New Paper on Accounting for Civilian War Casualties

Hello everybody.

The radio silence was much longer than intended but blog posts should start coming fast and furious now.  I’ve got a lot I want to get off my chest as soon as possible.

Let’s get the ball rolling with a new paper I have with Nicholas Jewell and Britta Jewell.  (Well, to be honest, it isn’t really a brand new paper but it’s newly accepted at a journal and we’re now putting it into the public domain.)

I dare say that this paper is a very readable introduction to civilian casualty recording and estimation, that is, to most of the subject matter of the blog.  I hope you will all have a look.

And, please, send in your comments..

More soon…..

PS – Here is an alternative link to the paper in case the first one doesn’t work for you.


The History of Casualty Recording and the Launch of Every Casualty’s Standards for the Field

On Thursday night I was at the London launch (following an earlier one in Geneva) of new standards for the field of casualty recording.

Every Casualty (for which I’m a Board member) and its Casualty Recorders  Network spent years preparing for this moment and it was worth the wait.

Here are the slides from my presentation.

I will link to the podcast of the event when it becomes available.  I will also link to a video of the Geneva event when it appears.  I’m particularly keen to see the video since I wasn’t able to attend the Geneva event..

Event Announcement! Casualty Recording Post-Chilcot

Casualty Recording Post-Chilcot

International Standards for the Field

Thursday 8 December 2016


Weston Room, Maughan Library,

Chancery Lane, London, WC2A 1LR


The UK launch of the first-ever set of international standards for recording casualties for use in the field and as a resource for conflict analysts (published 23 November 2016).  These Standards have been developed by UK-based NGO Every Casualty over a three-year period with the intensive involvement of casualty recording organisations around the world, and of major end users such as the ICC, UNOCHA, and ICRC. The publication of these standards is particularly timely in light of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War which highlights the failure of the UK government properly to acknowledge and account for Iraqi casualties, and calls on the UK government to make every reasonable effort to identify and to understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.

Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda, Co-Directors of Every Casualty Worldwide, and Co-founders of Iraq Body Count.

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London

Professor Susan Breau, Head of the School of Law, University of Reading.

Professor Michael Spagat, Head of the Department of Economics, Royal Holloway University of London

Chris Woods, Executive Director,

Chair: Professor Mats Berdal

For details and to register:

New B’Tselem Report on Operation Protective Edge…and a Critic who Fires Blanks at B’Tselem

B’Tselem is one of the finest casualty recording organisations in the world so the recent publication of its report on Operation Protective Edge (July 8 – August 26, 2014) is an important moment for the field.  The report is simultaneously very good and very brief so I urge everyone to have a look.

There is a well-organised interactive page that lists each person killed (Palestinians and Israelis) by name, age and gender.  This page also provides the date, location and circumstance of each death.

A special feature of the report is that victims are classified according to whether or not they participated in hostilities (with this category sometimes left empty).  To make these calls B’Tselem looks for evidence that a victim either belonged to a combat organisation or was fighting when he/she was killed.  (See the methodology page for details).

B’Tselem clearly puts considerable effort into making and explaining their useful “participation in hostilities” classifications.  It is, therefore, frustrating to see Ben-Dror Yemini dismiss all this hard work and declare that of the 1,394 people killed while not participating in hostilities (according to B’Tselem) “the vast majority of those killed are fighters.”

How does Yemini back up his strong claim?

To see just how farfetched the NGO’s claims are, one need only look at the very data it provides, including the gender and age of each fatality. Let’s leave for a moment the group of 808 fatalities that even B’Tselem graciously admits were terrorists. We’re left with 1,394. If they were indeed all innocents, killed as a result of indiscriminate or random fire, the age distribution would be identical, or at the very least close, to the age distribution in the Gaza Strip.

But lo and behold, it turns out that the real statistics are quite different. Among those defined as innocents between the ages of 18-32, 275 are men and 127 are women. Among all fatalities aged 18-59, 1,296 are men and 247 are women. Five times(!) more men than women. Such high numbers of fighting-aged men, compared to such small numbers of women from the same age group do not point toward randomness. Such a discrepancy could not have occurred if indisriminate fire towards population centers had actually taken place.

Oh dear…..we’ve been here before.  I’m a bit embarrassed to even take this seriously but such misconceptions appear to be common so they can’t be overlooked.

