Tag: civilian casualties

The Chilcot Inquiry on Civilian Casualties

The publication of the long-awaited Chilcot Report on Britain’s role in the Iraq War last week produced a flurry of activity, with journalists desperately skimming through the 2.6m words within the three hours they were allocated prior to full publication. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of their attention was focused on whether or not Tony Blair could be held legally and morally culpable for the chaos that has ensued since the invasion back in 2003. And despite fears that it would be a whitewash, the report was pretty damning in its assessment of both the justifications for war and its execution. Amongst its key findings, the report found that Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, the case for war was presented with ‘a certainty which was not justified’, the intelligence was flawed and often went unchallenged, advice about the possibility of sectarian violence was ignored and post-war planning was described as being ‘wholly inadequate’. Crucially, the report also concludes that the ‘peaceful options for disarmament had not been exhausted’ and the war was ‘not a last resort’.

Reactions to the report have been pretty incredible, with The Guardian describing it as ‘an unprecedented, devastating indictment of how a prime minister was allowed to make decisions by discarding all pretence at cabinet government, subverting the intelligence agencies, and making exaggerated claims about threats to Britain’s national security’ and The New York Times arguing that the ‘inquiry’s verdict on the planning and conduct of British military involvement in Iraq was withering, rejecting Mr. Blair’s contention that the difficulties encountered after the invasion could not have been foreseen’. But what has been largely ignored in all the furore is the inquiry’s scathing critique of the government’s attitude towards civilian casualties. Given that the discussion on collateral damage is the last section of a twelve volume report, nestled between a chapter on the welfare of service personnel and an annex on the history of Iraq from 1583 to 1960, it is perhaps not surprisingly that there has been little discussion of its findings. But it is well-worth looking at its conclusion because they reveal a lot of about how civilian casualties were framed, why the government was so reluctant to count the dead and how it perceived the data collected by other organisations, such as the Iraq Body Count.

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Hostile Intent: Civilian Casualties and the Politics of Killing

Tackling Tough CallsThe expectation that civilians should be protected from the worst excesses of war is traditionally viewed as a moral or legal restraint, moderating the kind of violence that can be inflicted on the battlefield. But the shift towards counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq and its emphasis on population-centric warfare called for a radical rethink in how civilian casualties are framed. Rather than simply viewing them as the tragic but inevitable side-effect of military operations, civilian casualties were now seen as a ‘strategic setback’ that could jeopardise the overall success of campaign. In his 2011 tactical directive, Gen. John R. Allen stated that he was ‘absolutely committed to eliminating the tragic waste of human life amongst the law-abiding citizens of Afghanistan’, reminding soldiers that ‘every civilian casualty is a detriment to our interests’. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was equally adamant about the need to reduce civilian harm, insisting that coalition forces try to ‘avoid the trap of winning tactical victories – but suffering strategic defeats – by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage’.

Concerned about alienating the local population, the military introduced a number of measures to reduce the number of civilians killed, limiting its reliance on deadly airstrikes and controversial night raids whilst encouraging troops to exercise greater ‘tactical patience’ when dealing with locals. Data collected by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan suggests that these changes did have a positive impact on civilian harm, with deaths caused by pro-government forces falling from 828 in 2008 to 341 in 2013. As Neta Crawford argues in her recent book, ‘when the United States perceived the harm to civilians as posing a political-military problem, it attempted and succeeded in decreasing collateral damage deaths’ (see also). But a new report from the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) raises some important questions about the protection of civilians during this period, criticising the vague, unclear and imprecise language used to justify certain deaths (see also). In particular, it warns that conceptual flaws in the standing rules of engagement (SROE), combined with poor application in the field, resulted in ‘erroneous determinations of hostile intent’. To put it simply, civilians were killed and injured because soldiers mistook perfectly innocent behaviour as a threat to their safety.

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Compensation for Kunduz and the Commodification of Civilian Casualties

The controversy surrounding the coalition airstrike in Kunduz continues to rumble on this week after military investigators drove an armoured personnel carrier into a hospital’s front gate. A spokesperson for the Pentagon was quick to apologise for any damage caused, telling reporters (without a hint of irony) that the team were simply trying to gain access to the facility so that they could assess the structural integrity of the buildings hit earlier in the month. This latest incident will do little to ease tensions between the United States and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which operates the hospital. Three separate investigations into the original attack are now underway but there is still a great deal of uncertainty about why the hospital was targeted. What we do know is that at least 22 people were killed when the AC-130 gunship opened fire on the building, including 12 medical staff and 10 patients.

