The importance of monitoring civilian losses

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In late 2002, US journalist Helen Thomas strongly opposed the impending invasion of Iraq. Unlike many of her colleagues, whom she regarded as having a groupthink or “herd mentality”, she asked tough questions, considered by the herd as unpatriotic, at presidential press conferences. On one occasion in exasperation she asked White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer,

“Ari, why does the president want to kill thousands of people?” 
The reply came:
“Why are you saying that, Helen?   They have a dictator! They have no say in their country!”


The notion that people unfortunate enough to be born under the rule of a dictator therefore deserve to be bombed as well doesn’t get many marks for logic. But hardly anything from that time did.   Move on 12 or so years, and the paucity of considered debate and robust argument in matters related to Iraq, along with lack of transparency, has not improved.

One of the most important pieces of information in our current war in Iraq is not even blessed with the pretence that it matters enough to be monitored: the civilian losses.

Tom Gregory and Alex Edney-Browne, writing in The Conversation on 11 February, reported the remarks last December of Lieutenant-General James L. Terry, commander of US forces in Iraq and Syria, that he did not know how many civilians had died as a result of coalition airstrikes in the region; such losses are not actively monitored.

PM Abbott sent our troops to Iraq again last year because, he said, ISIL is a threat to the people of Iraq and the region, as well as to Australia’s domestic security. However the fate of the people doesn’t seem to weigh heavily in whatever assessments he is making of the war either. These questions need answers:

  • How many civilians in Iraq have been killed or maimed by coalition air strikes?
  • What health care infrastructure is available to care for the injured and how is Australia assisting?
  • How many refugees are there from the Iraqi war zones (regardless of whether ISIL or the war against ISIL, or both, drove them out)?
  • How much aid is Australia providing for them, compared with the costs of our military activity?

The lack of information goes further than the issue of civilian casualties in Australia’s wars. Even information about what the ADF is doing, and where, is currently so confused and poorly communicated that many Australians would be hard pressed to say what countries Australia has troops in at present. Are the ADF in Afghanistan? No, they left there in December 2013, didn’t they? No hang on, aren’t there some special forces there still?

(Answer: 400 ADF still there, as part of Operation Highroad.)

In Iraq last year, even finding out when ADF troops finally reached the country, after what seemed like a protracted and mysterious process of agreement between the Australian and Iraqi governments, was very difficult at the time. The terms of the “administrative arrangements”, we are told by the Department of Foreign Affairs, are kept confidential on the request of the Iraqi government. So neither the Iraqi people, whose country is yet again a battlefield, nor the Australian people on whose behalf the ADF are there, know the conditions that apply to their presence.

Greater transparency is required, notwithstanding the need for confidentiality on some matters.

Australians for War Powers Reform (a project of the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry) advocates mandatory debate in parliament, and authorisation by parliament, before any ADF deployments into overseas armed conflict. Legislation to implement such a change could have a built in requirement that the PM must provide frequent and detailed reports to parliament on the progress of any ADF deployments and their impacts on the people in whose territory they are fighting.

In the meantime, the PM could help to democratise current deployments by giving regular, say fortnightly, media conferences. Matters to be addressed could include the military progress or otherwise that is being made, what air attacks RAAF planes have conducted and the results, the costs in civilian suffering at which any progress is being achieved, and the economic costs.

The implementation of such media briefings would not get around the problem of inane responses such as that given by Ari Fleischer to Helen Thomas, but it would at least give an opportunity for critical questions to be asked and any inane or evasive answers to be noted.

To use a medical analogy: Ignoring civilian casualties of war makes as much sense as repeatedly performing a surgical procedure while disregarding its rate of complications and mortality. Any surgeon guilty of this would soon find him/herself in court and barred from practice.
opinion from Sue Wareham, 16 February 2015

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