From this 9/11 page we learn that:

The victims were overwhelmingly male (about 75 percent), young (many under 40, most under 50),…

Aha – on 9/11 Al-Qaeda mainly attacked fighters!  There can be no benign reason why the Twin Towers were so packed full of young males.

Indeed, in this paper we found that about 80% of the people killed by suicide bombs in Iraq were adult males (at least out of the ones for which we could find victim demographics).  It appears that Iraqi open-air markets are also packed full of legitimate targets.

OK, it’s obvious why Twin-Tower demographics didn’t match those of America as a whole but what about open-air markets in Iraq?   The answer is almost surely that women and children are generally kept away from such places since they are potential targets for suicide bombers and other attacks.

Let me by crystal clear so as to avoid misinterpretations.  I do not think that the Twin Towers were filled with fighters.  I do not think that open air markets in Iraq are filled with fighters.  And I do not think that most adult males in Gaza are fighters.  Moreover, when B’Tselem investigates and finds that a particular victim did not participate in hostilities I will not overturn this judgement just because that person was an adult male.

I’m hoping that people will pay attention to this post and stop making such wrong headed claims about adult males as a whole…at least until I reach my 60th birthday.



Chilcot on Civilian Casualties: Part 1

The chapter on civilian casualties in the Chilcot report is stuffed with interesting material to the point that I don’t know where to start.  So I guess I’ll make a somewhat random choice and start with the internal UK discussion on whether or not to compile and release data on civilian casualties in the Iraq war.

Iraq Body Count (IBC), my long-time collaborators, have produced a must-read piece on this subject which influences a lot what I write below.

One thing about the report that surprises me is is the strength and persistence of the interest from Tony Blair about civilian casualties.  As argued by IBC, much of his interest seems to derive from the political/propaganda role of such figures, i.e., winning the “blame game” as IBC puts it.  But Blair dis ask repeatedly over a period of several years for casualty information.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) consistently opposed all ideas about accounting for civilian casualties, arguing that it’s impossible to get really solid figures so it’s best not to try.    There was a clear recognition in some government circles of the inadequacy of this argument.  For example, the military’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) warned that:

The current line, that there is no reliable way of knowing how many casualties there have been…was perfectly reasonable during the decisive combat phase of Op TELIC….as long-range attacks meant that there was no source on the ground to verify … casualty numbers

Since…the end of decisive combat operations, this line has become more difficult to defend as confirmed cases of civilian casualties where UK forces are involved are recorded locally.

In other words, the UK was sitting on plenty of useful raw information that should have been collated and released. It is true that such data would have been incomplete and flawed but the information could have been usefully triangulated with other data to clarify the humanitarian situation in Iraq.  Indeed, the MoD argument is such a transparent case of making the best into the enemy of the good that I find it hard to believe that MoD officials offered it sincerely.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), like Tony Blair, wanted to arm itself with civilian casualty information so it could battle effectively with critics of the war.  Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argued:

….I am concerned that the current UK/US position – that ‘there is no reliable means of ascertaining the number of civilian casualties, even in post-conflict Iraq’ – leaves the field entirely open to our critics and lets them set the agenda.

We need to find ways of countering the damaging perception that civilians are being killed needlessly, and in large numbers, by Coalition forces.

Thus, Straw assumes that Coalition forces are not killing civilians needlessly and in large numbers and wants to be supplied with numbers he can use to drive home these facts, as he sees them, to the general public.

Yet the interest of the FCO, and Blair, in civilian casualty numbers evaporates when people realize that the Coalition might be killing more people than the “terrorists” are.  For example, a private Secretary to Tony Blair writes:

You asked for an assessment of civilian casualties in Iraq, noting that we cannot let figures of 10-15,000 go unchallenged as if we are responsible for them….

The FCO recommend that we stick to publicising terrorist responsibility for civilian casualties in individual incidents.  Underlying this is concern that any overall assessment of civilian casualties will show that MNF [Multi-National Force – Iraq] are responsible for significantly more than insurgents/terrorists.

This  strategy of generally withholding data on civilian casualties while cherry picking particular enemy atrocities for publicity is alarming in the extreme for at least two reasons:

  1.  If the reality was that the Coalition was needlessly killing many civilians then the UK government was intentionally blinding itself to this fact, thereby foreclosing the possibility of making improvements.
  2. The UK government would disclose civilian casualty figures to its citizens if these figures were good news, thereby betraying the public trust and forcing people to assume the worst in future when data are not made available.

