Day: February 7, 2010

Rethinking War Deaths in the Congo

Nicholas Kristof is writing about Congo again this morning:

It’s easy to wonder how world leaders, journalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens looked the other way while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And it’s even easier to assume that we’d do better.

But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.

What those numbers don’t capture is the way Congo has become the world capital of rape, torture and mutilation…

Kristof is right about that – though not quite in the way he seems to mean. Actually the 5.4 million number from April 2007 has just been debunked by a new report out from the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University, which argues that two of the five International Rescue Committee studies from which the estimate was derived woefully under-estimated the baseline peacetime national mortality in the Congo and therefore dramatically exaggerated the number of deaths in the country caused by the war.

In determining the excess death toll, the “baseline” mortality rate is critically important. If it is too low, the excess death toll will be too high.

The IRC uses the sub-Saharan average of 1.5 deaths per 1,000 per month as its baseline mortality rate for all but the very last survey when the sub-Saharan average drops to 1.4. Using the sub-Saharan African average mortality rate as a comparator––to indicate how high death rates were in the east of the DRC compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, for example—would have been both instructive and appropriate. Using it as a measure of the pre-war mortality rate in the DRC itself makes little sense.

The IRC argues the sub-Saharan average mortality rate is a conservative choice for pre-war DRC because it was the highest estimate available. In 2002 the IRC recorded no violent deaths in the western region––which it refers to as the “nonconflict” zone. Yet, the mortality rate in this zone is 2.0 deaths per 1,000 of the population per month––a third higher than the sub-Saharan African average that the IRC uses as its pre-war baseline mortality rate.

But, the DRC is in no sense an average sub-Saharan African country—indeed, it is ranked at, or near, the bottom of every sub-Saharan African development indicator. The baseline mortality rate for the country as a whole should therefore be considerably higher than the sub-Saharan African average. The survey evidence from the western part of the country suggests that this is indeed the case.

The fighting in the DRC was also heavily concentrated in the eastern provinces during the period covered by the first two surveys. This suggests that in this period too there was no significant violent death toll in the western part of the country. Indeed, this is precisely the assumption the IRC makes in arriving at its 5.4 million excess death toll estimate for the DRC for the period 1998 to 2007.

The report breaks down the numbers in much greater detail and contrasts them to the much more conservative and, it argues, rigorously arrived at estimates – estimates that have been largely ignored by the press.

If “only” some 3 million people, instead of 5.4 million, died by 2007, does this undermine Kristof’s call for action on the Congo? By no means. A more useful metric may not be the absolute numbers (which in themselves don’t seem to incite much policy attention) but rather the relative numbers: Congo is one of the few places in the world where, according to this report, violence has reached sufficient levels to actually raise the national mortality rate (which is declining in nations elsewhere around the globe in both war and peacetime). According to their data, the one other case in which this occurred in recent decades is Rwanda.


US Contemplated Giving India Nuclear Technology in 1961

Two days ago the National Security Archive released a fascinating State Department document from 1961. In the document, US officials recommend passing nuclear technology to India in order to take the steam out of the anticipated nuclear tests by Communist China.

Ultimately, of course, Secretary of State Rusk vetoed the recommendation to pass America’s nuclear secrets on to India. China would go on to hold its first test three years later. India would not test its first nuclear device (i.e. the “Smiling Buddha”) until 1974. Nevertheless, the document reveals a great deal about how the US State Department understood the psychological and strategic issues surrounding nuclear proliferation in 1961. Moreover, it shows that the Americans properly understood India’s nuanced position on nuclear technology despite Nehru’s public pronouncements against nuclear weapons. And Ambassador Galbraith’s strong advice against approaching Nehru directly in favor of working indirectly through Dr. Homi Bhabha was certainly wise.

While the National Security Archive discusses the relevance of the document for the current debate on Iranian nuclear weapons (I frankly don’t see the connection), I think it is more interesting to ponder what would have been the effects of a nuclear armed India in 1961.

