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Civilian casualties and international humanitarian law: Lessons from Iraq?. Presentation to UEL Center for Human Rights. November 2009. Prof. John Sloboda, PIR, Royal Holloway Oxford Research Group Iraq Body Count. Acknowledgments.

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Civilian casualties and international humanitarian law lessons from iraq l.jpg
Civilian casualties and international humanitarian law: Lessons from Iraq?

Presentation to UEL Center for Human Rights. November 2009

Prof. John Sloboda,PIR, Royal Holloway

Oxford Research Group

Iraq Body Count

Acknowledgments l.jpg
Acknowledgments Lessons from Iraq?

  • Hamit Dardagan, Marc Herold, Madelyn Hicks, Mike Spagat, Susan Breau, Rosemary Forrest

  • Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust

  • Sigrid Rausing Trust

  • Network for Social Change

  • The Funding Network

  • The ORG and IBC staff and advisory teams

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Structure of presentation Lessons from Iraq?

  • Afghan civilian deaths: case study 1

  • Iraq Body Count: case study 2

  • Why casualty recording matters

  • The situation in international law

  • What can be done about it

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Afghan Civilian Deaths Lessons from Iraq?


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Coalition Casualties in Afghanistan to March 2009 Lessons from Iraq?


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Every name and date is known Lessons from Iraq?


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Afghan civilian casualties Lessons from Iraq?

  • No agreed total

  • No comprehensive list of names and date

  • Different figures from different organisations

  • No sustained and authoritative source

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Some sources of partial information Lessons from Iraq?

  • ISAF

  • United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA)

  • Human Rights Watch

  • Associated Press

  • Marc Herold PhD

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. Lessons from Iraq?

These sources disagree

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Reasons for differences Lessons from Iraq?

  • Different start and end dates

  • Different categories of casualty included

  • (e.g. Coalition-caused, other-caused)

  • Disagreements about civilian status of victim

  • Different sources of information used

  • Different political motivations of data-presenters

  • Different (and unpublished) verification methods

  • Names of victims are not made public

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NATO Secretary General’s video Lessons from Iraq?(Oct 2009)

  • question “For every taliban you kill how many of the civilian population do you kill or injure? Do you expect those injured will see you as liberators from the taliban tyranny?”

  • Answer“We take extra measures to avoid killing or injuring civilians. This approach has already shown results, civilian casualties are significantly down.”

    Where’s the evidence, and how can it be assessed?

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What data is needed? Lessons from Iraq?

  • Incident or name based data

  • Open and transparent methodology

    - regarding source types

    inclusion criteria

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2. Iraq Body Count Lessons from Iraq?


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1. Lessons from Iraq?The IBC approach

records violent civilian deaths

in crosschecked media reports

plus hospital, morgue, NGO, official sources

documented in fullest possible detail

constantly updated and open to revision

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2. Lessons from Iraq?Disciplinary background

quantitative documentary research


capitalising on electronic data environment

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data

definite documentary accounts

(e.g. where, when, how many or who)


web-published news media in English (including Arabic translated)

official records (including FOIA-requested)

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data (cont.)

  • Database (as of 23 Oct 09) contains:

  • - 21,254 database entries (to 15 Aug 09)

  • - detailing 93-552 – 102,083 deaths

  • mean of 4 distinct media reports per entry (range 1-100)

  • - drawing from more than 200 media sources

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data(cont.)

Figure 1: Top 12 contributing media 2006–2008



National Iraqi News Agency

Associated Press

Voices of Iraq


Al-Sharqiyah TV

Agence-France Presse

LA Times

Kuwait News Agency


New York Times

Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Xinhua News

Washington Post


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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data (cont.)

best single media source covers just 43% of incidents and 60% of deaths in IBC database

most sources cover only a small fraction of incidents and deaths

all media prioritise larger incidents (with more victims), so have better coverage of total reported deaths than incidents

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data (cont.)

focus on incident and victim details

along with where & when, weapons data is almost always available for incidents

perpetrator group identified in 25% of cases

incident details are intrinsically valuable, and guard against confusion/double-counting

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data (cont.)

Figure 2:Incident details extractable 2003–2009

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3. Lessons from Iraq?Data (cont.)

identity is the most important datapoint regarding victims, but rare (c. one in 20)

demographic data is also highly valuable, and more often available

Figure 3: Victim details extractable 2003–2009

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4. Lessons from Iraq?Comparisons with other sources

Figure 4: IBC vs Iraq Ministry of HR, 2004–2008

Miller McCune 15 Oct 2009 “Iraq’s Official Death Toll supports Unofficial Tally” Michael Todd

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4. Lessons from Iraq?Assumptions (cont.)

