on the street where the house was struck told Human Rights Watch that there was heavy fighting between SDF and ISIS in the area at the time of the strike.[78] Neither could remember the exact date but indicated that SDF forces were trying to advance from the east and ISIS fighters were moving between houses in their neighborhood and firing at the advancing forces. Muhammad, the owner of the house that came under attack, told Human Rights Watch that he was not present at the time of the attack – he had left his house as fighting approached the area – but that he gave his keys to his neighbors, the Dalo family, as his house had thicker walls and still had water.

Partially cleared rubble of a residential house that was struck in an aerial attack likely end of April, killing 18 members of the same family. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that one munition hit a narrow street in front of the house and killed an ISIS fighter. A second munition hit the house where the Dalo family had sought refuge killing all 18 members of the family, including 3 women and 11 children.

Human Rights Watch found in the rubble of the house remnants of an air-launched Hellfire missile with a Commercial and Government Entity Code (or CAGE) – a unique identifier assigned to suppliers to various government or defense agencies – corresponding to Alliant Techsystems Operations LLC in Rocket Center, West Virginia. Alliant is a well-known supplier of warheads and rocket motors to Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Hellfire missile.[79]

Remnants of an air-launched Hellfire missile found in the ruins of a residential house after a coalition airstrike hit the house, killing 18 civilians, including 18 children. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

The owner of the house provided Human Rights Watch with the names of those killed:

 

Name

Gender

Estimated Age

1.

Abdel Jalil Muhammad Dalo

Male

48

2.

Saleha Ahmad Dalo

Female

44

3.

Ameena Abdel Jalil Dalo

Female

13

4.

Muhammad Abdel Jalil Dalo

Male

11

5.

Shahad Abdel Jalil Dalo

Female

9

6.

Hamza Abdel Jalil Dalo

Male

5

7.

‘Ahed Abdel Jalil Dalo

Male

7

8.

Khaled Muhammad Abdel Jalil Dalo

Male

46

9.

Amena Ahmad Dalo

Female

38

10.

Muhammad Khaled Dalo

Male

19

11.

Ameena Khaled Dalo

Female

17

12.

Fatema Khaled Dalo

Female

13

13.

Omar Khaled Dalo

Male

5

14.

Reem Khaled Dalo

Female

7

15.

‘Ayoush Abdel Jalil Dalo

Female

50

16.

Abd al-Razzaq al-Mer’i (al-Sanani)

Male

50

17.

Bayan Abd al-Razzaq al-Mer’i

Female

17

18.

Rawan Abd al-Razzaq al-Mer’i

Female

13

Attack on House in Mansourah, March 30

  • Date/time: March 30, around 11:15 p.m.
  • Location: Raqqa governorate, Mansourah, house of Abdel Aziz al-Faraj
  • GPS location of strike: 35.848105, 38.735632
  • Civilian casualties: Six

Relatives living nearby told Human Rights Watch that on March 30 at around 11:15 p.m. an airstrike hit the house of Abdel Aziz al-Faraj, killing him and his family.[80] The relatives said that the family was not affiliated with ISIS and that ISIS was not present in the immediate vicinity of the house. They said that ISIS was, however, digging tunnels nearby.

On September 18 the CJTF press desk said that it was still assessing whether it was responsible for the strike and whether the strike resulted in civilian casualties.[81]

Rubble of a residential house that local residents said was attacked in a coalition airstrike on March 30, 2017, killing six civilians. 

© 2017 Ole Solvang/Human Rights Watch

Relatives provided Human Rights Watch with the names of those killed:

 

Name

Gender

Estimated Age

1.

Abdel Aziz al-Faraj

Male

 

2.

Lina al-Faraj

Female

 

3.

Maria

Female

8

4.

Ammar

Male

5

5.

Ala’

Male

3

6.

Anwar

Male

3 months

Acknowledgements

This report was researched and written by Ole Solvang, deputy director of the Emergencies Division and Nadim Houry, director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Division, at Human Rights Watch. The report was edited by Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa Division. Clive Baldwin and Tom Porteous provided legal and program reviews. Mark Hiznay from the Arms Division and Sarah Margon, Washington director, provided specialist reviews.

Production and editorial assistance was provided by Michelle Lonnquist, associate in the Emergencies Division. Production assistance was provided by Olivia Hunter, photography and publications associate, Jose Martinez, senior coordinator, and Fitzroy Hepkins, administrative manager.

Human Rights Watch is grateful to the many witnesses, family members, journalists, first responders, and others whose assistance made this report possible.