The debate so far has largely focused on whether or not the attack was lawful, but what caught my attention was the response of the military officials and, in particular, their offer of compensation. After initially blaming ground troops for the mistake and then the Afghan Army, the Pentagon eventually admitted the decision was made further up the chain of command and President Obama has now offered a full-blown apology. What is more, it has since been confirmed that the United States will compensate the victims and help rebuild the hospital. As the Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook made clear, ‘the Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic incident’. But the use of financial compensation to rectify these wrongs raises a number of important ethical questions: Do these payments actually make the perpetrator any more accountable for the harm they have caused? Is there a risk that they may end up normalising the horrors of war? And do they reflect a genuine concern for the pain and suffering experienced by those living on the frontline of today’s conflicts?

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Drones, targeted killings and the limitations of international law

Last month’s announcement that a Royal Air Force drone was used to kill two British citizens in Syria has reignited debates about the legality of targeted killings, but there is always a danger that something gets lost within this legal frame. Questions about the geographical boundaries of contemporary conflict and the legal status of those being targeted are clearly important and should not be ignored but we should also be aware that other equally important issues are being pushed to the margins of debate. As I argue in my recent article for International Political Sociology, the rather dry, disembodied and technical language of international law tends to ignore the pain and suffering experienced by those targeted and the detrimental effects drone operations are having on the communities living below. As such, these legal debates have failed to contest the notion that this technology provides a more efficient, more effective and more humane way of waging war.

One of the reasons that this incident has caused such a stir is that it is the first time that the British have used a drone to carry out an extra-judicial killing. In a statement to the House of Commons last month, David Cameron confirmed that a British drone had been used to carry out a deadly attack in Syria despite the fact that MPs had previously voted against military operations against Bashar al-Assad. The victims –Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin and a third unidentified man – were killed when their car was hit as it travelled through the northern city of Raqqa. They were targeted, Cameron argued, because Khan was plotting a series of ‘barbaric attacks against the West’ and ‘actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers’ to carry them out. The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, provided some additional details the following day, telling the BBC that months of ‘meticulous planning [and] careful surveillance’ had gone into this attack and that the government ‘wouldn’t hesitate to do it again’. Indeed, he went on to suggest that the British might adopt a US-style hit list, prompting a fierce rebuke from human rights groups.

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Not Surprised is Not Good Enough: what soldier atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan can teach us about Ferguson






By some strange twist of fate I happened to watch the Kill Team, a documentary about the infamous US platoon that intentionally murdered innocent Afghan men while on tour. When, in 2010 the military charged five members of the platoon, the case drew international attention due to the graphic nature of the killings, evidence that the men mutilated the bodies and kept parts as trophies, and indications that the killings were part of a wider trend of ‘faking’ combat situations in order for soldiers to ‘get a kill.’ While the premeditated killing of Afghan civilians appears completely disconnected from the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed Michael Brown, there are several common threads that deserve unraveling. Rather than characterise ‘Ferguson’ as ‘simply’ a case of police brutality, or localised racism, or isolated misconduct, such a comparison opens up space for counter-narratives. In particular, the comparison A) highlights the systemic nature of racist, militarized, and patriarchal violence across multiple institutions, including the police and the military; B) addresses the sanctioned killing of non-white men and women as a consistent feature of the national narrative; C) indicates the desperate need to both demonise a racialised other and to measure individual and national masculinity in terms of the control and suppression of this demonised other.

So, with that pleasant list out of the way, here are 3 ways that civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are similar to the murders of innocent civilian African-American young men.

1. Creating a dark and dehumanized enemy.
Whether it is at home in the US or overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is ample evidence of a generalised trend for police, soldiers, and the public to hold deeply racist views about the people they are meant to be protecting.

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Targeting…targeting: What are reasonable expectations?

Blue moon, you targeted me standing alone…

Yesterday Charli wrote a post on whether or not those opposed to the use of drones should use the concept of “atrocity law” instead of “war crimes” or human rights violations.

I wonder if others who generally oppose “targeted killings” think the concept of “atrocity law” might be a more useful way of framing this problem publicly than talking about “war crimes” or “human rights” specifically – concepts that by their nature draw the listener’s attention to a legal regime that only partially bears on the activity in question and invites contrasting legal views drawn from contrasting legal regimes.

