07 July 2011

Counting On John

Last Saturday (2nd July) John Sloboda of the Oxford Research Group gave a thirty minute presentation, Civilian Casualties: The Unacceptable Face of Modern Warfare, to the last of this year's Hexham debates.

He began by saying that the Hexham debates are most probably unique in the UK and thanked the organisers for the opportunity to present his lecture.

He went on to ask the question,
  • Who is dying in the wars that the UK fights?
Some stats were provided: in the Falklands campaign (1982) one thousand combatants and zero civilians were killed. Later, in Kosovo (1999) combatants 2 (NATO), 462 (Serbian forces), 1000 (KLA) were killed along with 1,500 (by NATO) and 10,000 (by ICTY) civilians were killed. The pattern - diminshing combatant, increasing civilian casualties - repeated itself through the Afghanistan (2000 - present), Iraq (2003 - present) and Libyan (2011) conflicts. Out of this state of play protecting civilians is becoming an important issue; for example, UN Security Council resolution 1973 is couched in terms of protecting civilians.

The lecture moved onto jurisprudence where Luis Moreno Occampo, the prosecutor at the Hague International Court, was quoted in a letter dated 9th February 2006,
Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives,11 even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv).

Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes:

Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;

Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are “clearly” excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of:
  1. the anticipated civilian damage or injury;
  2. the anticipated military advantage; and
  3. whether (a) was “clearly excessive” in relation to (b).
Here the idea of proportionality was emphasised. Sloboda went on to cite an academic paper (Hicks et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 2009) that discusses the civilian impact of different weapon types. This paper gives data which undermines the legal defence of proportionality since the victims of bombing campaigns are 46% female, 39% children with both groups assumed to be non-combatants.

In order for bodies to be placed in front of a court with regard to civilian casualties the following needs to be answered
  • who
  • when
  • where
  • how
  • and by who
This is being addressed by the every casualty initiative with three main reasons presented for doing so: moral, practical and legal. Counting casualties, particularly civilian casualties, is considered to be a difficult process; consequently, it was said, that States need to not only do it but show how it can be done.

The process is still a developing practice but a momentum is developing.

A practioner network has arisen through the http://www.everycasualty.org/ website.

After the Bosnian War (1991 - 94) atrocities reports were used as propaganda weapons which resulted in a difficult peace. Out of this the research documentation centre was set up which was "devoted to documenting human losses in Bosnia-Herzegovina due to conflict." This had the result of causing 'humanisation' that is, turning the issue from politics to facts. Whenever someone would cry 'atrocity' the RDC would ask where the bodies were in order to count them.

The presentation ended leaving one with the impression that this was very much a work in progress.

Questions at the end elicited the existence of the Libya Letter to the UN; the disappointment that an opportunity for recording casualties was lost when the Chilcot inquiry took a ver narrow view of its remit; the treatment of the dead from 911 was thought to be a gold standard as to how deceased civilians should be treated.

Lastly, Sloboda told us that he had an uncle who was in the Polish military. During WWII he disapeared, it was strongly suspected that he was murdered in the Katyn massacre but from the time that he went missing to the time that Gorbachev opened the Russian archive which confirmed the fate of this man, there wasn't a day that went by without members of his family wondering what had happened to him.

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