Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Shrinking Costs of War

I’ve written before on the work of the Human Security Report team, who study the statistical aspect of modern conflict. In a general sense, previous reports have shown that estimates of loss of life during armed conflict are generally much exaggerated, and that mortality related to armed conflict continues to decline. More robust international peacekeeping and the enhanced role of the United Nations and factors that the Human Security Report team say help to explain the phenomenon. One might add such elements as the growing deterrent effect of international justice, and the beneficial consequences of the expansion of human rights monitoring mechanisms, the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, the activities of NGOs, and so on.
This flies in the face of the claims of various advocacy organizations. Understandably, I suppose, they dramatize the number of deaths because this helps to draw attention (and resources) to the conflicts on which they focus.
The latest report from the Human Rights Security Project was issued yesterday. Here is one of the observations:
Today, wars generate far fewer deaths on average than they did in the past. The deadliest year for war deaths since World War II was 1950, mostly because of the huge death toll in the Korean War. The average conflict that year killed some 33,000 people; in 2007, the average toll was less than 1,000.
In today’s low-intensity wars, rebel organizations—and government forces—often kill civilians and flout international humanitarian law in other ways. But, the horrific nature of much of the violence has tended to divert attention from the fact the actual death tolls are relatively small—and have been decreasing..
The latest report notes that we get large scale killing only when big armies are involved, pointing to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as an example. I have always been a bit curious to hear some US-based human rights activists bemoaning the number of deaths in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, yet strangely subdued when it comes to Iraq. When I was on sabbatical in the US a few years ago, it seemed as if every campus had a ‘save Darfur’ campaign, but little or nothing about the misery being inflicted upon Iraq. In fact, many used to argue that the main actor capable of ‘saving Darfur’ was the US military!
Here is another interesting observation:
Take the case of Darfur. In the fall of 2006, the high-profile Save Darfur Coalition, a US-based advocacy group, claimed that since the fighting in Darfur had started some three years earlier, “400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.”
This figure was at least double that of most expert estimates at the time and the reference to innocents being “killed” was wholly misleading. The overwhelming majority of deaths in Darfur in this period were not the result of a government-instigated “slaughter”––as Save Darfur had claimed––but of disease and malnutrition, which were already major killers before the war. Determining what percentage of these deaths could be attributed to the impact of wartime violence rather than pre-existing conditions of abject poverty and malnutrition is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.
Getting mortality estimates wrong can have real-world consequences and the Save Darfur campaign’s claims have been sharply criticized by humanitarian groups and area specialists. As one critic noted, “Exaggerated death tolls . . . make it difficult for relief organizations to deliver their services. Khartoum considers the inflated numbers to be evidence that all groups that deliver aid to Darfur are actually adjuncts of the activist groups that the regime considers its enemies, and thus finds justification for delaying visas, refusing to allow shipments of supplies and otherwise putting obstacles in the way of aid delivery.”
Humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as human rights advocacy groups, actively publicize the plight of the war-affected populations they seek to assist––and often use excess mortality tolls to make a case for more aid. There are compelling reasons for doing this, as the IRC’s Rick Brennan and Anna Husarska pointed out in an article in the Washington Post on July 16, 2006, “When there is media coverage, aid increases. Large donors may be more inclined to press for a greater presence of international peacekeeping forces to protect civilians and humanitarian assistance teams. And the presence of peacekeepers makes it easier for the media to report.”
If these factors come together, they accomplish the goal of every humanitarian response: saving lives.
Saving lives is, of course, the raison d’etre of humanitarian organizations.
However, a potential conflict of interest arises here because the institutional survival of humanitarian NGOs is dependent on donor funding. But, the level of funding they receive is directly related to assessments of humanitarian need––assessments that they themselves are usually responsible for generating.
We might add to this discussion the consequences of such exaggerations in another area: prosecutorial priorities at the International Criminal Court. It is intriguing that the two examples of distorted death figures cited, and examined, in the Report are both ‘situations’ currently on the agenda of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The Prosecutor has justified his choice of priorities with references to the ‘gravity’ of the conflicts in question. On several occasions he has referred to numbers of deaths as an indicator of ‘gravity’ and a major factor in his decisions. For example, in February 2006 he rejected communications urging him to investigate war crimes committed in Iraq because his priorities, he said, should be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the death toll was so great. And in December 2008, I heard him charging genocide in Darfur where, he said, 60,000 people were being killed every year.
My point is that if the Office of the Prosecutor has its numbers wrong – which the Human Security Report seems to suggest – then it’s also got its strategy wrong.
This work is important in terms of international criminal justice. Not only may a more scientific approach to mortality rates (and other consequences of armed conflict) be useful in establishing prosecutorial priorities, it may also help us understand the most elusive of all claims we make: that international accountability has a deterrent effect. If the Human Security Report is correct, maybe it is helping to prove this.
More generally, if peacekeeping, international criminal justice and human rights haven’t improved the situation in recent years, we might as well give up, because we have been wasting our time. I find a report that concludes there is an overall improvement to be rather encouraging. It makes me want to continue doing what we do.


Matthias said...

Andrew Gelman, down at the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science Blog reports some critical comments on the HSR estimations.

More on the estimation of war deaths

Seems the question of getting the number right is quite difficult. Makes the work of selecting sufficiently serious cases for ICC prosecution even more difficult, and politically sensitive.

opit said...

It's easy to be trapped by false premises.
Nations like Iraq are victims of a program of destroying of the infrastructure which reduces disease or provides necessary services. In fact, the 'reconstruction' of Iraq was a failure from the standpoint of producing usable results...unless you were a beneficiary of no-bid contracts.
At this point electrical power is not restored : essential for water and sewage treatment.
Something like the genocide of Assyrians reported in aina would not come up : slaughter of Christian pacifists by Kurds.
What about internal displacement of millions from their 2 million who have fled the country ?
Agriculture is functionally destroyed, courtesy Monsanto-favouring regulations included in Bremer's 100 Orders which destroyed the heritage of millenia in heritage seed stocks...and cutoff of water by Turkish dams upstream.
Hospitals and medical staff are victims of assassination and intimidation. How does that relate to the Occupation ? Well, civil authority of the Iraqi government was destroyed and all those experienced with running a bureaucracy cut off from the process : army and police the first to go. You figure it out.
As you can see, Iraq Body Count is not in agreement with other sources. Depending on Psyops for valid data is as reliable as the ahead-of-the-facts general-purpose Poisoning the Well Arguments for those questioning the imperial warmongers : traitors or terrorists. That's the corporate state for you - positing 'freedom' a price.
How does this correlate with information obtained locally ?
Worth exploring.