Take note of every casualty

A new charter has been launched, to recognise every casualty of armed violence. The campaign to get governments to sign up started last week. It needs the support of some major NGOs and a campaigning newspaper or two to get some momentum. But why does it matter?

I spoke at the launch meeting at the British Academy. The other panellists are all much more closely involved than I am in the process of counting and recording casualties – two are carrying out a project of this kind on the war in Kosovo in 1998-9 and one is engaged in doing it now in Syria. Some of their arguments, coming from right up close to armed violence and its costs, are in the video.

My own arguments from a bit further away for why the charter matters are as follows:

1. To know: Until now, there has been no agency with the responsibility for counting deaths in war. There are agencies whose job is to cause them and there are agencies with the responsibility to look after those who suffer but survive. But no agency whose task it is to count. Not knowing how many deaths occur in most cases of armed violence, which leaves the field open for estimates – sometimes with dubious methodologies – and for one-sided claims and pure invention. Knowing can get things in proportion – not necessarily less horrible than what estimates depict but reliable.

Those who lose family and friends in war also need to get things in proportion but in a radically different sense. Not knowing what happened to the missing often means people don’t really know what hapened to them. It’s out of that confusion that the inability to move even after two or three decades persists. I don’t exaggerate: in former Yugoslavia, the absence of knowledge about deaths during World War II left unhealed wounds that erupted more than a generation later, part of the background causes of the wars of the 1990s.

Knowledge won’t bring anybody back but it may help the survivors and the country move forward and live.

Nota bene: the charter is not just to count but to recognise every casualty – to acknowledge it, and acknowledge the reality of the life that has been taken.

2. To respect war: Regular readers of my blogging know that I can get quite impatient about the way in which the use of force is often discussed. To my mind, too often – for example when discussing the case for intervention in Libya – well-minded people ignore that the instrument they want to be used in order to do good is one that by definition does harm. War is about causing death. Let us recognise every casualty of war so that we respect the full facts of war.

3. Human respect: Recognising the reality of war and the humanity of every casualty will in turn, I hope, encourage mutual respect among participants and victims of war and armed violence – respect for each other’s humanity. This may make it harder to be a participant and that might make it less common to be a victim.

4. A civilising idea: It will not end war and it certainly won’t bring people back to life but, just like the founding of the Red Cross / Red Crescent movement, it will do something to help a potentially barbaric world be more civilised.

Indeed, I think there are many similarities between the original idea of the Red cross in the mind of its founder, Henri Dunant, based on his experience at Solferino in 1859.

  • That too was a simple idea – that somebody should care impartially for soldiers injured in war.
  • It filled a gap – there had been no such agency.
  • Its weight comes only from moral clarity.
  • It has not ended war but, not least through International Humanitarian law (previously known as the Laws of War) it has had a civilising influence in a barbaric context.

And like all good ideas, Every Casualty is – as the Red Cross was once articulated and as it remains – obvious. It’s the kind of idea that, as soon as it’s articulated, you’re likely to think you had the same thought years ago (which is the hallmark of the best ideas).

As I said at the top, to gain some traction, this campaign needs support. Apparently Every Casualty’s web-site is currently under construction; until it’s built and functioning, go to the web-site of its founding NGO, the Oxford Research Group, and sign up there.

5 thoughts on “Take note of every casualty

  1. Thanks for sharing the video clip from the launch of the Charter to recognize every casualty of armed violence. It is interesting to see this initiative related to the initiative that is taken from the ICRC to work in other situations of violence in some places in the world-and the future relation to International Law. It would be interesting to know if there are similar initiatives to the Serb initiative in other areas that are very affected by armed violence like South America, North Africa, etc.!

    Data collection is the first stage to knowledge, and I do think, that we might be surprised, not only in a good way, but enough to find that there should be a mandate out there do exactly this! The question is with whom! A problem possibly faster resolved nowadays in the world of twitter and blogging, and social entrepreneurship related to international binding treaties on disarmament..

  2. Pingback: Every Casualty | qceablog

  3. Pingback: Syria’s death toll | Dan Smith's blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s