Why casualty recording matters

After narrowly avoiding military intervention in Syria, it is time for decision-makers to realise that there is a way to strengthen and reinforce the norms behind humanitarian intervention: systematic civilian casualty recording.

Annabelle Giger
29 October 2013

Humanitarian intervention has always been a strongly debated concept and until Security Council Resolution 1973 in 2011, hardly any precedent existed for military intervention based purely on humanitarian grounds. Indeed past humanitarian interventions were seen as legitimate - though illegally undertaken - by unilateral or coalition action (e.g. Kosovo) with the exception of Resolution 751 which set up the UN mission UNOSOM I in Somalia. This resolution was passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter not only on the traditional ground of a threat to international peace and security (the Article 42 trigger to use force), but also equally on the ground of the “human suffering caused by the conflict”.  

Not only was Resolution 1973 the second resolution enshrining humanitarian concern as a reason to use force, it was the first resolution to be based on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine as adopted by the General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. It should be noted though that the text adopted by the General Assembly was far narrower scope than the original text produced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, mainly regarding the authority allowing intervention.

The NATO operation in Libya however has highlighted the shortcomings of this idea and the lack of sound theoretical bases on which to ground decisions for intervention. Far from the positive picture drawn by the French and British governments in the aftermath of the intervention and the establishment of the National Transitional Council (NTC) leadership in Libya, the consequences of the operation have not been fully acknowledged.

Indeed, all their accounts failed to address human rights and international humanitarian law violations that rebel forces too committed. Awareness of and attention to the humanitarian situation seemed to cease once the military intervention was over. However, in its 2012 report Human Rights Watch noted the prevention of 30,000 people alleged Gaddafi supporters to return to their homes by the new government.

This shows the challenges of rebuilding in a post-conflict environment where divisions within society are stigmatised and often lead to abuses. It also makes clear that humanitarian intervention, and R2P specifically, are concerned with the decision to launch – or not – a military intervention rather than what it claims to be about: guaranteeing the human rights of threatened populations. Thus it misses the point that the use of force in itself cannot be the full extent of the answer. Humanitarian intervention needs to be considered along with post-conflict peace building considerations. In the case of Libya, the NATO operation certainly prevented large-scale massacres in Benghazi but that logic was weakened when coalition partners completely disengaged from Libya’s fate after Gaddafi himself was captured and murdered without trial.

The subsequent fallout of R2P in the Security Council following heavy criticism by permanent members Russia and China should have been the starting point to rethink the process and the overall approach of humanitarian intervention, focusing instead on determining what it is the ‘international community’ is trying to achieve. But the recent threat by the US to launch air strikes on Syria proved that nothing has changed, and if anything western powers are only more ready to intervene anarchically and without proper legal basis.

The need to provide legally sound justification for military intervention and to guarantee protection of human rights of vulnerable populations in a post-conflict environment can find solutions in systematic casualty recording, as advocated by the Oxford Research Group and the more than one hundred other NGOs which signed the 2011 Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence.

Efforts to enforce systematic casualty recording would help demystify the number of victims claimed by the different sides party to a conflict. It would allow a better idea of the scale of the humanitarian crisis and therefore help external actors to reach consensus in speedier timeframes. This is not pure wishful thinking. There is a network of practitioners, coordinated by the Oxford Research Group, whose members undertake this task on an everyday basis.

There are techniques to do so; for example the Iraq Body Count has compiled a detailed database of all Iraqi civilian casualties since 2003. Through in-depth research on casualty recording practices, the Oxford Research Group has found that even when information cannot be fully verified – i.e. during the time of conflict when the environment makes it very difficult for recorders to operate – it can still provide enough data for policy analysis or humanitarian response planning.

In the case of Syria, such data could have helped better assess the intensity of the humanitarian crisis, placing this priority at the centre of the debate instead of focusing on the use of chemical weapons. While accurate information would not have been enough to overcome the political paralysis of the Security Council created by the systematic vetoing of far-reaching resolutions by Russia and China, it certainly would have helped prove the real need for and purpose of humanitarian intervention. In turn this could have been the starting point for a broader discussion on the distribution of power within the UN institutional framework, perhaps allowing for the proposition that decision-making powers should be handed to the General Assembly in case of deadlock in the Security Council, as it was put in the original draft of the R2P doctrine.

Furthermore, in a post-conflict situation casualty recording can aid truth and reconciliation initiatives and provide closure. While the Syrian conflict has been (erroneously at times) likened to the 1990s war in Bosnia this precedent actually provides a very good example of the important role casualty recording can play in reconstructing the social fabric of a fractured society. In 2007, the Research and Documentation Centre (RDC) in Sarajevo published the Book of the Dead which recalls the names of over 97,000 victims of the conflict. It is important to talk about names here and not numbers, reflective of the desire and necessity to ground this initiative in human terms.

The book contains information about age, gender, ethnicity and profession as well as information about the combat status and cause of death for each person. It serves a double purpose: as a record of memory through which people can search to find loved ones, but also a educational tool which can help clarify events of the conflict and put an end to demagogic politics resting on misleading accounts of the death toll and allow for more cohesive social reconstruction.

Surely these examples and the existing networks of practitioners should encourage decision-makers to support these initiatives. While it is more than highly doubtful states like Russia and China would facilitate the work and development of such practices, western powers such as the US, UK and France, which have been increasingly vocal about putting human rights at the centre of foreign policymaking could - and should - provide support for the development of systematic casualty recording. The results for the strengthening of the norm of humanitarian intervention would be far greater than threats of unilateral use of force that circumvent the legal boundaries of the Security Council.

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