In his article “The Libyan Model?” Vijay Prashad points out that there has not been yet a forensic mission to Libya, counting the dead before UN Security Council resolution 1973 or after in order to assess if the humanitarian intervention was really humanitarian. This lack of serious counting of the dead is not an exception and any account of dead in armed conflicts remains fiercly disputed. In some cases like the wars in Sierra Leone estimates vary enourmously, ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 (similarly the numbers put forward for the IDPs in Sierra Leone vary from 250,000 to 4.5 Million, the latter meaning that almost all of the country’s population was displaced).
In Congo, the estimates even vary in numbers of millions, with the International Rescue Committee advancing 5.4 million dead while the Human Security Report of 2009 contended that “only” 3.9 million people died (a summary of the debate can be found here). In those conflicts were forensic missions have been deployed, they sometimes have found much lower numbers than those put forward during the conflict by policy makers and observers in NGOs, think tanks or media. In the case of the war in Bosnia, the figure of 250,000 dead circulated for a long time until it was corrected to be rather around 100,000 in 2005 (see notably the works of Ewa Tabeau and others).
Much of the confusion in accounting for the dead derive from the varying methodologies and the conflation of numbers of battle casualties with civilian deaths (see Adam Roberts on this) and in this latter category the conflation of civilians killed in military actions and “war-related” deaths which may include death by diseases, malnourishment or psychological trauma, whether induced by exposure to violence or by the consequences fighting had generally on the lives of people through economic breakdown, expulsion and flight, breakdown of essential infrastructures etc. Counting the dead is by itself an extremely difficult exercise, so does it really matter?
As the Congo disaster neatly shows, the real problem is that numbers actually do not really matter in the decision whether to intervene or not. Rather they appear to be tools in the political battles over the question if an intervention is justified or not. At the times of the Kosovo war, Tony Blair heralded a new age of humanitarian intervention with reference to 2000 Albanians reportedley killed; in Congo we are talking of millions and in Darfur of hundreds of thousands killed. When it arranged the US Department of State under Colin Powell, they swiftly produced the “Atrocities Documentation Survey” in 2004, which, the authors, mainly lawyers of the Coalition for International Justice, claimed to be based on “hard” statistic facts. Subsequently, Powell declared that the situation was well to be called a genocide, yet that this would not change US policy in Darfur. When Colin Powell was replaced by Condoleeza Rice, the State Department changed the assessment team, the assessor’s expertise (public health instead of law) and, surprise, found a much lower number of deaths, leading to the conclusion that the situation could not be labelled genocidal (see for a full account the excellent article by Ron Levi and John Hagan: Lawyers, humanitarian emergencies and the politics of large numbers in Dezalay/Garth 2012: Lawyers and the Construction of Transnational Justice, p. 13-47).
This came in handy as the Bush administration had to fight back extremely high, some would even say genocidal estimates of war deaths in Iraq. Yet, the debate over how many people died subsequently to the military invasion of Iraq has not yielded any slightest change in policy, even though the WHO estimate of 104,00 to 223,000 is appalling enough. All these number games only show that minimum conditions of just war, mass atrocities on the one hand, and the criteria of commensurability of means, are simply irrelevant in the decision making for or against interventions. What seems much more important is the political bartering over military interventions and this can or cannot be based on reliable or unreliable figures.
However, if carefully analysed and cautiously contextualized, those figures and their debates are extremely relevant for our understanding of conflicts. First of all, they demonstrate (of course, one wants to add) how widespread and generalized armed fighting is and the stretch of the social capillaries affected by armed combat. Second, it can give an indication of the social groups affected, the geographic areas and of other characteristics of fighting groups. It is here where careful contextualization is, however, extremely important in order to avoid biased (hence, conflict reproducing) accounts of what happened. Third, as Guha-Saphir and van Panhuis pointed out almost 10 years ago, they can tell a lot about the state of the population’s health before the conflict, which is in turn an important indicator of conflict causes.
If it is not for a thorough examination of world power politics, then it is at least for the sake of research that thorough forensic missions to war zones should be undertaken.
As an example of diverging numbers, I have summarized below the numbers found for the conflict in Sierra Leone:
|Death count||Distinction combatant/ non-combatant?||Displaced/refugees||Secondary source||Primary source|
|50000||No||Half of population||Nnadozie, Emmanuel/ Abdulmelik, Siham, 2009, The role of te private sector in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict reconstruction efforts, in Besada, Hany, From Civil Strife to Peace Building: Examinig Private Sector Involvement in West African Reconstruction, Waterloo, CA, Wilfrid Laurier U.P., p. 146||www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/sierra_leone/htm|
|20,000||No||Half of the population||Douglas, Ian, Fighting for diamonds, in Cilliers, J., P. Mason, et al. (1999) Peace, profit or plunder? : the privatisation of security in war-torn African societies, Halfway House, South Africa, Institute for Security Studies. p. 175|
|75,000||No||Half of the population refugees, 4.5 Million displaced (adds up to more than the population in 1990)||The heart of the matter report, p. 8|
|No||1999: 600,000 in neighbouring countries; 2/3 displaced inside||Reno, William. 2003. Political Networks in a Failing State. The Roots and Future of Violent Conflict in Sierra Leone. Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft(2).|
|50000 to 75000||No||Half of the population||Mateos, Oscar, Beyond greed and grievance, in Bowd, R., A. B. Chikwanha-Dzenga, et al. (2010) Understanding Africa’s contemporary conflicts : origins, challenges and peacebuilding, Pretoria, Institute for Security Studies.||“some UN agencies”|