There is more in the report on this subject but I think the essence and outcome of the discussion are clear. The UK did not compile or release civilian casualty statistics because such figures would not have been perfect and because government officials were afraid of what such figures would show.

The New US Policy on Civilian Casualties in Military Operations

I posted recently on the expected announcement from the Obama administration about civilians killed in US air attacks.  You can read a brief summary of this release here.  The best in-depth analysis I’ve seen is this article by Jack Serle.

I’m still happy with my original post now that the announcement is out .  However, I wish I had drawn attention to the work on casualty recording in drone attacks done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) which is equal in quality to that of Airwars and at least as relevant since the BIJ covers the countries for which the Obama administration just released (very coarse) new information.

More importantly, Chris Woods of Airwars wrote in following my first post pointing out that there was a crucial new development that I hadn’t anticipated:

I think the most interesting thing to come out of today is not the (too low) civcas estimates, but Obama’s Executive Order on the reduction of – and monitoring of – civcas from US military actions (including covert) going forward.

There are some very positive things indeed here, which chime eg with some of EveryCasualty’s work – and also oblige the Pentagon and other US agencies to engage with NGO monitors

I just read the executive order and, indeed, it looks good.  Implementation is now the key  as argued by The Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organization which, I suspect, influenced Obama’s executive order.  And, of course, implementation will depend mostly on Obama’s successor.

Here are a few choice quotes from the order:

In addition to the responsibilities above, relevant agencies shall also, as appropriate and consistent with mission objectives and applicable law, including the law of armed conflict:

(i) review or investigate incidents involving civilian casualties, including by considering relevant and credible information from all available sources, such as other agencies, partner governments, and nongovernmental organizations, and take measures to mitigate the likelihood of future incidents of civilian casualties;

(ii) acknowledge U.S. Government responsibility for civilian casualties and offer condolences, including ex gratia payments, to civilians who are injured or to the families of civilians who are killed;

(iii) engage with foreign partners to share and learn best practices for reducing the likelihood of and responding to civilian casualties, including through appropriate training and assistance; and

(iv) maintain channels for engagement with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations that operate in conflict zones and encourage such organizations to assist in efforts to distinguish between military objectives and civilians, including by appropriately marking protected facilities, vehicles, and personnel, and by providing updated information on the locations of such facilities and personnel.


Sec. 3. Report on Strikes Undertaken by the U.S. Government Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities. (a) The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), or such other official as the President may designate, shall obtain from relevant agencies information about the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities from January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2016, as well as assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, and publicly release an unclassified summary of such information no later than May 1, 2017. By May 1 of each subsequent year, as consistent with the need to protect sources and methods, the DNI shall publicly release a report with the same information for the preceding calendar year.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

A Step Towards Casualty Recording in US Drone Strikes

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According to this story President Obama is expected to release an official number for civilians killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this glass is half full but it is better than nothing if you’re really thirsty.

What are the shortcomings of the predicted announcement?

  1.  The number is said to exclude killings in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan and I can’t think of any principled reason to include some countries but not others.
  2. It appears the the US will just release a number (actually probably a range of possible numbers) rather than providing specific details about particular attacks and individuals killed.

This second shortcoming will render it impossible to make meaningful comparisons between this new information release and the data of civil society organizations doing proper casualty recording for drone attacks.  My favourite such group is Airwars which transparently lists details about and the sources documenting each attack in their database.

Of course, Airwars is not perfect.  They surely don’t have an exhaustive list of all attacks that have killed civilians and some incidents in their database probably contain flawed information.  So I am certain that Airwars would love to triangulate their data against official US data.  But triangulation is only possible against detailed data, not against vague claims that X number of civilians were killed in who knows how many incidents that happened someplace or other.

Nevertheless, it will be refreshing for the US to formally accept some responsibility for killing civilians in drone attacks.

Releasing some information on these killings is preferable to the UK’s “trust us we’re British” approach which, somehow, has become even less persuasive than it was prior to the Brexit vote which seems to boil down to a declaration by the millions of English and Welsh people that they don’t like foreigners.

I’ll report back if/when this data release actually happens.