Charli asks this question given that:

I think there is significant and mounting evidence of normative opposition to the targeted killings campaign (regardless of arguments some may make about its technical legality under different legal traditions), and according to even the most conservative estimates it meets the other criteria of a significant number victims and large-scale damage. No one can doubt it’s highly orchestrated character.

I’m going to go with “no” on these questions. First, unlike Charli, I’m not certain there is “mounting evidence of normative opposition to the targeted killings campaign” in anything other than the protests of a relatively insular group of legal-academics-activists (Phil Alston et al) who tend to be critical of these kinds of things anyway. In previous posts I have raised doubts about whether or not we can determine if targeted killing is effective, and how some activities have challenged and changed legal framework for the War on Terror. However, if anything, I think there is growing consensus within the Obama administration that the program works, it is effective and I think it is popular.

Additionally, I do not see how invoking the term “atrocity” will get us beyond many of the political problems involved in invoking other terms like “human rights law” or “war crimes”. If anything, “atrocity” seems to be an even less precise, more political term.

However, I think this conversation points to a third, larger issue that Charli is mostly concerned with – civilian death in armed conflict. Or, to put it another way – What expectations may we reasonably seek to place on our states when they carry out military actions? Those who write, research and teach on international law typically anchor their discussions in the legal principles of proportionality, necessity and distinction. However, these are notoriously vague terms. And, as such, when it comes to drones, many argue that these legal principles are being undermined.

In thinking about this question, I’ve been reminded of the recent controversy over the decision of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in the Gotovina Case. In it, the Court ruled that a 4% error rate in targeting in a complex military operation was tantamount to a war crime. Four percent.

Was this a reasonably conclusion for the ICTY to make? Are militaries (and the military in question here was not a Western military dealing with high-tech military equipment) really expected to do better than a 96% accuracy rate when it comes to targeting? And if so, on what grounds can we (or the Court) say this is the case? And, bringing this back to Charli’s post, would we benefit from thinking about a 4% error rate in terms of “atrocity”?

There are two very good summaries of the case at Lawfare and IntLawGrrls for more background information on the case. Some concerned former military professionals (many of whom are now professors) – admittedly, another insular group of legal-academics-activists of a very different source – have put together an Amicus Brief for the Gotovina Appeal which is well worth reading.

However, immediate questions of legality aside, I think this raises a larger question as to what we can reasonably expect from military campaigns, especially what levels of accuracy. Are all civilian deaths “atrocity”? Historically, the laws of war have said no – that proportionality may sometimes render it permissible (if no less regrettable). And I believe that all but the most ardent activists would agree with this historically rooted position. But it is clear that our perceptions of reasonable death rates have changed since the Second World War. So the question is what governs our ideas about proportionality and civilian deaths in an age of instant satellite imagery, night vision and precision guided weaponry? Unfortunately, I’m not sure the drone debate has given us any useful answers nor the basis to produce them.

I appreciate that there are important differences here – the military is, in theory, a hierarchical chain of command that is obliged to follow the laws of war. The CIA (who carries out the drone program) are civilians who do not meet these expectations and their status in law is questionable. But status here is not the issue (at least for this blog post and how it relates to Charli’s concerns). Instead, it is whether and at what point civilian deaths may be considered “atrocity”, on what basis we can and should make that decision and whether that language would make any useful or practical difference.

There is no doubt that recent move to a “zero-civilian death” or high expectations of few casualties has been rapid. Certainly it is at least part of the increased legal activity by governments, IGOs and NGOs in the realms of international law and the laws of war. However, I think it is also the result of a false promise that better technology can allow us to have “clean” wars. It is a promise that is made by governments to their populations, but one that has also clearly influenced activists in terms of their expectations – whether they are set in terms of laws, rights or atrocity.


Crunching Corpse Counts: A Rejoinder by Michael Spagat Et Al.

One of the few items recently that has caused me to emerge from my nothing-but-Friday-nerd-blogging temporary hiatus was this article on civilian war deaths by Michael Spagat and his collaborators. I wrote a post with some praise and some questions, and recently received a thoughtful response by email from Michael and his crew in which they further detail the coding methods used in the project. Since the original thread generated some interest, I’ve decided to post their response here.

Civilian Targeting Index Clarification
by Madelyn Hicks, Uih Ran Lee, Ralph Sundberg and Michael Spagat

Since publishing our paper in PLoS ONE on the Civilian Targeting Index we have received some interesting feedback both in emails and on the “Duck of Minerva” blog concerning the nature of the one-sided violence data we use from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). In particular, some readers wonder how solid the underlying evidence of intentionality can really be for incidents coded as one-sided violence (i.e. ’civilian targeting’). We would like to take this opportunity to clarify this important coding issue in some detail.

