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Counting the cost of conflict

Casualty recording has redefined efforts to protect civilians in conflict, and provide aid and accountability to victims of violence. But with an absence of political will to respond to conflict, what good are the numbers? 

The comprehensive and systematic recording of casualties – including details about what happened, to whom, when, where, and why – is a key tool in protecting and assisting civilians living in conflict: without knowing who the victims of violence are, their needs for material assistance and redress, both during and after conflict, cannot be met.

Yet, in most areas affected by conflict and high rates of armed violence, there is no authoritative record of casualties.  As a result, there can be no justice for those killed and injured. Those responsible cannot be held accountable, their family members cannot seek justice or redress, and the international community cannot respond effectively to those still struggling to survive.

More and more, however, states, civil society, and particularly the United Nations are beginning to appreciate the essential benefits of recording the deaths and injuries from armed violence.

On 27th March, states at the Human Rights Council voted for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate possible war crimes and abuses committed by both the state and the Tamil rebels in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. The negative reaction to this from Sri Lanka, which rejected the resolution as a violation of state sovereignty, was foreseeable.

The UN’s engagement with Sri Lanka both during and after the conflict, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), has been particularly difficult. The 2012 internal Petrie report reviewing UN performance at the end of the war identified a number of failings. One of the most damning findings was the UN system’s failure to effectively use local UN knowledge of mass civilian casualties in northern Sri Lanka to push for action – either from UN Member States or conflict parties – to prevent further harm to the civilian population.

Yet, while it is clear that the UN should have been more vocal about the loss of civilian life at the end of the conflict, ensuring Member States and conflict parties act on casualty data to protect civilians is a challenging task, one affected by political power dynamics often beyond the UN’s control.

Consider Syria, where the OHCHR’s very public reporting of casualty figures throughout the conflict has done little to spur UN Member States to action to protect civilians. As the death toll continues to rise we must ask whether information about casualties collected and reported on by the UN makes any difference at all. Can credible and impartial information on casualties ever really help to protect civilians living through conflict?

Casualty recording and the protection of civilians in conflict 

The UN’s experience in Afghanistan shows that when it is used effectively, systematic and credible information about civilian casualties can indeed help save lives. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit (UNAMA HR) has systematically recorded civilian casualties since 2007. UNAMA HR analyses casualty data to identify the tactics and policies that cause the most harm to civilians, and uses it to support evidence-based dialogue – based on irrefutable data and analysis - with conflict parties, including the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Taliban. By demonstrating the impact on civilians of particular tactics, UNAMA HR’s data has encouraged policy changes that protect civilian lives, including ISAF’s forbidding of the use of airstrikes on civilian dwellings in 2012 (except in exceptional circumstances). 

In the wake of its self-identified failures in Sri Lanka, the UN, through the newly introduced Rights Up Front initiative, aims to change the way it coordinates and acts on information about abuses and casualties. The Secretary-General has recommended establishing a common information system covering civilian casualties within the UN. Oxford Research Group’s new report shows that more effective use of casualty recording by the UN would benefit the work of UN agencies and offices in their efforts to protect civilians in conflict and provide more effective humanitarian assistance..

ORG’s research underlines how casualty recording can help the UN and other humanitarian actors to identify effective responses to conflict emergencies, and in the longer-term to act on new threats to civilians – in UNAMA HR’s case for example, the increased use of mortars in civilian-populated areas, and the dangers of explosive remnants of war in old firing ranges. There remains a great deal of work to be done in the UN on this front: in the Central African Republic, for example, there is currently no credible casualty toll, and the UN is not attempting comprehensive and systematic documentation. This work, however, is vital. 

In Sri Lanka, a comprehensive record of casualties would have assisted the UN’s post-war humanitarian and relief programme planning. It also would have aided the state with any medical, social, or livelihood assistance that it might choose to give to those affected by the war. With no such documentation available, Sri Lanka’s Department of Census and Statistics has – following the recommendations of the national Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission - recently undertaken a household survey that aims to identify the scale of death, injury, and property damage from the entire civil war. The first results are due to be published within weeks – how these will impact on the aspects of post-war recovery identified here remains to be seen.

Casualty recording and victim assistance

In other contexts, casualty recording both during and after conflict has already been seen to be key to the provision of victim assistance and to accountability procedures, including trials for war crimes and human rights abuses.

