Mon, Sep 19, 2011 - Page 9 News List

We must learn to count every casualty of war

By Jonathan Steele  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The duet of British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Tripoli on Thursday was suitably short on triumphalism. Not one NATO serviceperson died and the regime that the mission aimed to change fell within six months. So the temptation to crow was high.

However, the two European leaders no doubt remember the rash boasts of former US president George W. Bush of mission accomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their advisers must also have warned them that “liberation” can be a fragile concept with a short shelf-life.

There might have been less looting in post-Qaddafi Tripoli than in post-Saddam Baghdad, but there has been far more brutality meted out to former regime supporters. Cameron and Sarkozy concentrated on measures to secure loose weaponry and offered medical and other aid. On their return home, they should also think of more innovative ways to help the war’s victims.

On the same day as their visit, a new initiative was announced in London. Some three dozen non-governmental organizations launched the Charter for the Recognition of Every Casualty of Armed Violence. The brainchild of the Oxford Research Group, the charter calls on states to ensure that every casualty of armed violence, not just soldiers or “their own civilians,” should be properly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged.

Every casualty counts, but rarely is every casualty counted. That fact of war, particularly of the modern brand where civilian deaths far outnumber those of combatants, has slowly begun to be remedied. The Iraq Body Count made a start for the war that the US and Britain launched in 2003, carefully recording and cross-checking every reported victim and giving, wherever possible, the full name and date of death. The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo has been doing the same for the Bosnian war, regularly updating the Bosnian Book of the Dead, which now has 99,000 names.

The just-unveiled Kosovo Memory Book is an impressively impartial collaboration between Serbs and Albanians at the Humanitarian Law Centers in Belgrade and Pristina. Listing the 2,046 people who lost their lives in Kosovo in 1998 — a further volume on the larger number from 1999 is underway — the book includes short details for victims of all ethnicities. One aim is to try to end the battle of statistics in which different sides focus only on their own group.

Another remarkable aspect of the volume is that no distinction is made between civilians and combatants, so that thumb-nail biographies of Yugoslav army soldiers who died in Kosovo are set alongside those of Albanian women and children. In the “irregular wars” which are increasingly today’s norm, it is often hard to distinguish between combatants and civilians, especially when the “men with guns” may have been press-ganged into fighting or are child soldiers, or were illegally executed after being captured.

In Syria researchers for the human rights organization Insan have been risking their lives to register the names of victims. Between March and this month they total 3,004 including 92 boys and 56 girls, all shot in the upper part of the body.

The dignified naming ceremonies held in New York on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, were a model for how bereaved families can memorialize their loved ones. One day the same care should be shown for the tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan who died because of US “payback.”

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