Towards the Recording of Every Casualty: Summary of the methods research launch at USIP

Originally published by United States Institute of Peace, 5th Nov 2012

First published 6th Nov 2012

In this article originally published on the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) website, USIP comment on the launch of the casualty recording practice research launched at their Washington D.C. headquarters in October 2012, and which they funded.

Data on the casualties of armed conflict is intensely watched and has key significance in policy debates on the costs and purposes of military interventions. Yet there are no accepted standards for the collection of casualty data. There have been few efforts to assemble best practices, develop collaborative networks of practitioners, and produce general frameworks for the collection of casualty data. In line with its mandate of promoting peacebuilding tools and capacities, USIP awarded a grant to Oxford Research Group (ORG) in 2010 to initiate and develop a new international network of casualty recording practitioners to define and test a generalizable framework for enumerating the casualties of armed conflict.

Two years later, ORG completed the project and summarized the research findings in the report “Towards the Recording of Every Casualty World Wide.”  The report – the largest ever study of  the  best practices of casualty recorders – outlines the current methods used by casualty recorders, the challenges facing the field, and the best practices in attempt to ultimately fashion an international standard to count every casualty. 

On October 22, 2012, Elizabeth Minor, the principal ORG researcher on the two-year study, briefed an invite-only audience at USIP on the report.  Members of the military, State Department officials, as well as representatives from international bodies, foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations attended the briefing. 

USIP’s Abiodun Williams, acting senior vice president of the Center for Conflict Management, opened the briefing, congratulating ORG on the successful completion of the project.  He noted that casualty recording is a “vital issue for preventing, managing and resolving conflict, yet no standards for data collection exist.”

Erica Gaston, USIP’s senior program officer with the Rule of Law Center and former Afghanistan researcher for CIVIC Worldwide, moderated the discussion with Minor and two practitioners, Raeed Jarrar and Jorge Restrepo. Minor’s report surveyed 40 casualty recorders, analyzed their responses and collected best practices for the field. 

As one casualty recorder told Minor, “Everyone knows that in conflict people die, but they are not just numbers. They are people with dreams, with hopes, with families, with suffering, with all of that.”

Several of the general problems she found was that casualty recording is inadequate and casualties are not publicly acknowledged, even if recorded.  She listed multiple reasons to strive toward counting every casualty:  it is fundamental to the dignity of the victims and their loved ones to generate the picture of accurate losses, and it is particularly helpful for societies in transition to have justice and an accurate memory of what happened.

As one casualty recorder quoted in the ORG report said: “You must tell the people that harm was done. We [record] so that the next generation will have a better understanding of the price they paid. This is normal in every nation that goes into war: they have pictures with the names of [their] soldiers. [But] the civilians who die, no one cares about them. Their names disappear and their bodies disappear, their memories disappear.” 

The report provided an overview on how to improve field standards:  recording should be impartial and reliable; use clear, transparent definitions and inclusion criteria; there must be transparent methodology; the data must be connected to live communities and use multiple sources; it must be open to correction; and data must be published on the individual level, provided there are no security concerns.

Following Minor’s presentation, practitioners Raeed Jarrar and Jorge Restrepo discussed their field experiences from Iraq and Latin America respectively.

In 2003, Jarrar conducted the only door-to-door casualty survey in post-war Iraq for the organization CIVIC Worldwide. Currently a political analyst based in DC, Jarrar highlighted the major discrepancies in the casualty figures from the Iraq war among the various recorders, including Lancet, Iraq Body Count, Opinion Research Business and the Associated Press.  Some estimates put the casualties in Iraq since 2003 to 10,000 – while others put the full estimated number at one million. Jarrar discussed his efforts on the ground in Iraq to set up and train networks of people to document casualties.

Jorge Restrepo, the director of the Conflict Analysis Center in Colombia (CERAC) and associate professor of Economics at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, said the report needed to be translated to other languages and would help many organizations, and he discussed the experience of casualty recording in the Latin American context. He noted how the range in definitions of violence -- ie, what constitutes a ‘disappearance’ – can hamper the collection of good information and create difficulties to redress victims of such violence. He also cautioned that data can even add fuel to post-conflict tension, particularly if victims and their loved ones have high expectations for compensation for their losses.

The discussion closed with a frank question-and-answer exchange, with participants agreeing that it was important to share best practices and move toward a common understanding of international standards, and many noting the importance of counting every casualty and suggesting various policy and practical steps to achieve that. Several representatives of diplomatic missions and the international community suggested that such practices were so important to mitigating and resolving the consequences of armed conflict that they should be more prominent in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

“USIP has long argued that monitoring international legal norms concerning armed conflict and providing accountability is critical to conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding.  Counting every casualty is a basic building block of providing such accountability. USIP’s effort to support the development of best practices in this field contributes to managing and preventing conflict,” commented Gaston.