First, here is a short general discussion. UCDP coding of ‘deliberate’ or ‘intentional’ civilian targeting is not a judicial assessment (e.g. of manslaughter or murder), nor is it an attempt to ‘know’ a perpetrator’s motivations. Instead, UCDP coding methodology assesses whether particular conflict-related deaths were likely to be one-sided or battle-related based on a combined review of: the plausible target, the method by which a killing was carried out, presented evidence, and credible statements or attributions of guilt. In each situation of violence the human coders, using what evidence is at hand, first attempt to identify a likely target. Coders also consider what method of attack was used (bombing, shooting, IED, etc.).

It is from this analysis of available information that a coder draws a conclusion regarding whether this was a likely ‘intentional’ one-sided death.
Often Uppsala infers the intention to kill civilians – and only civilians – from the absence of a possible military or conflict-related target. Conversely, the presence of such a target will be sufficient to force a coding of battle death (rather than one-sided death). This means that the bar is set fairly high for classifying deaths as one-sided since for many incidents there will be plausible military or conflict-related targets. Thus, many killings that could in reality have been largely intentional will, nevertheless, be classified as battle deaths because the available evidence will not be considered strong enough to code these death as one-sided.

Note, however, that there are some coding outlets for expressing uncertainty over intentionality. For example, when there is weak evidence of intentionality, deaths can be placed into the “high” category of one-sided deaths rather than into the “best” category. Such coding might be reconsidered later as further evidence comes to light. For example, in Burundi some such deaths were later transferred from “high” to “best” as new evidence became available that these events were really massacres.

We now turn to specific examples of coding in practice, focusing on the borderline between one-sided (i.e., intentional civilian targeting) fatalities and battle deaths. First, in many cases, the correct coding is fairly obvious due to the method used in killing, as reported by credible sources. For example, many one-sided deaths were attributed to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) based on a Human Rights Watch Report (“The Christmas Massacres”, February 16, 2009) that contained graphic descriptions such as the following: “LRA combatants hacked their victims to death with machetes or axes or crushed their skulls with clubs and heavy sticks.” In Colombia there were many incidents of armed groups entering villages and then massacring people by shooting them in their heads at close range. In Iraq there were numerous incidents of bodies of executed individuals found, often with their hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head and bearing marks of torture. Such killings are unambiguously one-sided deaths.

The Iraq example does, however, raise an important point about UCDP coding which everyone should bear in mind when interpreting the data; the coding scheme only admits deaths that can be attributed to particular armed groups. Thus, many execution deaths in Iraq (and elsewhere) are not included because the perpetrating groups are not known. (These deaths can be added later if the identities of perpetrators are discovered.) Of course, the requirement of identifying perpetrators limits the coverage of the UCDP data. More importantly, it affects the tallies for some groups differently than it affects others. This biases the data and we need to think through the implications of these biases when we make interpretations. It is, for example, worth knowing that the Taliban often claim credit for executions of teachers and unmarried couples while groups in Iraq typically execute their victims anonymously.

Of course, many events are much more ambiguously situated on the battle death/one-sided death borderline than the ones described so far. For example, IED-caused deaths of civilians are coded as battle deaths because one cannot rule out the possibility that the intention of the perpetrators was to attack NATO or Afghan forces. Mortar fire is treated similarly; since mortars are hard to control it is difficult to conclude that a mortar was intended to hit civilians only even if it does only hit civilians. Fatalities from rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon are coded as battle deaths for the same reason. Civilian deaths in aerial bombings, which usually have plausible military objectives, are also normally coded as battle deaths unless there is clear evidence of intentional targeting of civilians. Checkpoint killings in which soldiers fire on an approaching vehicle after going through a sequence of warnings will usually be classified as battle deaths based on statements of soldiers that they believed they were firing on hostile individuals inside the attacked vehicle, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

It is clear from the examples of the previous paragraph that the battle death/one-sided death distinction, and hence the Civilian Targeting Index (CTI), is of no use for analyzing the reckless endangerment or indiscriminate killing of civilians, as we point out in our paper. Other tools, such as the Dirty War Index [Hicks and Spagat (2008)] are required for this purpose, with a recent example of measuring indiscriminate effects on civilians in Iraq [Hicks et al. (2011)].

