Tag: civilian casulaties

Libya and the Threshold for War

Some questions about Libya.

To clear the decks, I’m instinctively uneasy with international interventions in civil wars, given the historical difficulties of keeping such interventions limited and the unintended consequences and moral hazards of such undertakings. Not to mention the burdens that states like the US and UK are now shouldering, with the constraints and pressures on our statecraft after Iraq and with Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, and the need to preserve what Walter Lippmann called a ‘surplus’ of power in reserve.

But the general strategic context aside, this post is about one specific issue flowing through it all: following on from Jon Western’s excellent post on Libya and the dynamics of wartime atrocities, there is clearly an unsettled issue here of what the threshold for war ought to be. On both moral and prudential grounds.

┬áBy virtue of the fact of our intervention, we will never know what was going to happen in Benghazi. It seems there is little evidence that there was a plan for a ‘wholesale massacre’ or a ‘bloodbath‘, that would have taken ‘tens of thousands of lives.’

Equally, a civil war of that nature can produce massacres more spontaneous and smaller. So while there isn’t much evidence that the luckless folk of Benghazi were due for an atrocity on the scale of Srebrenica, a killing on the scale of Peterloo wasn’t impossible, as one smart interventionist reminded me the other day.

Alternatively, the brute fact was that an authoritarian regime’s forces were closing in on outgunned and outnumbered rebels, had threatened armed opponents with vicious language, and were heading towards a city. If Jon is right, this are conditions ripe for atrocity. If a bloodbath was even possible, to what extent is anticipatory intervention justified?

The issue here isn’t whether the Libyan regime is repressive or whether civilian innocents would be in grave danger in a setting of urban combat. If that was a sufficient basis for intervention, it would make the threshold for intervention irresponsibly low.

The question is whether Qaddafi’s forces were about to behave so brutally, however premeditated or circumstantial their behaviour, that the regime would be guilty of exceptional barbarity. Warfare can only really be justified if it is waged to create a better state of peace that is proportional to the suffering it inflicts, in Liddell Hart’s words.

This matters on the calculus of doing harm versus doing good. After all, if the magnitude of civilian suffering was likely to be far lower than the US, the UK, France and their supporters argued, at what point is it atrocious enough to override the likely deaths that follow from international intervention in civil wars?

One difficulty with liberal interventionism is the tendency (though not a universal one) for liberal hawks to characterise civil wars as clashes between predators and victims with the civil war dynamics overlooked, and to look past the wildness of war that slips easily off its leash to become not a tool of pacification but a force that can prolong and even radicalise a pre-existing conflict.

We do have foreknowledge that military intervention will result in innocent deaths. Particularly where the outside forces use standoff weapons and only have limited intelligence, it is almost certain that they will kill civilians.

In terms of higher politics, interventions ‘on the cheap‘ that lack the power to seize territorial control can prolong a conflict into a grinding stalemate, which is not necessarily a liberating experience for the inhabitants.

And victims can be strategic and brutal as well. The prospect of intervention can be exploited as the tail wags the dog. I don’t mean this pejoratively – its an observation about the understandable desire for weaker sides to internationalise conflicts to correct a power imbalance, and the problem of ‘moral hazards‘ is a theme taken up by Alan Kuperman amongst others.

None of these drawbacks necessarily means interventionism is always wrong. But for this distant observer, it does mean that the threshold for stepping into such a conflict should be very high.

Does Libya meet that threshold? Do my generic reservations about interventionism even apply in this case?

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Tallying Collateral Damage

Earlier I blogged about the importance and absence of data disaggregating unintentional civilian deaths from total civilian deaths in wars worldwide. To get a preliminary handle on this question, I examined a dataset on civilian victimization developed by Alexander Downes at Duke University for his study on why governments target civilians in war. His dataset includes 100 interstate wars and runs from 1823-2003. It includes low, medium and high estimates for the number of civilian deaths for each party in each conflict, based on available secondary sources. It also includes a separate binary variable for whether there is evidence that governments targeted civilians directly. His not uncontroversial methodological appendices are here. Wars are coded as including evidence of intentional civilian victimization if hostilities included indiscriminate bombardment of urban areas, starvation blockades or sieges, massacres or forced relocation. Civilian deaths in wars not using these techniques can be roughly assumed to be unintentional, or “collateral damage.”*

So are unintentional civilian deaths trending up or down in absolute terms and / or as a percentage of all civilian deaths? This analysis – which is a rough first cut, mind you – suggests that collateral damage rather than war crimes may now constitute the majority of civilian deaths in international wars worldwide, and that the total number of collateral damage deaths is 20 times higher than at the turn of the last century.

The ratio of collateral damage victims to war crimes victims has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War. According to Downes’ dataset, between 1823 and 1900, unintentional deaths constituted 17% of all deaths in war. Since 1990, that number has risen to 59%.

In other words, the majority of civilian deaths since 1990s have not been war crimes but have been perfectly legal “accidental” killings. Of course this could partly be a result of a decrease in direct targeting of civilians over time, which would be a good thing.

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths.
The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year – a twenty-fold increase.

So it’s not just a question of collateral damage staying constant while war crimes drop. According to this data, at least, collateral damage is actually taking many more lives than ever before – despite purported increases in precision munitions.

What does this all mean? First, because this cut at the numbers is so rudimentary and so based on data designed to track actual civilian victimization rather than collateral damage, it seems crucial to gather some genuine data on the actual problem. Human rights and humanitarian law organizations should launch cross-national studies aimed at determining the actual numbers. They should also regularly disaggregate their civilian casualty data into intentional v. unintentional in their reporting.

But if these numbers are anywhere close to correct (and I suspect if anything they are conservative) this analysis suggests an urgent need for a rethinking the laws of war designed to protect civilians. In the 1970s, when the [added: Additional Protocols to the] Geneva Conventions were hashed out, a key concern of governments’ was to protect civilians from intentional attack. War crimes are dropping in part because international laws against targeting civilians are working. Collateral damage is increasing in part because of the absence of such clear-cut rules. It’s time for this to change.
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*It’s a crude measure because in any given conflict, some civilians may be targeted directly and others may be “collateral damage;” but collateral damage counts here show up only for wars in which there was not also intentional civilian victimization. The data is also limited to interstate wars. But assuming Downes’ data is more or less accurate, we can derive a very conservative set of collateral damage numbers by tallying all civilian deaths for each war in which the state killing civilians was coded as not having done so intentionally. (I used the mid-level estimates in the dataset).

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Guest Blogging the Afghan Civilian Casualty Count

So I’m guest-blogging over at Lawyers, Guns and Money the next week. My first post is on the latest 100+ civilian dead in Afghanistan. Suffice to say, as the ANSO graph above suggests, the international military forces (IMF) kill fewer civilians by accident than either pro-government or anti-government forces do on purpose. But as I point out, this doesn’t mean much politically, and so the US needs to change its counter-insurgency strategy. Check it out.

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