Tag: civilians

Crunching Drone Death Numbers

The Monkey Cage has published a detailed guest post by Christine Fair on the drone casualty debate. Fair takes leading drone-casualty-counters (Bergen and Tiedeman’s New America Foundation database and new numbers out from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) to task for their methodology, in particular focusing on their sourcing:

While these methodologies at first blush appear robust, they don’t account for a simple fact that non-Pakistani reports are all drawing from the same sources: Pakistani media accunts. How can they not when journalists, especially foreign journalists, cannot enter Pakistan’s tribal areas? Unfortunately, Pakistani media reports are not likely to be accurate in any measure and subject to manipulation and outright planting of accounts by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant outfits.

Pakistani journalists have readily conceded to this author that perhaps as many as one in three journalists are on the payroll of the ISI. In fact, the ISI has a Media Management Wing which manages domestic media and monitors foreign media coverage of Pakistan. Even a prominent establishment journalist,Ejaz Haider, has questioned “What right does this wing have to invite journalists for ‘tea’ or ask anyone to file a story or file a retraction? The inquiry commission [to investigate the death of slain journalist Shehzad Saleem] should also look into the mandate of this wing and put it out to pasture.”

Pakistani journalists have explained to this author that, with respect to drone strikes, either the Pakistani Taliban call in the “victim count” or the ISI plants the stories with compliant media in print and television—or some combination of both. In turn, the western media outlets pick up these varied accounts. Of course the victim counts vary to give the illusion of authenticity, but they generally include exaggerated counts of innocents, including women and children. Of course as recent suicide bombings by females suggest, women should not be assumed innocent by virtue of their gender.

Thus, these reports mobilized by NAF and BIJ, despite the claims of both teams of investigators, cannot be independently verified. At best, their efforts reflect circular reporting of Pakistani counts of dubious veracity.

I think this is a really important analysis and share Fair’s concerns about the reliability and validity of these methods. I haven’t looked closely at BIJ’s dataset, but I’ve written previously about not only the sourcing problem, but also coding anomalies and conceptual problems with the NAF methods. The Jamestown Foundation, which has another drone-casualty dataset that Fair doesn’t address, has its own problems.

All that said, having made a clear case that we can’t really verify the numbers, I think it’s very strange that Fair arrives at the conclusion, by the end of her article, that drones must therefore be a pro-civilian technology:

U.S. officials interviewed as well as Pakistani military and civilian officials have confirmed to this author that drones kill very few “innocent civilians.” Indeed, it was these interviews that led me to revise my opinion about the drone program: I had been a drone opponent until 2008. I now believe that they are best option.

It’s hard to argue with her claims that drones might be more discriminate than ‘regular airstrikes,’ an argument that largely resets on her observation that the drone program is more highly regulated and this would be obvious to the public if the CIA didn’t have a variety of incentives to keep mum about the details. But in the absence of good data comparing the kill ratios – which we really don’t have for non-drone-strikes either – it’s hard to make this case definitively. Also, relative to what? A law-enforcement approach that involved capturing and trying terrorists rather than obliterating them might or might not be more ‘pro-civilian’ – though it would certainly be more costly in terms of military life and assets. We simply don’t know.

Regarding how we might know, I also don’t buy Fair’s argument that attempts to verify the civilian status of victims through interviews would be fallacious. This view is based on the assumption that the important question is whether a victim was actually a terrorist. But since extrajudicial executions of suspected criminals without due process is a violation of human rights law, that’s not the right question to ask. From a war law perspective, the right question is whether the individual was directly engaged in hostilities at the time of the attack.

Now, Stephanie may well jump in with some more nuance on percolating developments in war law, the notion that direct participation is being expanded in some ways to include off-duty terror leaders, etc; I agree this is a complex grey area in the law but it’s beyond the scope of this post. My point here is that the messiness of this debate is directly related to the conceptual muddiness introduced by the shift toward thinking about the combatant/civilian divide in terms suspects/non-suspects rather than participation/non-participation. Fair’s analysis is only another example of that.

I am not anti-drone. As I wrote earlier this year, I think there’s a fair amount of unwarranted hype about them, and that the real problems are how they’re used, not the nature of the weapons itself. But this tendency to use the drone discussion to legitimize a reconceptualizing of the very definition of ‘legitimate target’ is extremely problematic. And while I support Fair’s argument that some independent mechanism should be established for determining casualty counts and disaggregating the civilian from the combatant dead, I do not share her belief that this is impossible or that it hinges on the distinction between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ – concepts that require due process to determine. If such fact-finding were done – and they should be, as the Oxford Research Group argues – I would support a coding method that reflects actual humanitarian law, not current US policy.

