After Libya, let us learn to count every casualty of war

First published 20th Oct 2011

The Guardian's Jonathan Steele, who was present at the launch of the Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence at the British Academy on 14 September in London, welcomes the charter and discusses its pertinence to Libya and beyond in the first major op-ed focusing on the charter and the NGOs who back it.

The charter was launched with the attendance and backing of dozens of casualty recording practitioner organisations from around the world. Steele offers their example as demonstrating the feasibility as well as the worth of such work:

Every casualty counts but rarely is every casualty counted. That fact of war, particularly of the modern brand where civilian deaths far outnumber those of combatants, has slowly begun to be remedied. The Iraq Body Count made a start for the war that the US and Britain launched in 2003, carefully recording and cross-checking every reported victim and giving, wherever possible, the full name and date of death. The Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo has been doing the same for the Bosnian war, regularly updating the Bosnian Book of the Dead, which now has 99,000 names.

The just-unveiled Kosovo Memory Book is an impressively impartial collaboration between Serbs and Albanians at the Humanitarian Law Centres in Belgrade and Pristina. Listing the 2,046 people who lost their lives in Kosovo in 1998 (a further volume on the larger number from 1999 is underway), the book includes short details for victims of all ethnicities. One aim is to try to end the battle of statistics in which different sides focus only on their own group. 

Steele notes that such work sometimes entails great peril for its practitioners –

In Syria researchers for the human rights organisation Insan have been risking their lives to register the names of victims. Between March and this month they total 3,004 including 92 boys and 56 girls, all shot in the upper part of the body.

  – and that its moral imperative is hardly alien, even if it often remains unheeded for victims who might be considered thus: 

The dignified naming ceremonies held in New York on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 on Sunday were a model for how bereaved families can memorialise their loved ones. One day the same care should be shown for the tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan who died because of American "payback".

But governments cannot absolve themselves of this duty of care because of work done by NGOs:

It is good if civil society in a particular country starts to record and keep alive the fate of victims, but the main duty must rest with governments. They are accustomed to keeping lists of dead soldiers and erecting war memorials. Do civilian victims deserve less?

State responsibility applies particularly strongly in cases where civilian deaths result from UN-backed military interventions claimed to be for their protection, as in Libya:  

More than any other recent western military intervention, the Libyan campaign was explicitly based on the need to protect civilians. While the true purpose was regime change, the mission the UN security council approved cannot be passed over now that change has been achieved. Many of the civilians that Nato came to protect are dead, as are hundreds of combatants, some killed in detention.

In conclusion, argues Steele, we should not follow the worst example currently to hand, but set a better one:

In Syria the Assad regime has been doing everything to block information about its massacres, as Wissam Tarif, Insan's director pointed out yesterday. It has kidnapped researchers, cut telephone lines, and interfered with internet access. Britain and France should draw a contrast with these practices by funding a full accounting of the killings in Libya.  ...  Making a record of every victim in Libya on the model of the Bosnian and Kosovo books of the dead can also help in the reconciliation the country urgently needs.

 – an example which would be consistent with the precepts of international law:

Nato should put its weight behind the every-casualty charter. A century after international humanitarian law was created, it is time states register the names and fates of the victims who die when those laws are broken.