Some simple could bring radical impacts, write Peter McKenzie and Thomas Gregory authors of a new paper on civilian casualties in overseas conflict for the New Zealand Alternative
On 30 May 2006, Nabiha Jassim was shot and killed as her brother drove her through the streets of the Iraqi city of Samarra. Nabiha had gone into labour and her brother was rushing her to the hospital. But Samarra, like the rest of Iraq, was on edge. Soldiers at an American-led coalition checkpoint mistook their speed for a sign of hostility and opened fire.
Nabiha’s death took place in the midst of the ongoing conflict between Iraqi insurgents and American forces. The world’s attention was gripped by gruesome acts like the death of 165 people in the aftermath of a mosque bombing by al-Qaida, or the rape and murder of a young Iraqi girl and her family by American soldiers.
But these gruesome acts distracted from the true horror of the Iraq War: the steady accumulation of avoidable tragedies like that of Nabiha’s death. An average of one Iraqi civilian was killed or injured at coalition checkpoints each day in 2006, creating an unending atmosphere of tragedy and fear.
Eventually the American military started taking these incidents seriously. And when they did, they realised that they were able to make small adjustments with enormous impacts. In 2007, the Americans changed the layout of checkpoints so soldiers had longer to assess potential threats and equipped soldiers with non-lethal weapons that could be used to warn civilians. As a result, the number of civilians killed or injured at coalition checkpoints reduced from an average of one per day to an average one per week.
The reason it took so long for these changes to be introduced is tragically simple: nobody was paying much attention, so nothing was done. The number of victims in each case were relatively small and so they were easy to overlook. Only by taking a step back and looking at the wider picture could the gruesome reality be observed.
The New Zealand Defence Force has spent the last nine years responding to allegations of complicity in the killing of civilians. First raised in 2011 and 2014, the allegations took on public prominence in 2017 when Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson published Hit and Run, which detailed how 15 Afghan civilians were allegedly wounded and six killed in a raid (codenamed Operation Burnham) by SAS troops on two Afghan villages.
The NZDF initially denied everything. Then it conceded that a weapons malfunction might have killed some civilians. Then it acknowledged that an SAS sniper killed an individual who they believed to be a threat; documents appear to show the individual was unarmed. An inquiry is still trying to conclusively determine what happened.
When the inquiry’s findings come, the events of Operation Burnham will be a decade old. For most of that time, the NZDF acted like nothing had happened. The reality was covered up, or the NZDF did not properly scrutinise their own operations, or both. Regardless, the problem is the same: nobody was paying much attention, so nothing was done.
People often forget about New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan. It is important to remember that our troops did not just rebuild and monitor Bamyan Province. Between 2001 and 2005, and then again from 2009 to 2012, the SAS took part in the invasion and counter-insurgency. They took part in direct, ongoing and regular conflict.
Inevitably during conflict, people get hurt and things get broken. It is for that reason that military intervention of the sort which New Zealand undertook should always be a last resort, which it often has not been. Nevertheless, having intervened, we took on a responsibility to prevent civilian harm. Yet according to information recovered under the Official Information Act, between late 2009 and early 2011 there were 14 incidents of property damage in relation to SAS activity, requiring a total of $3,000 in condolence payments.
Nobody knew about these condolence payments outside of the NZDF. It probably wasn’t very well known within the NZDF. We have no idea what prompted the payments, nor what the exact nature or impact of the damage was. All we know is that the 14 incidents were relatively evenly spaced over the deployment, and became gradually more severe. The first few incidents required around $50 to $200 in condolence payments. The second to last incident required a payment of $1,700. And this is the tip of the iceberg; we don’t know about the claims of damage and harm which victims didn’t make, or the claims which went to the wrong authority or country because the victims didn’t know it was New Zealand’s special forces which caused the damage.
Why do we know so little? Almost certainly because nobody was paying much attention, so nothing was tracked or done.
The inquiry into Operation Burnham has drawn public attention to the NZDF and the issue of civilian deaths. That’s brilliant. But we cannot let the inquiry be a flash in the pan. Real change comes from ongoing and consistent scrutiny, something which New Zealand’s status quo of a struggling media and weak internal NZDF processes won’t provide.
That’s why New Zealand Alternative, an organisation dedicated to promoting an independent, values-driven foreign policy for Aotearoa, is recommending that we change the status quo.
In our recent policy brief on institutional responses to the killing of civilians, New Zealand Alternative makes a few simple and impactful recommendations. Most crucially, New Zealand Alternative recommends that the NZDF introduce a Civilian Harm Prevention Team. Currently, accountability for civilian deaths or harm requires the endless grind of investigative journalists. That’s not sustainable or consistent. We need a dedicated group focused on tracking allegations of civilian harm, coordinating verification of those allegations and providing NZDF-wide guidance on civilian harm avoidance and mitigation. A dedicated group focused on the killing of civilians would have raised the red flag over Operation Burnham. A dedicated group would have seen the steadily worsening pattern of civilian damage inflicted by the SAS between 2009 and 2011. A dedicated group could have responded to complaints, acknowledged the harm and ensured that real change took place straight away.
This is not a new idea. Having recognised the steady accumulation of preventable deaths like that of Nabiha Jassim, and in the aftermath of three dramatic incidents resulting in significant civilian deaths, the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan introduced a team to track the killing of civilians – an approach now considered international best practice.
Neither is it a complex idea. New Zealand Alternative is just calling for robust and consistent scrutiny of our institutions. When we choose to intervene, we choose to take on extensive moral responsibilities for the potential victims. Where it takes place, the stark injustice of innocent civilians being killed must be exposed. Because, most simply, when people pay attention, a whole lot can get done.
Read the full briefing paper, Civilian Casualties and the New Zealand Defence Force, at NZAlternative.org.