The most obvious implication would have been that the 1962 War between India and China would have been rather unimaginable if India had nuclear weapons while China did not. Similarly, one could speculate whether the 1965 India-Pakistan War and subsequent wars would have been imaginable in this strategic context.

Of course, the potential burden of a nuclear arms race in Asia at a time when India still suffered from food shortages is a sobering thought… to say nothing of the horrific scenario of a nuclear exchange in the heart of Asia…


The UK Iraq Inquiry: The Agony and the Ecstasy or International Law and Deja Vu

The legality of the 2003 Iraq War has been back in a big way in the UK over the last few weeks. This, no doubt, is the result of several high-profile figures who were involved in the decision as to use force testifying in front of the Iraq Inquiry.
For the uninitiated, the Iraq Inquiry is an independent panel of figures set up “identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict.” It is often referred to as the Chilcot Inquiry, so named for the chairperson, Sir John Chilcot, and the panel of experts also includes such notable IR/War Studies-type figures as Sir Lawrence Freedman.

Last week we saw the testimony of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, a former Foreign Office (FCO) legal advisor and the only senior level government official to resign over the war. (She now heads the International Law Program at Chatham House.) In addition, there was Lord Goldsmith, the then-Attorney General who, it has been suggested, had advised that such a war would be illegal but subsequently changed his legal opinion under apparent political pressure; Sir Michael Wood, who was the Foreign Office’s chief legal adviser and apparently also advised that a second resolution would be necessary; and this week there was Clare Short, the then Minister for International Development who agreed to support the war, but then resigned in protest when she felt that she had been lied to by the Prime Minister.

But the biggest fireworks certainly came when former Prime Minister Tony Blair was called to testify to the Inquiry. He was grilled on all sorts of fronts, and was, I suspect, quite determined to rescue his reputation for being George W. Bush’s poodle.

I’m not certain as to how much publicity the Inquiry has generated overseas. It might be that the subtleties of UK politics are too much for American audiences to really grasp? (Note: I see that Jon Stewart discussed the issue on the Daily Show, but as videos are now blocked in the UK, I have no idea what was said. DAMN YOU CHANNEL 4!!!)

But there are all kinds of issues that one could raise. Given my interests in international law, I will just mention a few.

My first thought is just trying to imagine this happening in the United States. Sure there was the 9/11 Commission, but this is really on a whole new level. Like George W. Bush being grilled by IR-academics on live TV kind of level.

If I’m perfectly honest, I can think of perfectly solid reasons for NOT having a similar inquiry in the US that could compel a former president to testify – namely that the US is still in Iraq whereas the British have pretty much left. Additionally, the spectacle of it all would be an unwelcome distraction for Obama who has enough on his plate between a sputtering economy, healthcare, Guantanamo, etc.

Yet if there is something both satisfying and incredibly horrifying about having watched Tony answer questions for a full day in front of a relatively demanding panel, (it was a bit like witnessing a train wreck in the atmosphere of the British Library) how would this have looked in Washington, with George standing in for Tony? I suspect this will have be left to playwrights.
The second major issue is the relative importance of international law at the Inquiry. It was a bit of 2002-2003 all over again. Was the invasion illegal? What was it that persuaded Lord Goldsmith to change his mind? Was Resolution 1441 ambiguous or clear permission to carry out an enforcement operation? That these continue to haunt the Labour Government and to be very much at the centre of the debate over Iraq says much about the British (if not European) attitude towards war and law.

Yet, despite my own interests in international law, I have to wonder why do we pay so much attention to this question – particularly seven years after the fact? Would it have made a difference if the war was “legal”? Would it have made it right? Certainly there is no doubt in the mind of Tony Blair that it was both, but would we have seen the same kind of outcry if, as I once saw Professor Philip Allott tell a crowd of LSE students, (and I’m paraphrasing here)“15 men in New York could have agreed to raise their hands”.

(Allot, incidentally, stated his most recent comments on international law, role of legal advisers (rather than advocates) and Iraq here.)


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