Another important point is that UCDP systematically reexamines incidents as new evidence appears. For example, there was an incident in Afghanistan in March of 2007 in which US Marines killed 12-19 civilians following ambush. Those civilians were killed as the Marines sped off from the scene of the ambush, peppering passing vehicles with gunfire even though they were already clear of danger. When a US military court ruled that the soldiers had used ‘excessive force’, these deaths were transferred by UCDP from battle deaths to one-sided deaths. New evidence also comes from bodies like truth commissions, forensic investigations, court proceedings (including tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, the ICC, military courts and criminal courts) and NGOs. Note the wide range of sources that UCDP brings into play in compiling its data. The UCDP data are not based only on media surveillance as many people seem to believe.

Soon UCDP will start releasing its data at the incident level. At that stage, anyone will be able to inspect the data incident by incident and develop a much stronger understanding than we are able to provide in this short comment. Moreover, people will be able to question incidents and to argue that codings should be changed. Thus, over time UCDP data should improve while we simultaneously improve our understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.


Kandahar and My Lai; Drone Strikes and Carpet Bombing

 The New York Times recently posted reports about the U.S. military’s trial of soldiers accused of randomly killing civilians in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, “for sport.”  Apart from the horrors of the alleged crimes, there is a terrible irony in the stories.  This goes beyond the fact that these kinds of incidents are hardly news.  They are completely predictable in any war, even among the best-trained and most disciplined armies—let alone those in which governmental and military leaders provide signals that make incidents like Abu Ghraib possible.  

The irony also goes beyond the coincidence that this story appeared in the New York Times the same day as another, titled “CIA Steps Up Drone Strikes on Taliban in Pakistan.”  That story re-emphasized the open secret that Pakistan has become the new Cambodia.  Like that other unfortunate nation, Pakistan is being targeted because another of America’s wars is not going well.  But rather than accepting the original war’s folly, our military and civilian leaders, in their consummate wisdom, have expanded it to nearby countries.  Supposedly, it is these nations’ failures to control their populations and borders that explains the war’s failures.

But the real irony is the prosecution of these soldiers, when the architects of the war–responsible for placing the soldiers in Kandahar to begin with–are taking actions that predictably lead to large civilian casualties as well.  It is, of course, true that from a legal standpoint, there are differences in the intent of the killers:  in the first case, intentional; in the second, unintentional.  It is also true that in the first case, the soldiers allegedly knew their victims to be innocent.  In the second, military officers believe themselves to be targeting Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters—though of course their information is often faulty.  And, of course, the soldiers should be prosecuted for their alleged crimes.
But the strategic effects of these incidents is little different.  Who would you hate more if your home was destroyed and your children killed by Predators?  The Taliban fighters who the missiles were intended to kill and who were conducting operations in your area—or the American military and CIA personnel sitting at their desks in Creech Air Force Base?  Perhaps both equally—but, more likely, those who pulled the trigger.  Nor is a grieving Afghan likely to care about the legal niceties that help the drone controllers sleep at night–or be assuaged by the payments the U.S. government sometimes disburses to relatives of its collateral carnage.
To my mind, the closest analogy to this situation comes from Vietnam:  The well-deserved prosecution and conviction of Lieutenant William Calley for the My Lai massacre–at about the same time that the U.S. government was carpet-bombing Vietnam and Cambodia to the tune of untold thousands of civilian deaths—all with the broad rationale that we would thereby win hearts and minds.

No doubt our new smart bombs and drones kill fewer innocents–though still far too many, given the futility of the “war on terror.”  But if I were an Afghan grieving over a drone’s dismemberment of my family, would I care about this sign of “progress?”


How About Some Collateral Damage Control?

In an earlier post on the lessons of the Afghan War Diaries, I pointed out an unfortunate legal fact: that civilian harms aren’t necessarily evidence of war crimes.

But I also argued, as I long have, that such “unintentional” civilian casualties are unacceptably high.

Today, I have an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune that goes a bit further, suggesting a number of ways that the rules of war themselves could and should be updated to hold governments more accountable for civilian harms even when they’re unintended.