Here is another perspective for those following the issue. The Wall Street Journal also has a piece out today on the topic.

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Strengthening Civilian Protection

My review essay on the protection of civilians is out in Foreign Affairs. I discuss two books – Michael Gross’ Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, and Stephen Rockel and Rick Halpern’s edited volume Collateral Damage. All these authors clearly care deeply about protecting civilians in armed conflicts, and worry in different ways that the existing laws of war are flawed. I have somewhat more faith, particularly in the ability of global civil society organizations to build upon these foundations in order to fill the existing gaps; in fact, as I argue, this process is already underway:

In Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, Michael Gross contends that the current safeguards against civilian casualties are too stringent to address the complexities of today’s wars, barring states from adequately combating irregular forces. Meanwhile, Stephen Rockel and Rick Halpern argue in Inventing Collateral Damage that the current international regulations are too weak, permitting and even enabling states to harm civilians during combat.

From two widely different perspectives, the books cast doubt on the value of the existing international regulations presumably designed to mitigate war’s impact on civilians. But a closer look suggests that these authors overstate the tensions between the laws of war and the modern battlefield and underestimate just how well the existing statutes are working. Although the laws of war require strengthening, they constitute a firm foundation on which to better protect civilians.

Entire essay here.

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Actually, We Don’t Know How Many Civilians Are Dying in Drone Strikes.

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann at the New America Foundation are keeping one of the most useful datasets on drone strike fatalities that I know of. They’ve been tallying reports of strikes since 2004. They limit their data to those reported by:

“news organizations with deep and aggressive reporting capabilities in Pakistan (the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal), accounts by major news services and networks (the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC), and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan (the Daily Times, Dawn, the Express Tribune, and the News), as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network.”

This gives them a systematic, if conservative, estimate of total fatalities. They then gather, archive and code the data in a transparent and replicable way – unlike other estimates of drone strikes that don’t provide evidence of how they derive their statistics. Bergen and Tiedemann’s results gives us a descriptive picture of how drone strikes have increased over time and changed by location and impact. Their website includes a set of helpful visualizations:

While I find the effort impressive and have sometimes cited Bergen and Tiedemann’s data as decent mid-range estimates of drone-strike fatalities, I am developing some reservations about the coding methods being used and the inferences being made after looking more closely at their dataset. In particular, Bergen and Tiedemann’s estimates of the ratio between civilian to militant deaths by strikes bears closer examination.

1) It’s important to emphasize that these estimates, most recently outlined in a Foreign Policy article entitled “There Were More Drone Strikes — and Far Fewer Civilians Killed”, do not actually measure of the ratio of civilian to militant deaths. They measure the ratio of reported civilian to reported militant deaths. This is a very important distinction that seems to have been lost on Bergen and Tiedeman, who claim in their recent Foreign Policy piece “even as the number of reported strikes has skyrocketed, the percentage of non-militants killed by the attacks has plummeted.” It is more accurate to say that the percentage of non-militants reported killed by the attacks has plummeted.

Acknowledging that this is data on news reporting more than data on actual deaths puts the data in a different light. For example, the declining trend in ‘civilian deaths’ could mean fewer civilians are in fact being killed. Or it could mean a shift in how reporters are interpreting ‘civilian’ or ‘militant’ over this time period – a period in which the very concept of the “civilian” is being degraded in popular, media and diplomatic discourse both by evolving events and by the notion, among other things, that a person loses their civilian status simply by being suspected of militancy against their government.

2) But let us set aside for a moment the question of whether (and which part of) war law (and therefore the civilian/combatant distinction) really applies to US airpower inside Pakistan. And let’s assume that it is legitimate to treat “suspected militant” as synonymous with “combatant” and “non-suspect” as synonymous with “civilian.” I still worry that Bergen and Tiedemann are overestimating militant deaths in these reports. One of the reasons for this is probably inevitable given their method: they rely on what mainstream reporters say, and reporters rely on information from the governments doing the killing. But another reason is completely within their control: by using “militant” rather than “civilian” as the default code when the actual status of the deceased, according to the reports, is “unknown” or contested.

