Making Civilian Casualties Count: Approaches to Documenting the Human Cost of War

Abstract

Our understanding of civilian casualties is not based solely on what is reported but also who reports these human rights abuses. Competing interests at the data collection stage have impeded the development of a more thorough understanding of civilian victimization during conflict. We find that current definitions of “casualty” neglect nonphysical forms of victimization and that group-based definitions of “civilian” can obscure the role of different individuals in conflict. We contend that the dominant definition of “civilian casualty” should be expanded to include the full array of harm inflicted on individuals, including psychological harm and what we refer to as multiple casualties of conflict. Expanding our definition of civilian casualties to include different degrees and kinds of wartime victimization would improve both documentation and analysis. We propose several areas for improvement in terms of the documentation of civilian casualties as well as potential solutions to the problems we identify.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We focus on civilian casualties of war or armed conflict in this paper for several reasons. First, the identification of military casualties does not face the same degree of conceptual ambiguity as that of civilian casualties. Second, militaries have a long history of documenting their wartime losses for a variety of purposes. Such a history is largely absent with regard to civilian casualties. Throughout the paper, we use the terms war and conflict interchangeably as we do not seek to limit our discussion to a definition of war as exceeding a specific number of annual battle deaths and include episodes of one-sided violence, mass killing, and genocide in our understanding of war.

  2. 2.

    An exception is work by Ghobarah et al. (2003), which includes infectious diseases amongst civilians as a consequence of civil war. The authors find that “[c]ivil wars continue to kill people indirectly, well after the shooting stops. These new deaths (and disabilities) are overwhelmingly concentrated in the civilian population” (189).

  3. 3.

    Claire Garbett (2012) details the difficulty of making this distinction within the context of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) where 34 % of the counts considered by the ICTY do not identify the civilian or military status of the victim.

  4. 4.

    Hogg (2010) found that Hutu women committed crimes because they perceived Tutsis to be associated with the RPF, and like men, believed the propaganda.

  5. 5.

    It is unclear in this definition whether civilians are considered to be part of the “opposing” forces and are therefore legitimate targets.

  6. 6.

    The Briggs Plan during the Malayan Emergency set out to win the insurgency by denying material (food) support to the combatants by forcefully resettling the area’s ethnic Chinese squatter communities (Tilman 1966). The tactics associated with the Briggs Plan have recently been lauded by many counterinsurgency analysts, yet the tactics used in Malaya did not differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. For a critique of the counterinsurgency literature drawing on the lessons of the Malayan Emergency, see Bennett (2009) and Hack (2009).

  7. 7.

    Vanessa Pupavac (1998) lists multiple claims made by various sides in the Yugoslav conflict that have subsequently been proven false.

  8. 8.

    An example of RPF violence is the incident of the Kibeho camp closure, where the United Nations estimated that at least 2000 people were killed by RPF army gunfire or trampled in a stampede in the government’s attempt to close what it considered to be a camp for extremist Hutu militia (Susman 1995).

  9. 9.

    Such strategies can backfire. The lack of media access during the combat phase of the April 2002 Israeli operation in the West Bank town of Jenin has been identified as contributing to the persistent belief that a massacre occurred there (BBC News 2002; Greenhill 2010).

  10. 10.

    Amnesty International (2011) notes the incommunicado detention of foreign and domestic journalists in Libya as well as several beatings and threats. Seven media workers have died in the conflict, with two deaths attributed to deliberate and targeted attacks. On violence against journalists, see also Anastasijevic (2007).

  11. 11.

    While this is partly in reaction to the longstanding neglect of women in conflict analysis, noted by H. Patricia Hynes (2004) and others, we contend that the exclusive focus on either gender distorts our understanding of conflict. Campbell (2007) provides a compelling example of the importance of studying male wartime sexual victimization.

  12. 12.

    In this context, the women’s ethno-nationalist identity is valueless since it is not passed on to her children, and rape does not only accomplish the elimination of the enemy through the loss of the bloodline, but also contributes to the reproduction of the perpetrator’s group (Jones 2000; Schiffman et al. 2002; Snyder et al. 2006; Sofos 1996; Nettlefield 2010).

  13. 13.

    In the Rwandan context, patrilineage and patriarchy were challenged more, especially if the woman was a Tutsi and therefore of a “higher ethnic rank,” so that a woman’s ethnic identity was considered significant.

  14. 14.

    Peterman et al. (2011) discuss the particular challenges associated with gathering accurate data on the incidence of rape during periods of conflict and highlight the potential for inaccurate victim testimony. For additional discussion of the debate regarding the use of rape in Libya, see Harding (2011a; 2011b).

  15. 15.

    For a critique, see Summerfield (1999).

  16. 16.

    For a contrary opinion, see Sagi-Schwartz et al. (2008), van IJzendoorn et al. (2003), and Sagi-Schwartz et al. (2008).

  17. 17.

    By recording information such as the victim’s name, age, gender, occupation, religion, and ethnic group, and the date, location, and number of people killed in the incident, this project is applying a disaggregated approach to the public documentation of both direct civilian and combatant casualties. For more details, see www.everycasualty.org.

  18. 18.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.

  19. 19.

    For example, surveys of 1,300 child soldiers in Uganda have attempted to document physical injuries and access to relevant social services, including counseling, but have limited investigation of psychological injuries (limited to the question “would you describe [the war-affected youth] as still seriously affected by his experience in the bush? If yes, describe”). See, Annan, Blattman and Horton (2006) and Blattman (2013).

  20. 20.

    One example is the Ushahidi platform, which collects and maps incidents of political violence submitted by users via SMS, email or web submissions. See, www.ushahidi.com.

  21. 21.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for stressing this point.

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Acknowledgments

The authors are listed in alphabetical order. We thank Lee Ann Fujii, Francesca Grandi, Antoinette Handley, Edward Schatz, Livia Schubiger, and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on previous versions of the article. The authors further thank Stathis Kalyvas, Elizabeth Wood, and participants in Yale University’s Program on Order, Conflict and Violence Speaker Series for their useful feedback on an early draft. Nick Caruana provided helpful research assistance. All errors remain our own. Izabela Steflja gratefully acknowledges the funding support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

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Correspondence to Jessica Trisko Darden.

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Steflja, I., Trisko Darden, J. Making Civilian Casualties Count: Approaches to Documenting the Human Cost of War. Hum Rights Rev 14, 347–366 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12142-013-0274-2

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Keywords

  • Casualties
  • Political violence
  • Methodology
  • Cost of War
  • Civil War
  • Genocide