… Such rules would need to be worked out by states, but nongovernmental organizations and legal experts have plenty of ideas about what they could look like. For example, governments and human rights organization should re-evaluate what exactly constitutes “excessive” civilian casualties or “all feasible precautions” and determine whether some limits might shrink the gray area between “unfortunate” and “unlawful.” Landmine Action, for example, has called on states to curtail the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

States might also consider new rules regarding compensation for collateral damage, just as victims of war crimes are sometimes entitled to reparations. The Campaign for Innocent Civilians in Conflict suggests an expectation to this effect could go far toward providing solace to victims but also to reducing casualties in the first place. And certainly, as suggested by the Oxford Research Group, a mechanism should be established to tally the war dead, in order to track who is dying how in military operations worldwide.

Such re-evaluations of existing humanitarian law may seem unrealistic, but they have often occurred in times of crisis. In the 1970s, for example, when the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were hashed out, a key concern of governments was to protect civilians from the kinds of intentional attacks they had suffered in World War II. Similarly, the 1998 Statute for the International Criminal Court was an effort to add teeth to the earlier Geneva regime.

Today, war crimes by governments are declining in part because the original rules were improved upon and are working to influence military doctrine — even among those governments who never formally signed onto them. But as the Afghan war logs suggest, collateral damage by governments may be increasing in international wars in part because of the absence of such clear-cut rules. It’s time for this to change.

I should add – though these sections of the original piece were excised in the process of shopping it around – that solving this problem is not only a task for governments. I’ll write more about what UN agencies and NGOs concerned with the protection of civilians could be doing differently in a future essay.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Current Intelligence]


The Next Big Human Security Campaign?

Blogging will be light over the next few days as I’m traveling to conduct focus groups with global civil servants drawn from the network of organizations working broadly in the area of human security, to figure out why some issues resonate and others fall through the cracks in these networks. Before I disappear, I thought I’d draw readers’ attention to a new human security campaign just taking off, to get your hunches as to whether it has what it takes to gain traction on the global agenda.

The Oxford Research Group has launched a Recording Casualties of Armed Conflict (RCAC) Project, that is both attempting to more systematically aggregate casualty counts worldwide, and calling on human security NGOs and governments to standardize measures:

The long-term aim of this human security project is to build the technical and institutional capacity, as well as the political will, to record details of every single victim of violent conflict, worldwide. This represents the next step beyond existing estimation and other aggregate ‘measurement’ of human losses (such as numerical totals) to the identification and documentation of each and every individual who is killed or injured in armed conflicts. Among other benefits, such recording acts as a memorial for posterity and a recognition of our common humanity across the world. Most importantly, it will ensure that the full cost of conflict is known and can be understood to the greatest extent achievable, and become an immediately applicable component, and resource for, conflict prevention and post-conflict recovery and reconciliation.

Achieving the aims of this project will require the active participation of states and inter-state bodies (up to and including the United Nations), and such activity may eventually become codified in formal and binding agreements on parties to conflicts. State support will be hastened by strong civil society advocacy, highlighting the moral and practical advantages.

The group’s Joint Communique issued earlier this week details their goals and is below the fold.

Since I’ve been writing lately about how important decent casualty data in in making policy, and how frustratingly little is available, I’m delighted to learn of their efforts. I hope they will include disaggregation of civilian casualty data into intentional, unintentional, direct and indirect deaths, and I hope they’ll collect data on injuries and property losses as well as deaths.

In short, on ethical grounds, I hope they will succeed. As an analyst, though, I’m interested in the determinants of success of such new ideas that challenge existing practice – since some like the landmines campaign take off and result in new global norms, while many others fall flat. What do you think of this one, dear readers? Is the RCACP a candidate for the next global norm campaign? Or one of many great ideas doomed to fizzle and die before it hits the global stage? (My two cents – they definitely need a catchier name…)


“The organisations listed below [the fold] announce the formation of the first international network of organisations who publicly record the victims of armed conflict as individuals, which has now begun its activities.

We believe that documenting the details of every human killed in war is a moral act based on recognising the value of every human life. We also believe that it is necessary for justice, holding the prosecutors of war to account, as a means to overcome uncertainties about deaths which are only recorded as numbers, and as a way of constructing a lasting historical memory of the dead.

Failure to comprehensively record every individual casualty of war can only bring greater pain and suffering. This suffering ranges from the denial of the experience of victims’ families, all the way through to community grievances which stimulate the renewal or escalation of violent conflict through politically motivated claims. The only long term answer to these problems is the establishment of detailed and certain truth.

We will collaborate to raise our capacity, visibility and collective strength, thereby enhancing casualty recording activities worldwide. Together we will be better able to overcome the problems we face every day in our work. Our final goal is that the world recognise the need to record every casualty of every conflict wherever it happens.