Figure 4: IBC vs US Dept. of Defense, 2006–2007

Washington Post Oct 1 2007, “Counting Civilian Deaths in Iraq” Michael Dobbs

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5. Lessons from Iraq?Domains of application

ill-suited for indirect (‘non-violent’) deaths

does track violent, weapon-caused deaths

needs an interconnected and active press

needs a working ‘information infrastructure’

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6. Lessons from Iraq?Clarification

not an ‘estimate’ of the total

Lists specific events, and gives an account of the victims

Not inferential statisical presentations (e.g. surveys). Every number can be specifically traceable

complete list of deaths is the final aim

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7. Lessons from Iraq?Example users/uses

Major universities and experts researching the Iraq conflict or modern conflict in general


IMF and the World Bank

European Commission

International Criminal Court

Human rights groups and law firms

US and UK governments

Australian government (cited by latter in explaining withdrawal of troops from Iraq)

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7. Lessons from Iraq?Example users/uses (cont.)

trend & distribution analyses

civilian impact of different weapon-types – e.g. Hicks et al, NEJM 2009:

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8. Lessons from Iraq?Political sensitivities

parties to conflict may suppress, distort, delay, or exaggerate mortality data for political and tactical ends

scientists and researchers should recognise and root out all biases and obstructions to truth

core values reside in verifiable truths and public disclosure

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8. Lessons from Iraq?Political sensitivities (cont.)

best journalistic practice shares these values

bias is least present in empirical ‘what-where-when’ reporting

bias is greatest in selection of what to publish prominently, and in commentary

documentary research recovers the factual content – most successfully when this data is essentially quantitative, as in war deaths

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3. Why casualty records matter Lessons from Iraq?


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Moral issues Lessons from Iraq?

  • All human lives are of equal value

  • Publicly acknowledging each death with respect is a basic human value, at the core of all human societies

  • This All transcends, race, nationality, or status.

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Truth Lessons from Iraq?

Truth is required for reconciliation

  • Provides acknowledgment for families

  • Takes issue out of arena of political controversy

  • No “acceptance” possible without it

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Post-conflict reconstruction Lessons from Iraq?

  • Determination of survivor need

  • Determination of provision for survivors

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Justice Lessons from Iraq?

  • Determination of responsibility

  • Determination of reparation

  • Determination of legal violations (war crimes etc.)

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Military/planning and Lessons from Iraq?lesson-learning

  • Strategic and tactical evaluation

  • Evaluation of proportionality

  • Removing contested casualty totals as a source of hostile propaganda

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Examples of what accurate casualty data affords Lessons from Iraq?

  • Ending of political debate over numbers (Bosnian Book of Dead)

  • Useful byproducts include comparative assessment of lethality/indiscriminateness of different weapons and actors (Iraq Body Count: Dossier of Civilian Casualties)

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Legal obligation of casualty recording – Sources Lessons from Iraq?

International Humanitarian Law

Geneva Conventions of 1949

Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention of 1977

Customary International Law – ICRC Customary International Law Study (2005)

Geneva Conventions now universally ratified and constitute customary international law, possibly applicable to non-international armed conflict

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Primary omission Lessons from Iraq?

No legal obligation to count the civilian dead or missing.

Surprising because

Primary obligation within IHL is to assess proportionality

Loss of civilian life of the civilian population must be in direct proportion to the military advantage expected

How can this be assessed if there is no accurate recording of the loss of life?

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Customary Study Rules Lessons from Iraq?(in several docs inc. UK Military manual)

  • Rule 112

  • Whenever circumstances permit, and particularly after an engagement, each part to the conflict must, without delay, take all possible measures to search for, collect and evacuate the dead without adverse distinction.

  • Rule 113

  • Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited.

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  • Rule 114 Lessons from Iraq?

  • Parties to the conflict must endeavour to facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased upon request of the party to which they belong or upon the request of their next of kin. They must return their personal effects to them.

  • Rule 115

  • The dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained.

  • Rule 116

  • With a view to the identification of the dead, each party to the conflict must record all available information prior to disposal and mark the location of the graves.

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Missing Persons Lessons from Iraq?

  • Rule 117

  • Each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing and as a result of armed conflict and must provide their family members with any information it has on their fate.

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Possible responses to limitations on compliance Lessons from Iraq?

