What Exactly has Omar al-Bashir Wrought in Darfur?

This is the first of two posts on Darfur.

Here is a nice article by Rick Gladstone about efforts to bring President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan before the International Criminal Court (ICC).  Everything I know about al-Bashir suggests that he as an outstanding candidate to be prosecuted by the ICC.

But this paragraph raises a red flag for the blog:

Mr. Bashir is wanted on charges arising from the systematic killing, torture and rape of civilians in Darfur more than a decade ago. Roughly 300,000 people were killed and more than two million were uprooted.

Today we’ll focus on the word “killed” which flows from “systematic killing, torture and rape of civilians.”  Any reasonable person will think that Gladstone refers to 300,000 violent deaths, i.e., people killed by guns, explosions, knives etc..

Wrong.

Many war numbers that circulate are plucked out of thin air or worse.  Not this one.  You can actually find decent back up for a claim of 300,000 deaths in Darfur.  But these are excess deaths, not violent deaths.

What are excess deaths?  Thank you for asking me this question.

Briefly, calculating excess deaths is a two-step procedure.

  1.  You set a baseline death rate that you claim is the one that would have occurred if there had never been a war. The most common choice of baseline is the pre-war death rate.
  2. You compare the during-war death rate with the baseline death rate and assume that the difference between the two is caused by the war.

(I guarantee that I’ll have future posts on the concept of excess deaths.  I regard it as problematic and in need of reformulation. But let’s not get derailed into that discussion now.)

Here is the key point.  The evidence for 300,000 deaths in Darfur boils down to a claim that during-war death rates in Darfur were higher than the death rates Darfur would have suffered if it had managed to avoid war. 

Gladstone could use this excess-deaths study to back up his 300,000 figure:

We estimated that the overall number of excess deaths in Darfur between March, 2003, and December, 2008, was about 300 000; with a higher baseline, there would be about 90 000 fewer excess deaths. The total number does not include deaths among the refugees living in Chad.

Our findings also suggest that more than 80% of excess deaths were not a result of the violence…. but the main causes of mortality during the stabilisation period were diseases such as diarrhoea.

I won’t quibble with the study here.  My point is that Gladstone is perfectly welcome to write something like “Researchers suggest that during al-Bashir’s war death rates were much higher than the rates they think would have prevailed without his malign influence.  The difference accounts for roughly 300,000 deaths that should never have happened, many from diarrhoea.”

In other words, we should be clear about the kinds of deaths we’re talking about and not present non-violent deaths as violent ones.

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