For example, Bergen and Tiedemann record a December 31, 2009 attack in which CNN reported 2 were killed, 3 injured, and it was unclear whether any of the dead or injured were militants; and in which AFP reported 3 militants were killed and that “the identity of the militants is not known yet”; This event was coded in the Bergen/Teidemann dataset as “Al-Qaeda/Taliban killed: 2-5; Others killed; unknown.”

At a minimum, it would seem to me, this event should have been coded as 2-5 deaths “status unknown” rather than counting as either definitely militants or definitely civilians. In fact, however, it would be more consistent with humanitarian law, from which the civilian/combatant distinction is derived, to record any deaths in which the status of the deceased are unknown as civilians. (Article 50(1) of the 1st Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions states that “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.”)

I would be interested to know how the Bergen/Tiedemann ratio of “civilians”/(non-militant suspects) to “combatants”(militant suspects) would change if their coding were replicated with either of these two minor yet significant changes introduced. (In the case of the Jamestown Foundation study released earlier this year the latter approach would have made an enormous difference in their findings even with males over 13 excluded, jumping the civilian hit rate from 5% to 27%.)

3) All this only goes to show how impoverished our understanding of the civilian impacts of different weapons will remain until some independent verification mechanism is established for tallying and reporting the dead in today’s wars. Important efforts are underway to fill this critical gap in the Geneva regime and should be supported by advocates of human rights and humanitarian accountability.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Is It Time to Ban Explosive Weapons in War?

UK-based NGO Landmine Action says yes. In a recent report, the organization points out that we do not consider explosive bombs an acceptable tool in police operations, and proposes they be stigmatized as tools of counter-insurgency and military operations other than war as well – at least when used in populated areas.

The report cites evidence of the civilian consequences of explosive violence used in populated areas, an argument with which it’s easy to agree from a human security perspective. Whether the percentage of civilian deaths from explosives are on average 83% as the report concludes or marginally lower, it is clear that when you drop 500 lb bombs in urban areas, collateral damage levels will be unacceptably high.

One of the great strengths of the report, however, is that it doesn’t limit itself to direct civilian casualties but also documents the long-term developmental consequences of destroying civilian infrastructure with explosives.

Explosive weapons have a high capacity to damage the social and economic infrastructure on which civilian populations rely. The destruction of housing, power supplies, water and sanitation systems, health facilities, schools, markets, roads and transport links, and energy infrastructure present direct humanitarian problems, deplete local and national capacity for production and growth, and necessitate high levels of reconstruction expenditure, diverting scarce resources from investments necessary to achieving developmental targets.”

Finally, the report also suggests that the appropriation of such violence by non-state actors gives governments an incentive to seize the moral high ground in order to better distinguish themselves from their illegitimate foes:

A stigma against the
use of explosive weapons in populated areas would provide a basis for better
differentiation between those acting on their common responsibility to protect
civilians and those subordinating civilian protection in the pursuit of other goals.

This is an intriguing argument because it counters the conventional wisdom among some scholars and policy-makers – that states must increasingly use heavy-handed means to counter enemies who themselves have little respect for civilians. So I’ll be interested to see how this argument plays as Landmine Action presses its claims. But it sure is good to see members of the NGO community – as well as the United Nations Secretary General – framing explosive weapons as the humanitarian travesty they are.

In analytical terms, this report constitutes an example of “problem definition” – what scholars of agenda-setting would consider an early step toward the development of a global prohibition regime. Yet it’s interesting that Executive Director Richard Moyes, who authored the report and also maintains a blogsabout explosive violence – isn’t calling for an outright ban on the state use of explosive weapons. Instead what is suggested here are baby-steps: states should more clearly articulate the circumstances under which they would be allowable, develop better mechanisms for determining the consequences of their use, and compensate civilians who are harmed by explosions.

What do readers think? Should explosive weapons go the way of landmines in global “civil” society?

Type your summary hereType rest of the post here

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Update: Caucasus Humanitarian Sit-Rep

Latest numbers on humanitarian needs in the region. International Medical Corps is now echoing the 30,000 estimate of refugees fleeing north to Russia from S. Ossetia, UNHCR’s estimates remain more conservative but have risen from 5,000 Saturday to between 10,000-20,000 today.

Like other agencies IMC is emphasizing its assistance efforts for “women and children.” This is troubling given what it suggests about a) the number of elderly who likely weren’t as easily able to flee urban areas before bombardment and b) the possibility that large numbers of adult civilian men are either missing from these populations or are simply being denied aid in a misplaced bid to protect the appearance of humanitarian “neutrality.”

