Controversy continues to surround the problem of assessing non-combatant casualties in time of war. The Swiss based Graduate Institute of International Studies has just published its latest annual small arms survey where it suggests some 39,000 Iraqis have been killed as a direct result of combat or armed violence since the start of the war.
The most relevant part of the report is probably chapter nine “Behind the Numbers: Small Arms and Conflict Deaths” – where, in addition to Iraq, other recent warzones like Guatemala, Peru, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Sudan are also assessed. (A chapter summary is available here).
The steady stream of media reports from the battle zones of Iraq has kept the world regularly informed about at least one aspect of the conflict: the numbers of US and UK servicemen and women being killed. Between March 2003 and April 2005, more than 1,700 had died, and more than 11,000 had been wounded (Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 2005; Antiwar.com, 2005). One obvious question follows directly from these statistics: how many Iraqis have died in the conflict?
In April 2005, the public database Iraqi Body Count, basing its information on media accounts, estimated that there had been between 17,000 and 19,000 Iraqi military and civilian deaths (IBC, 2005).
In late October 2004, however, the British medical journal The Lancet published results from an epidemiological survey conducted in Iraq estimating that perhaps 100,000 or more excess deaths had occurred in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003 (Roberts et al., 2004), compared to a similar period before the invasion. Of these 100,000 estimated excess deaths, about 40 per cent?an estimated 39,000 deaths?may be the direct result of combat or armed
The large disparity between these estimates and those presented in previous reports raises important questions about how conflict deaths are measured and reported, not just for individual conflicts, but for global aggregate measures of armed conflict deaths. This chapter surveys the range of estimation techniques?from media report datasets to focused case studies?that are used to arrive at conflict death figures, and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of different methodologies. It clarifies the distinction between direct and indirect conflict deaths, highlights the tendency of certain methodologies to underestimate the number of deaths, and points to ways to improve these figures in future research.
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