By: Ben Quinn, James Ball and Mark Tran
March 28, 2011
Afghan civilians compensated for deaths, injuries and property damage caused by British forces received £1.3m last year from the Ministry of Defence – but this was, on average, less than half of what they asked for.
The lowest payment for a death was £542 after a girl was killed in a fire started by a rocket. The highest was £5,000 for each victim paid to families of a number of Afghans killed by a strike involving Hellfire missiles.
While the MoD made £1.3m in compensation payments during 2010, in the financial year from 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010 it paid out £1.42m – more than treble the £452,707 for the previous financial year and almost four times the £380,569 in 2007-08.
The list of all claims that were settled or rejected in 2010 has been released after the Guardian made a freedom of information request to the MoD.
The 2010 figures serve as a catalogue of suffering among civilians caught in the battle for control of Helmand province where, according to leaked diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, the efforts of British forces have been harshly criticised by Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, and our US allies.
The MoD says the compensation amounts to “goodwill payments” which do not imply legal liability and correspond to local rates. A spokesman said: “When compensation claims are received by the Ministry of Defence they are considered on the basis of whether or not there is a legal liability to pay compensation. In some cases where there is a major threat to the stabilisation effort and it is impossible to form a view on strict legal liability, ex-gratia payments may be made for personal loss, injury or death.
“The amounts paid are in accordance with local compensation rates.”
Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (Civic), welcomed the compensation policy but said it lacked transparency. “It’s important that the UK has a compensation programme … certainly that’s the strategic thing to do and from talking with British officers in Afghanistan, I also know they believe it’s the right thing to do. My concern is that there’s no real transparency about who got what and what for and when, not just from the UK but from all the nations operating there.”
Civic said there were fewer incidents in which Nato forces caused civilian casualties last year because of directives limiting close air support and requiring positive identification of targets. But three incidents in the past month, including the deaths of children caused by Isaf (the international security assistance force led by Nato), underlined the risk to civilians and the need for a compensation policy for all international and Afghan forces.
Theo Farrell, professor of war studies at King’s College London, said the increased bill for compensation could be because more civilians were being killed and more damage caused, but there could also have been a change in British policy, to make bigger payments.
“One of changes may be that in 2010, American troops came into Helmand in very significant numbers and they make very generous payments. This may have affected British policy,” he said.
“The other context has been the huge military push in Helmand against the Taliban. In the last 18 months the number of Isaf forces has gone up in a major way and there has been a very aggressive push in the south, in Kandahar and Helmand … If Isaf has really been trying to push the Taliban out of the south, you will naturally see an increase in civilian payments.”
Air strikes and mortar bombings were most frequently the cause of payouts by the MoD last year to relatives of civilians killed in error in the course of British military operations. A strike by Hellfire missiles in the Babaji region of Helmand province in December 2009 led to £40,000 being paid out in five separate claims, one of which was to a claimant who lost two brothers and two sons. Although this and other incidents happened in 2009, compensation was not paid until last year.
Fourteen reports specifically mention Hellfire missiles: 10 were settled, while three arising from an attack in October last year are still being investigated and one was declined. Five reported fatalities, one a wounding, and the remainder property damage.
Other cases include £1,240 paid out for a child killed in February last year by the shock from a controlled explosion during clearance of an improvised explosive device in Sangin and £5,600 to a man whose wife and son died when a mortar caused a wall to collapse on them.
Overall, £155,379 was paid out for incidents involving at least one fatality. Small arms fire was cited for most other deaths, but one case included £2,000 for someone’s son who died from “illum casing” injuries, a reference to an illumination flare. Woundings account for £73,771 in payouts. The 53 cases included £1,549 for a girl who was shot and paralysed in November 2009 in Nad-e Ali and a girl of nine whose family were paid £1,198 after she was caught in crossfire in December.
There were 530 successful claims for property damage, accounting for £619,699. Examples included flooding of a home after 267 trees were cut down for “force protection”, the destruction of a flour mill and shop, and damage to homes.
An entry relating to one person waiting to be paid £160 states: “Alleges that when a suicide bomber was close to his home the PRT [provincial reconstruction team] and Isaf troops … took his home over for 6-10 days and damaged the inside and windows – wishes to claim rent also.”
More expensive cases involved a shopkeeper who received £4,700 after his shop and stock was burned down when a mini flare set the property alight; a payment of £6,100 after property was destroyed by a 500lb bomb; a £7,000 for shops destroyed in a Hellfire strike; and £3,700, when a clinic in the village of Garmsir was destroyed. Other payments included £4,148 covering six claims arising from road traffic accidents; three claims for dead livestock, £522; 306 claims for crop damage, £387,584, often in cases where farmers were prevented from growing tall crops; £8,000 was also paid out for one incident in May last year in Lashkar Gah after a Chinook dispensed flares and ignited crops.
One security guard was paid £185 after his dog was shot by a military dog handler in Lashkar Gah.
The majority, 861 of more than 1,000 claims that were settled or waiting to be settled, arose in the Nad-e Ali and Nahr-e Saraj areas. Most of those settled related to incidents between June and October last year, the “fighting season”.
Guidelines for US army units operating in Helmand provide for $1,500-$2,500 for the death of a child or adult.
“Nato last summer adopted its first ever compensation policy,” said Holewinski. “It’s a set of non-binding guidelines and is a big deal because it says there was agreement that compensation is important to Afghans, particularly as a dignifying gesture. Now the problem is that the guidelines haven’t gone anywhere. How would any of the commanders out in the provinces know what they mean or how to implement them? That’s for Petraeus to do [David Petraeus is the US army general commanding Nato-led Isaf].”