Reliefweb is reporting that the International Committee of the Red Cross is emerging as the lead agency in the region, but their zone of access has been limited to N. Ossetia. Given that Russia now controls both North and South Ossetia, this raises questions about how serious Russia is about the “humanitarian” dimensions of the conflict for their own sake.

You can’t infer humanitarian ideals from their efforts north of the border: the “humanitarian catastrophe” (i.e. refugee crisis) there is propaganda fodder for Russia so it coincides with their interests. The litmus test is whether they will allow aid agencies access to civilians fleeing in the opposite direction or remaining in S. Ossetia even though

a) it may implicate them in war crimes if the ICRC determines that they’ve targeted civilians directly as they entered Georgia and

b) it means that Georgian civilians will receive the aid they need from the outside, rather than by putting pressure on Georgia’s own resources.

Under international humanitarian law, Russia is obligated to provide access to neutral agencies to all civilians in areas under their control.

The ICRC is also “working to gain access to people detained in connection with the conflict, including two Russian pilots who were wounded and are being held by the Georgian authorities.” No mention by the ICRC of allegations that the Russians have captured any Americans in connection with the fighting.

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No More Civilian Body Counts?


For the past several years, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque and Alicia Cheng have been publishing “Op-Charts” in the January NY Times with a visual representation of deaths in Iraq, with the deaths neatly broken down according to civilian, police, coalition troop, US troop, etc. This year’s installment came out earlier this month.

Two interesting things about this year’s chart.

[I always look for it because their use of symbols is a helpful tool in my Spring “Rules of War” class when I discuss civilian immunity. I want to get my students to recognize that adult men can be civilians too, and that there are many ways in which the use of language, symbols and social norms creates the impression that civilians = “womenandchildren.” This argument is developed more fully in my 2006 book. As you can see from last year’s chart, de Albuquerque and Cheng have been handing me a timely teaching tool for years.]

But this year, when I dug up the chart to update my Powerpoint, what do I find but the civilian icon missing altogether?!! Apparently, de Albuquerque and Cheng have stopped counting civilian casualties entirely in favor of disaggregating the uniformed dead.

This is to be explained by the second interesting difference in the Op-Chart, the fact that the analysts tallied deaths for the whole year rather than just for “30 Days in Iraq.” And:

“Sadly, civilian fatalities in Iraq last year were simply too numerous to represent on a single newspaper page.”

Call me kinda overcommitted to keeping civilians alive, but if I had to choose between doing a month with civilians included or a year with them dropped out of the equation altogether, I’d have used my commitment to civilians to bargain for multiple pages of space. Or something.

To view the entire 2008 chart click here.

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NATO Troops Should Redeploy to Protect Kosovar Serbs

Human Security Report Project’s newsfeed reports:

Serbia has promised NATO it would not use force against Kosovo if the breakaway province carried out a vow to declare independence early next year, a senior alliance commander said on Thursday. NATO has patrolled Kosovo since it bombed Serbia for nearly 3 months in 1999 to force the withdrawal of Serb forces accused of atrocities in a war against separatist Albanian guerrillas in the province. “Right now we have enough forces on the ground to protect the people of Kosovo,” said Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, a U.S. Navy officer.

This plus Belgrade’s attempt to seek redress through the ICJ, suggest I was right: NATO’s fears of renewed atrocities against Kosovar Albanians may hve been overblown. But this doesn’t mean there are not important reasons to prioritize the protection of civilians – only that assumptions about who should be protected may need to be reconsidered.

The danger comes not from the certainty that Kosovar Albanians are seceding from Serbia, but from the possibility that Kosovar Serbs will try to secede from a newly independent Kosovo.

Kosovar Serbs are likeliest to attempt secession if they have reason to fear persecution or violence from their newly empowered neighbors.

This has happened before – spates of revenge killings of Serb civilians accompanied the return of refugees from Macedonia in 1999. In such an instance Serbia will be not only inclined but possibly justified in “intervening” on their behalf. This precise dynamic triggered the 1991 war between Serbia and newly independent Croatia, which immediately began “cleansing” the Krajina Serb minority in Croatia.

If NATO wishes to contribute to maintaining stability in the region, the priority should be to provide immediate protection the 100,000 Kosovar Serbs in the northern regions, rather than deploying to protect Albanian civilians farther south from some feared JNA offensive. There would be no more helpful confidence-building measure in the next few months than to send the signal that NATO is biased in favor of stability and civilian protection, rather than in favor of Kosovar Albanians per se.

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