We call on governments and intergovernmental agencies to support the activity of casualty recording worldwide.

Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC)
Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC)
Darfur Peace and Development
Elman Peace Centre
Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation
The Human Rights Center
The Humanitarian Law Centre
The Institute for Conflict Management
Iraq Body Count
Kaah Foundation
National Society for Human Right
Organisation for Human Rights Activists (OHURA)
Organization for Somalis Protection and Development (OSPAD)
Palestinian Center for Human Rights
The Research and Documentation Center of Sarajevo
Rift Valley Institute
Somali Human Rights Association (SOHRA)
Sri Lankan War Victims Registry


How Many of War’s Civilian Casualties are “Collateral Damage”?

This is an important question from a legal and humanitarian perspective.

In legal terms, targeting civilians is a war crime. Accidentally killing or maiming them in the pursuit of legitimate military objectives is, well, just too bad. So in judging government’s records of compliance with the law, one needs to measure the difference.

There are policy ramifications to such measurements as well. Over time, atrocities against civilians seem to be falling. But at the same time, some governments seem more complacent than ever about accidental deaths. The assumption behind the wiggle room in the law is that if countries do their best not to hit civilians, then collateral damage will always be the least of the problem for civilian populations. And perhaps this was true in earlier times. But what if in fact the majority of civilian deaths worldwide now come from these “accidents of war”? If so, this would suggest that the laws of war are woefully outdated – that even if fully implemented they do not, in fact, do enough to protect civilians. In that case, humanitarian organizations really should be in an uproar.

So what percentage of total civilian deaths are “collateral damage” and is this percentage trending up or down over time? I’ve begun investigating the answer as part of my current book project, and as far as I can tell, no one really knows. Human rights reporting generally doesn’t distinguish intentional from unintentional deaths, treating all civilian casualties as the tragedies that they are. Neither do academic tools such as the Dirty War Index or various datasets on conflict fatalities in general or civilian victimization. Even databases that count casualties for specific wars, like the Iraq Body Count, tend to break down the data into the type incident (suicide bombing v. shooting) rather than the intent of the perpetrator. And if a comprehensive study exists tracking unintentional civilian deaths worldwide, I haven’t heard of it.

So if any of you has, please let me know.


On Norm-Building as a Vocation

On the last day of class in “Rules of War,” I ask my students what kinds of things are needed to strengthen the regime governing the conduct of war. They come up with all kinds of nifty ideas, and then I ask them what they’ll personally do to move the world in that direction. For awhile they struggle to come up with anything more concrete than “raise awareness,” but after awhile they will say things like, “run for office,” or “join the State Department,” or “go to work for Doctors Without Borders.”

They rarely say they’ll join the military and work from within to uphold the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. This year, I asked my students if any of them would consider this. A few raised their hands, but most shook their heads, almost in disbelief. I asked why. Someone said, “Because the culture of the military pushes you in the opposite direction.”

It was an interesting moment for me as an educator, to realize how many of my students had taken this message away from class, when in fact military culture can and does push in either direction, depending on the nature of the policy, the circumstances and in particular, the leadership. And when in fact the relevant question to ask is whether other institutional cultures in US foreign policy are really more Geneva-friendly than the military. I have my doubts, but I had failed somehow to cultivate those in my students.

Maybe it was all the atrocity literature we’d read, the Milgram and Stanford prison studies, and the detailed case material on Abu Ghraib that made them so certain that if you want to protect innocent people, the military – or any institution that teaches obedience first and foremost – is the wrong place to be. Maybe my error was in not balancing the story of Lieutenant William Calley out sufficiently with the story of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicoper pilot who put himself between Calley’s men and the civilians of My Lai. Perhaps in dwelling too much on the surveys from Iraq showing that more than a third of US troops think torture is sometimes OK, I missed the important comparison, which is what percentage of the US civilian masses, or policymakers, answer the same way on such surveys. Turns out that for the general public, at least, it’s around the same – 38%, according to a 2006 Gallup poll.

Or maybe it was the absence of active-duty military personnel in this particular class. (This was an important shift from the normal distribution of students I would teach at University of Pittsburgh, which in the past included an Army Chaplain whose policy paper argued for incorporated laws-of-war training into first-person-shooter games to prime enlistees to respect civilians in urban areas, and Roy Nickerson, whose blog posts from Iraq regularly include notes like the following:

“It’s the children that make me feel it: hope. Not some hope related to grand government programs, campaign promises, or lofty world peace solutions, but a next-day type of hope. A hope that maybe these kids will come closer to a reliable sewer system, sanitation, clean water, and consistent electricity. The hope that maybe life for them gets a little bit better tomorrow.”)