After decades of conflict, the Colombian government passed Law 1448 in 2013, known as the Victims and Land Restitution Law. This law provides for financial reparations and social services for victims, recognising their right to truth and justice, and allowing for the possible return of land lost during the conflict.

Through this law, the Colombian government appears to have recognised that peace is not achieved simply by negotiating a peace treaty, but by ensuring that people’s claims for truth, justice and reparation are properly addressed. By providing victim’s names and other relevant data, casualty recording is the cornerstone of this process.

As of 1 March 2014, the Register of the Colombian Victims’ Unit, charged with ensuring the implementation of Law 1448, had recorded over 6,000,000 victims of the conflict in Colombia since 1985. While the vast majority (over 5,000,000) are those displaced by the conflict (the country now tops the list of Internally Displaced Persons), 700,000 were victims of homicide. In instances where the direct victim of the conflict was killed, the law recognises spouses, long-term partners, and immediate family members as victims themselves. This approach reflects international developments around the concept of ‘victim’ that move away from a definition that considers exclusively the ‘direct’ victim of violence towards a more comprehensive approach that also includes families and communities. 

Having identified over 6,000,000 victims is in itself a laudable undertaking, but what will ensure the success of the initiative is the proper implementation of the law, requiring financial capacity, properly trained staff, and perhaps most importantly, political will. For while knowing the identity of people affected by conflict is an essential first step to assisting victims, how governments and the international community respond to these facts is what truly has an impact.

Despite Colombia’s impressive efforts to create an accurate accounting of conflict, victims, most states are less interested in transparency and often actively subvert efforts to gather accurate casualty data.

In Sri Lanka, it is now evident that UN staff had a deeper understanding of the numbers of civilians being killed at the end of the war than they initially let on. The Petrie report analysing the UN’s failures to protect civilians points to “the [Sri Lankan] government's "stratagem of UN intimidation", including "control of visas to sanction staff critical of the state". UN officials have since confirmed that casualty records were not divulged at the time because “the organisation's staff felt bullied by the Sri Lankan government, and that there was a "genuine fear" for their safety”. 

Action on Armed Violence’s (AOAV) recent research into states’ practices to record casualties found similar dynamics occurring in southern Thailand. While protests in Bangkok make front-page news, very few speak out about the on-going conflict in the south where explosive weapons are used daily and over 14,000 people have been killed and injured since 2004. 

Although casualty figures are regularly published by local organisations that receive their data from daily reports provided by the army and police, experts interviewed by AOAV point to the fact that international journalists are forced to renew their visas every few months, drastically limiting their access to the region and their ability to report on the death toll. Consequently organisations reporting on casualties are almost entirely reliant on figures issued by state controlled forces.  

Considering the rather obscure criteria used by the police and army to determine whether a violent incident was the result of the insurgency or simply common crime, it becomes highly difficult for any external actor to use the data in order to understand the dynamics of the conflict or to inform their approach to address the violence.

Casualty recording and post-conflict accountability

One area where the international community has reacted strongly to evidence of casualties is in criminal tribunals and post-conflict accountability processes. Indeed, the use of casualty records to try individuals for war crimes is often a driving force behind a state’s reluctance to take a formal accounting of victims.

In Guatemala, forensic evidence provided during the trial of the ex military leader José Efraín Ríos Montt ensured that he was convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in May 2013, responsible for the massacre of indigenous people in 1982 and 1983. Although the Guatemalan Constitutional Court later overturned the ruling due to procedural issues, the casualty records that helped condemn Ríos Montt remain valid and are now being used to seek a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

In the case of Slobodan Milošević, evidence of mass casualties was used to dismantle the arguments used by his defence team. Using commissioned research on the patterns of death and migration in Kosovo, the Office of the Chief Prosecution found that the Yugoslav forces were indeed responsible for a systematic campaign of killings and expulsions, resulting in numerous deaths among the civilian population.

It is clear that in Afghanistan, Colombia and Southern Thailand, just as in Sri Lanka, casualty recording is, and continues to be, a necessary and vital aspect of any serious effort to address conflict and support long-lasting peace. Yet the numbers alone will not be sufficient. How this information is used, whether to address the rights of victims, serve as evidence in criminal trials, or spur international action relies not only on the proven evidence but also on our collective political will to respond to conflict and atrocity, reinforce our commitment to protecting civilians in conflict and halt the spiralling victims of violence. 


ORG and AOAV published the results of a wide-ranging study into the casualty recording practice of states and the UN on 16 April 2014. A joint summary can be found here


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