War/Truth: Civilian Harm in Remote Warfare

The Intimacies of Remote Warfare are delighted to announce a collaborative project with Airwars at the Utrecht University Centre for Global Challenges: War/Truth: Civilian Harm in Remote Warfare. Below is a reproduction of the announcement on the CfGC website, available here.

Global Challenge: Civilian Harm in Remote Warfare  

Today, wars are increasingly fought from afar. Western states are risk-averse when it comes to military intervention and reluctant to deploy troops when technological innovation has made it easier to counter threats from a distance. Through precision airstrikes and partnerships with local actors, we can now wage war without boots on the ground and without body bags returning home. 

This ‘remote warfare’ is often portrayed as humanitarian and precise, and as posing minimal risk to civilians. In reality, however, fighting from a distance may inadvertently increase civilian harm, particularly if it lowers the threshold for going to war in the first place. Moreover, wars waged out of sight can all too easily escape scrutiny. 

Just as technological innovation has made it possible to conduct warfare remotely, it has also enabled new methods to monitor it. Today, organisations like Airwars use open-source intelligence to track conflicts and verify instances of civilian harm all over the world. By shining a light on wars that might otherwise slip under the radar, Airwars brings  them to the attention of parliaments, governments, media and populations at home. 

It is critically important we understand how creating security for some can heighten insecurity for others, or we risk overlooking the longer-term impacts of this new way of war. This new Centre for Global Challenges (CfGC) project therefore aims to transform the academic, public and political debate surrounding the remote wars waged in our name. Through experimentation and collaboration, we seek to connect Airwars’ work recording civilian harm with research carried out by the  Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme (Utrecht University) into wider questions of transparency, accountability, responsibility and legitimacy. To facilitate this experimentation and collaboration, Airwars Netherlands is now an inhouse societal partner at the Centre for Global Challenges.  

Example of Experimentation and Transformation

This new way of waging and monitoring war is well illustrated by the case of the Hawija airstrike. As part of the US-led Coalition against ISIS, Dutch F-16s bombed the Iraqi town of Hawijah in the night of June 2nd to June 3rd 2015, leading to the death of atto at least 70 civilians. The Dutch government initially denied responsibility and cited national, operational and personnel security concerns for its lack of transparency. 

In collaboration with NGOs such as Amnesty International and PAX, investigative journalists, and human rights lawyers, Airwars and the Intimacies of Remote Warfare programme have worked hard to uncover the facts about this airstrike. With this knowledge, they have been able to encourage greater parliamentary scrutiny and transparency from the Dutch Ministry of Defence. Experimenting with a variety of approaches in this collaborative process, such as holding roundtables, issuing joint statements, writing op-eds, participating in the public debate and drafting roadmaps, they are transforming the conversation around modern military intervention. The impact of this work is profound. The Hawija airstrike has been debated extensively in parliament, and Airwars has been mentioned by name no fewer than 54 times.

The Future of the Project

As remote warfare is a novel and evolving phenomenon, there remains work to be done. In the coming months, this Centre for Global Challenge project will set up a Community Service Learning initiative and open-source intelligence workshops to help bridge understandings and promote collaboration between students, societal partners and staff from different disciplines. There will also be an opportunity for a student intern to actively contribute to this project. Longer-term, we will continue seeking opportunities to collaborate with societal partners on conducting cutting-edge research, engaging and informing public debate, and generally promoting dialogue on this vitally important issue.