 

[1] “About Us,” Operation Inherent Resolve, undated, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/. Other countries use other names. France, for example, calls the operation Chammal. French Ministry of the Armed Forces, “Opération Chammal,” undated, http://www.defense. gouv.fr/operations/operations/irak-syrie/dossier-de-presentation-de-l-operation-chammal/operation-chammal.

[2] “Airstrikes hit ISIL terrorists in Syria, Iraq,” US Department of Defense news release, September 30, 2015, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/621107/airstrikes-hit-isil-....

[3] Rodi Said, “US-backed Syrian alliance declares attack on Islamic State in Raqqa,” Reuters, November 6, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-raqqa-idUSKBN1310GX.

[4] Ellen Francis and Tom Perry, “US-led coalition airdrops forces in Raqqa province,” Reuters, March 22, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-tabqa-idUSKBN16T1....

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ellen Francis, “US-backed Syria militias say Tabqa, dam captured from Islamic State,” Reuters, May 10, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-tabqa-idUSKBN1862E4.

[7] “US-backed forces seize Islamic State-held town near Syria’s Raqqa,” Reuters, June 2, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-raqqa-idUSKBN18T2S6.

[8] “Department of Defense press briefing by General Harrigian via teleconference,” US Department of Defense new transcript, May 24, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1193060....

[9] Richard Whittle, “The unprecedented way America is fighting ISIS,” New York Post, May 28, 2016, http://nypost.com/2016/05/28/a-surreal-day-inside-our-war-against-isis/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Department of Defense press briefing by General Harrigian via teleconference,” US Department of Defense new transcript, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1193060....

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Department of Defense press briefing by Secretary Mattis, General Dunford and Special Envoy McGurk on the Campaign to Defeat ISIS in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room,” US Department of Defense new transcript, May 19, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1188225....

[14] Susannah George and Balint Szlanko, “US changes rules of engagement for Mosul fight in Iraq,” Associated Press, February 24, 2017, https://apnews.com/f084b4f094f440058e6b58318a67adce/us-changes-rules-eng....

[15] “Iraq: Airstrike Vetting Changes Raise Concerns,” Human rights Watch news release, March 28, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/28/iraq-airstrike-vetting-changes-raise....

[16] “Strikes Releases,” Operation Inherent Resolve, undated, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/News/Strike-Releases/.

[17] Alex Hopkins, “International airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Iraq and Syria: March 2017,” Airwars, April 13, 2017, https://airwars.org/news/international-airstrikes-and-civilian-casualty-....

[18] Ibid.; Alex Hopkins, “International airstrikes and civilian casualty claims in Iraq and Syria: February 2017,” Airwars, https://airwars.org/news/monthly-report-feb-2017/. Airwars generates its estimates of the death toll from incidents for which two or more “generally credible sources” have provided information.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Human Rights Watch interview with local activist, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[21] “Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve monthly civilian casualty report,” Operation Inherent Resolve, September 1, 2017, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/News/News-Releases/Article/1297778/combin....

[22] “Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve monthly civilian casualty report,” Operation Inherent Resolve, July 7, 2017, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/News/News-Releases/News-Article-View/Arti....

[23] Airwars, “Limited Accountability: A Transparency Audit of the Coalition Air War Against So-Called Islamic State,” December 2016, https://airwars.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Airwars-report_Web-FINAL1....

[24] Lolita C. Baldor, “US boosts team to investigate civilian deaths in Iraq, Syria,” Associated Press, June 13, 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-us-boosts-team-to-investigate-civilian....

[25] Samuel Oakford, “US officials confirm their Coalition allies have killed 80 civilians – but none will accept responsibility,” Airwars, May 26, 2017, https://airwars.org/news/80-coalition-ally-deaths/.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Sarah Knuckey, Ole Solvang, Jonathan Horowitz, Radhya Almutawakel, “Pentagon admits major investigation flaw: they rarely talk to air strike witnesses or victims,” Just Security, June 29, 2017, https://www.justsecurity.org/42675/pentagon-admits-rarely-talks-air-stri....

[28] Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and Relating to the Protections of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) of June 8, 1977, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/INTRO/470? OpenDocument, art. 57.

[29] Ibid.

[30] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul, arts. 14 and 15.

[31] Yousef Dais, “Raqqa launches three service projects in March” (الرقة تدشن ثلاثة مشاريع خدمية في آذار الخير), Esyria.sy, March 7, 2009, http://www.esyria.sy/eraqqa/index.php?p=stories&category=news&filename=2....

[32] Human Rights Watch interview with Awash, September 6, 2017, location withheld.

[33] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad, Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[34] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdel Latif al-Muhammad al-Faraj, Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[35] Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Moussa Muhammad al-Ali, Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[36] Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrahim Hajj Kasem, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[37] Human Rights Watch interview with ‘Ahed, Jarablus countryside, July 6, 2017.

