A War Of Statistics: Limitations Of The Current Approach To Recording Civilian Casualties


Earlier this week the US led coalition force took Rawa, a small town in northwestern Iraq that was, until Friday, ISIS’s last stronghold in the country. While the coalition members celebrate their victory, it is important to stop and reflect upon the real losers of this war; the civilian casualties. Innocent people have lost their lives and the world has lost its right to transparency due to failures in our civilian death reporting mechanisms. Recently the New York Times report, “The Uncounted” highlighted these failures.

“The Uncounted” involved an 18-month-long investigation into civilian casualties in the US-led coalition’s “war on ISIS.” The Pentagon have proclaimed that this war is one of “the most accurate to date,” estimating that of the 14,000 US airstrikes in Iraq there have been just 466 civilian casualties. While the US coalition claims that one civilian has been killed for every 157 airstrikes the Uncounted found that this was disturbingly incorrect – in fact their investigation found that the rate was 31 times higher than this.

The authors of “The Uncounted,” Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal went on to argue that the rates of civilian casualties are “at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history.”

So why does it matter if civilians are still going to die?

Accurate reporting will not change the number of civilians who have already lost their lives in this or any conflict. It can, however, give the families of those civilian casualties the right to know what happened to them, seek answers and remember them with dignity.

Most importantly, accurate reporting can make governments accountable for their actions. It can even deter states from violence and reduce future civilian casualties.

Khan and Gopal also tell the story of Basim Ruzzo, an Iraqi citizen who, after significant amounts of time living in Michigan, went home to Mosul and got caught up in a war of ideals that he wanted no part in. Ruzzo and his family became withdrawn from the community after ISIS took control of the region because their morals simply did not align. Ruzzo had helped the Americans in the 2003 war, he enjoys fast cars and had worked as an accounts manager – all things that ISIS detested.

Then one evening Ruzzo went to bed and woke up with no roof; a bomb had been dropped on both him and his brothers isolated houses. He lost his wife, his 21-year-old daughter, his brother and his nephew; all for no discernible reason. Until the New York Times raised Basim Ruzzo’s case his family members were not even recorded as civilian casualties – instead they were added to the ISIS category. It draws into question how many other innocent people have been branded with the tag of “militant,” and for what reason? Is it to make a gruesome war sound better? Is it indifference to the deaths of civilians? Or Is it that we do not have any accurate way to calculate the civilian death rate in a modern conflict?

The current method of reporting and ascertaining civilian casualties used by the coalition, and indeed many countries throughout the world, is both flawed and uneducated. A bomb drops, pilots then evaluate the strike, here they are looking for signs of a civilian presence, an example of this is civilian vehicles that suddenly appear after the bombs dropped but before the impact.

If this requirement is met it will trigger an internal assessment. This assessment decides if the casualty report is credible by reviewing imagery and testimony from those involved in the mission. Similarly, if the coalition receives an external report it will try to match the incident to a strike in its logs – thus determining whether it was a coalition aircraft that was involved in the action.

If the coalition can link the report to its logs, it then embarks on a massive mission trawling through drone footage, pilot videos, internal records and other information such as social media. Following this the coalition will release a report listing those allegations that it has found are credible.

The coalition is clearly expending a lot of effort and resources on investigating and tracking these claims, and yet their statistics are so far removed from that of Khan and Gopal’s investigation – why? This is not because the coalition does not care, nor is it because the lives or civilian casualties are meaningless. It is because there is no adequate framework in place for the international community to collectively report and monitor civilian casualties.

Where to from here?

The current system is flawed – but the path forward is not an easy one. To properly improve the methods in which we trace civilian casualties, we need to develop a multi-national and multi-organizational response to the problem. At the crux of the issue is a lack of information sharing during the conflict.

Possible data should be collected by the state involved in the conflict, as is often the case, and collated into a centralized database that is then accessible to all relevant parties. A recent report completed by The Oxford Research Group found that “a comprehensive and robust record of casualties is to be achieved, all parts of the state from local to central institutions should actively pursue the collection of information about casualties” the report went on to recommend that “this information is routinely shared with casualty recorders and published” where it is safe and reasonable to do so.

Allegations should then be graded as per a blanket ranking system that pertains to their credibility. Airwars, a leading not-for-profit transparency project that works to track and archive the international air war against ISIS, have adopted such a grading approach. The organization’s five-tier model ranks claims of civilian casualties as follows:

• Confirmed – where the state responsible has accepted responsibility for the killings
• Fair – where there is a report from two or more credible sources and a state strike has occurred reasonably near the region on the alleged day
• Weak – where there is only one source making the claim and a state strike has occurred reasonably near the region on the alleged day
• Contested events – where there are competing claims for the cause of an incident
• Discounted – where it can be proven that those killed where combatants or the incident likely did not result in any civilian casualties

By ranking incidents in this way, data can be processed, categorized and shared – allowing for the international community to know what happened and moving closer to an effective method of civilian casualty reporting.

Oxford Research Group also drew a correlation between “positive information relationships with central governments” and the “exercise of the rule of law.” Arguing that where governments share large amounts of civilian casualty information with non-governmental organisations policy is improved to benefit that state in the instance of future conflict.

Similarly to the duty to states outlined above, there is also a duty on inter-governmental organizations. They must engage with groups reporting on civilian casualties, contribute to the development of the field and force states to come to some sort of international agreement on the issue. A legal approach may be for inter-governmental organizations to look at establishing an international framework whereby all states have a responsibility to monitor civilian casualties of war and a go-to mechanism for doing this.

While the tragedy that has befallen Bassim Ruzzo cannot be undone, it can serve as a wakeup call the international community. There needs to be a serious change in the way we calculate the civilian death toll in times of war.

Montana Vaisey

Montana is studying International Relations and Law at Deakin University. She is passionate about resource shortages and policy development.
Montana Vaisey

About Montana Vaisey

Montana is studying International Relations and Law at Deakin University. She is passionate about resource shortages and policy development.