At any rate, I thought about that student from this year’s class, at once ready to join the State Department and forego military service, when I read this news story about the UN response to piracy off the Horn of Africa. The Security Council has authorized governments to use “all necessary means” to stamp out piracy on Somalia’s coast, essentially sanctioning the use of ground forces against pirate strongholds. It’s interesting to note that the US State Department pushed for this very approach, but the Pentagon is more cautious. Why? Because of the potential for collateral damage:

“The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet expressed doubt last week about the wisdom of staging ground attacks on Somali pirates. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters it is difficult to identify pirates and said the potential for killing innocent civilians “cannot be overestimated.”

While US military personnel do not think as one, I think this anecdote suggests an important line of inquiry for teachers and students of international security norms: which institutional cultures in the US (and in other countries) are actually most and least predisposed to restraint in the use of political violence, and what does this mean for generating compliance with the rules of war? It’s an interesting academic question, but also one with a direct bearing on the tactical decisions of our human-security minded youth as they make decisions about where to best leverage their own professional capital in pursuit of their values.


Casualty Counting

Dan lamented correctly yesterday morning about the paucity of reliable casualty numbers for the conflict in Georgia. Seems this is still the case, with the Washington Post reporting today that “no… casualty figures could be independently confirmed” in an article nonetheless subtitled “Civilian Deaths on Increase In Conflict Over S. Ossetia.”

But it’s actually rather important to try to figure out whether civilians are being targeted, and how many are being killed by either side, since the battle now being waged is as much for the moral high ground as for territory. Both Georgia and Russia are justifying their actions as “protection of civilians,” and both are accusing the other of atrocities. Sorting out who is killing who how and how fast may provide clues as to how humanitarian motivations may have played into recent events, if at all; and how they may complicate efforts at conflict resolution.

The latest FactBox from Alertnet breaks the available numbers down according to source but not, unfortunately, according to civilian or military deaths, and not, unfortunately, according to who did the killing in each case:

* Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said at least 2,000 civilians had died in Tskhinvali as a result of fighting between Russian and Georgian forces, Interfax news agency reported. He said 13 Russian peacekeepers were killed and up to 70 injured in the fighting.
* Sergei Sobyanin, the Russian government chief of staff, said 30,000 South Ossetian refugees had fled to Russia since early on Friday.
* A source in the Georgian government told Reuters on Saturday 129 Georgian civilians and military were killed and 748 wounded.
* Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Russian aerial bombing had killed around 30 Georgian soldiers.
* South Ossetia’s President Eduard Kokoity on Friday said about 1,400 people had died in Tskinvali.
* The U.N. Refugee Agency said the number of people who have fled from South Ossetia into Georgia proper is about 2,400.
* The UNHCR, quoting Russian officials, says the number estimated to be going to North Ossetia, an adjacent region within Russia, stands at 4,000 or 5,000.

One thing that’s to be noted is that UNHCR’s estimates of refugee flows into N. Ossetia fall considerably below Russia’s claims. It’s reasonable to expect that

a) civilian casualty counts are being exaggerated by both sides while
b) military casualty counts are being under-reported.

Beyond UNHCR, who was already in the region dealing with 275,000 existing IDPs, agencies that track war dead more systematically aren’t releasing numbers yet, but a number of them have reported on or issued warnings about the humanitarian situation through ReliefWeb: Human Rights Watch urges all parties to the conflict to refrain from attacking civilians outright – so far, no reports of massacres, just destruction of civilian infrastructure and collateral damage. International Crisis Group calls for an immediate end to hostilities, citing the humanitarian consequences of a wider regional conflagration. Which suggests to me that the direct impacts on civilians are relatively limited at present and that the greatest immediate risks will come from lack of water and shelter among the displaced rather than direct targeting: many civilians have already been evacuated from areas under siege, but now face deprivation and exposure. (At least it’s not mid-winter, yet.)

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued calls yesterday for the parties to facilitate humanitarian access. Unclear as of now whether this constitutes an accusation that either side is so far denying access, or whether it’s just a plea for logistical assistance. As of this morning, UNHCR reports that humanitarian corridors are being established.

More as events warrant.


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