[38] Human Rights Watch interview with Abdel Latif al-Muhammad al-Faraj, Mansourah, July 2, 2017

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with detainee, Qamishli, June 30, 2017.

[40] Human Rights Watch interview with “Youssef” [not his real name], municipal worker, Mansourah, July 4, 2017; Human Rights Watch interview with local first responder [did not want to give his name], Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[41] Human Rights Watch interview with local first responder [did not want to give his name], Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[42] Human Rights Watch interview with Ramadan Muhammad al-Karmush, Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[43] Human Rights Watch interview with ‘Ahed, Jarablus countryside, July 6, 2017.

[44] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with the CJTF-OIR press desk, August 14, 2017. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch. Commander of Operation Inherent Resolve Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend provided similar information during a briefing for journalists on March 28. See “Department of Defense briefing by General Townsend via telephone from Baghdad, Iraq,” US Department of Defense news transcript, March 28, 2017, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/ Transcript-View/Article/1133033/department-of-defense-briefing-by-gen-townsend-via-telephone-from-bagdad-iraq/.

[45] Ibid.

[46]Bundeswehr should have provided reconnaissance photos” (“Bundeswehr soll Aufklärungsbilder geliefert haben”), Spiegel Online, March 29, 2017, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundeswehr-soll-luftbilder-fue...; “Exclusive interview: Former Tornado pilot on devastating air attack in Syria” (Exklusiv-Interview: Ehemaliger Tornado-Pilot zu verheerendem Luftangriff in Syrien”), RT Deutsch, March 30, 2017, https://deutsch.rt.com/inland/48463-interview-mit-ehemaligen-tornado-pil....

[47] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with the CJTF-OIR press desk, August 14, 2017. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[48] “Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve monthly civilian casualty report,” Operation Inherent Resolve, July 7, 2017, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/News/News-Releases/News-Article-View/Arti....

[49] Human Rights Watch interview with “Youssef” [not his real name], municipal worker, Mansourah, July 4, 2017.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview with security forces guarding Tabqa hospital, Tabqa, July 4, 2017.

[51] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Abi Arab, April 10, 2017.

[52] Human Rights Watch phone interview with Ziyad Mohammad al-Ahmad, June 15, 2017.

[53] Human Rights Watch phone interview with local activist, April 10, 2017.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Bashir Athman, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview with Hassan Khalif, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad al-Hussein, Tabqa, July 4, 2017.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Human Rights Watch interview with Ahmad, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[60] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammad, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[61] Human Rights Watch interview with local resident, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[62] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with CJTF-OIR Press Desk, August 14, 2017. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ellen Francis and Tom Perry, “US-led coalition airdrops forces in Raqqa province,” Reuters, March 22, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-tabqa-idUSKBN16T1....

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Human Rights Watch interviews with Muhammad al-Hussein, Tabqa, July 4, 2017, and Mohammad, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[69] Lisa Ferdinando, “Iraqi forces liberate Hit, OIR spokesman says,” US Department of Defense news release, April 20, 2016, https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/738928/iraqi-forces-liberat....

[70] “March 23: Military airstrikes continue against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq,” US Central Command news release, March 23, 2017, http://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/PRESS-RELEASES/Press-Release-View/Article/1....

[71] “Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve monthly civilian casualty report,” Operation Inherent Resolve, August 4, 2017, http://www.inherentresolve.mil/News/News-Releases/Article/1262124/combin....

[72] Human Rights Watch interview with Mohammed Bashir Athman, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview with Mansourah resident, Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[74] International Network on Explosive Weapons, “INEW Call Commentary,” 2011, http://www.inew.org/about-inew/inew-call-commentary (accessed November 2, 2011).

[75] Steve Goose and Ole Solvang, “Deadly cargo: explosive weapons in populated areas,” openDemocracy, December 30, 2014, https://www.opendemocracy.net/open-security/steve-goose-ole-solvang/dead....

[76] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ahmad, Tabqa, July 1, 2017.

[77] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with the CJTF-OIR press desk, August 14, 2017. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview

[79] “ATK receives $14 million in contracts for Hellfire rocket motors and warheads,” defense-aerospace.com, December 28, 2006, http://www.defense-aerospace.com/articles-view/release/3/77247/atk-wins-....

[80] Human Rights Watch interview with relative [did not give name], Mansourah, July 2, 2017.

[81] Human Rights Watch email correspondence with the CJTF-OIR press desk, August 14, 2017. Copy on file with Human Rights Watch.

Author: Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch
Posted: January 1, 1970, 12:00 am