Thursday, July 22, 2010

Civilian Death Tolls (or the Lack Thereof)

Action on Armed Violence has recently released a report titled “A State of Ignorance.” Produced in the background of the Iraq Inquiry in the UK, the report uses official public statements and information obtained under the 2005 Freedom of Information Act to document the UK government’s unwillingness to produce, or formally endorse, any kind of assessment of Iraqi civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion. During the course of the occupation, the UK and US governments shifted responsibility for civilian death estimates completely onto the resource-constrained government in Iraq. The “impossibility of assessment” argument was touted time and again to suggest that there was no reliable methodology available for making such an estimate.

Failure to produce its own estimate did not stop the UK and US governments from rejecting a post-war mortality study published in The Lancet, one of the oldest scientific medical journals in the world, and carried out by the researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. In a press briefing in November 2004, the British Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson dismissed the Hopkins estimate on grounds that it was based on “extrapolation” and treated Iraq “as if every area was one and the same.” This was both inaccurate and misleading. In response to a second Lancet survey, former President George Bush spoke at a news conference in October 2006 and stated that the study was “pretty well discredited.” Moreover, a dangerous attitude of callousness about producing such estimates and their futility comes through in the stances adopted by both governments. For instance, the “State of Ignorance” report cites Adam Ingram, former UK minister for the armed forces, saying that “counting civilian casualties in Iraq would not have stopped them occurring.”

For a detailed analysis of this issue, see the Displacement and Mortality chapter from GPF’s Iraq Report:

The Iraq (Chilcot Commission) Inquiry in the UK was launched with the aim “to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict.” This ongoing process provides the media and civil society a reason to recall attention to the issue of official death tolls. Specifically, we must reaffirm that official death tolls are absolutely crucial and that public statements like “we do not do body counts” are unacceptable. The impetus for this goes beyond just a notion of accountability for damage done. The legality (under international law) of the decision to intervene in Iraq and the conflict in Iraq itself hinges upon the notion of proportionality. Proportionality is a crucial element in the laws of war. In particular, it refers to the idea that foreseeable harm caused by military operations should not be excessive in relation to the expected benefit. By deliberately avoiding the issue of death tolls in the case of Iraq, the UK and US government have dodged this legal question, thus further obscuring the disputed legality of the war in Iraq.

Iraq is hardly an isolated case. A more current example is the US reluctance to commit to inquire into a death toll in Pakistan resulting from US drone attacks. Following the report of Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, which suggested that the use of drones by the US may violate international law, Harold Koh the legal advisor for the US State Department made a statement in March 2010 defending the legality of drone warfare. He said:

[T]his administration has carefully reviewed the rules governing targeting operations to ensure that these operations are conducted consistently with law of war principles, including: […] the principle of proportionality, which prohibits attacks that may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

However, in the absence of a clear civilian death toll, there is little substance to assess this argument. A ball park figure of 750-1,000 civilian deaths is cited in a number of news reports and publications. This would mean a ratio of 10-15 civilians killed in Pakistan for every militant. While the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions do not define proportionality numerically, having such numbers certainly casts doubt upon Mr. Koh’s claims. Perhaps with credible statistics for civilian casualties, US citizens would have provided more effective opposition to the Obama administration’s decision to broaden these attacks and carry them out increasingly in many countries.

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