Existing terminology

‘Whenever circumstances permit’

Proposed response

the obligation to search for, collect and record the dead and wounded should be as soon as possible and that each party to the hostilities are under a legal obligation to seek regular interruption of the hostilities to search for causalities.

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Existing terminology Lessons from Iraq?

‘Effective measures’

Proposed response

A compilation be prepared of best practice to search for and collect the dead and that in every circumstances include a proper post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death including proper forensic exhumation. The main principles should be that there be a thorough, transparent and impartial system of casualty recording of every civilian and military casualty.

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Existing terminology Lessons from Iraq?

‘Agreements between parties’

Proposed response

Although the basis of international humanitarian law is reciprocity, as with human rights obligations, these obligations should be free standing and not depend on agreement or compliance by the other party.

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Proposed response Lessons from Iraq?

Missing Persons

It is suggested that the missing must be included in any advocacy strategy and support expressed for organisations to take a lead in the search and identification of the missing. The missing can be either civilian or military casualties and both should be dealt with in a similar fashion.

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4. What can be done? Lessons from Iraq?


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Commitment Lessons from Iraq?

Progressive nations or alliances can

  • acknowledge the principle

  • adopt regulatory frameworks

  • ensure resources and access for practitioners

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Key elements Lessons from Iraq?

  • Recording to level of name and date of each death is a minimum requirement

  • This data must be made public and data not shrouded behind “expert judgement”

  • Recording and analysis methods must be transparent and replicable

  • Inability to complete the task immediately is no excuse for not starting.

  • We should always do what is possible, as soon as possible, and continue for as long as necessary

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ORG’s “Recording Casualties of Armed Conflict” Initiative

  • Multi-organisational initiative

  • Two main elements

  • - developing and supporting

  • good practice

  • - promoting state commitment

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Key activities Initiative

  • Global practitioner network for casualty recorders

  • Legal work on regulatory frameworks

  • Advocacy work with states and inter-state organisations

  • Public advocacy

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Global practitioner network Initiative

  • Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), Afghanistan

  • B'Tselem, Israel

  • Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), Colombia

  • Darfur Peace and Development, USA

  • Elman Peace Centre, Mogadishu, Somalia

  • Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), Guatemala

  • The Human Rights Center, Georgia

  • The Humanitarian Law Centre, Serbia

  • INSEC, Nepal

  • The Institute for Conflict Management, India

  • Iraq Body Count, UK

  • Kaah Foundation, Galguduud and Mudug Regions, Somalia

  • National Society for Human Rights, Namibia

  • Organisation for Human Rights Activists (OHURA), Hiraan Region, Somalia

  • Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Gaza

  • The Research and Documentation Center of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Rift Valley Institute, UK

  • Sri Lankan War Victims Registry, UK

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Founding Communique (draft) Initiative

The organisations listed below announce the formation of the first international network of organisations who publicly record the victims of armed conflict as individuals, which has now had its first meeting.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.

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Good practice research Initiative

  • Research to establish comprehensive database of existing practice

  • Development of practice-relevant and policy-relevant analytic and thematic commentaries

  • Promotion of best practice, through conferences, publications, and meetings with officials

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Planned legal work Initiative

  • Detailed research on existing practice and potential mechanisms

  • Advocate in support of customary international law standards for recording casualties of armed conflict and for searching for the missing.

  • Support the proportionality criteria in the Responsibility to Protect and the notion that human security includes an accurate casualty count in armed conflict.

  • Develop a litigation strategy to pursue the right of relatives to know the fate of the missing or dead and to repatriate their remains as part of the right of family life.

  • Consider adoption of a Protocol to the Geneva Conventions on the Recording of Casualties of armed conflict or a free standing treaty.

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Advocacy Initiative

  • To states and to the public, building on a well-organised practitioner network

  • Clear proposals and guidelines

  • Cultivation of strong champions

  • ExploitingTipping events (cf cluster munitions treaty)

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A possible model Initiative

  • Cluster munitions treaty

  • State process triggered by international outrage at Israeli use in Lebanon (2006)

  • Good quality documentation of effects

  • led by Norway

  • Treaty bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of CM

  • Launched Dec 2008

  • 109 state signatories (23 ratified)

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References Initiative

  • NATO Afghanistan article


  • Rasmussen response


  • IBC Post-surge violence


  • NEJM weapons analysis


Thank you www oxfordresearchgroup org uk www iraqbodycount org john sloboda@rhul ac uk l.jpg
Thank you!