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New study argues war deaths are often overestimated

A new study, the Human Security Report, argues that politics and fund-raising priorities often lead to overestimates of war deaths, touching off a controversy among the researchers who work on the issue.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / January 22, 2010

A Rwandan Hutu rebel carries a gun in the village of Kimua, eastern Congo. A study released last week argues that reports of battlefield deaths such as those in Democratic Republic of Congo have been overestimated.

Rebecca Blackwell/Reuters/File


A new report released this week asserts that the human cost of modern warfare has decreased significantly, challenging both the methods and results of other studies.

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For instance, the Human Security Report, produced at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, claims that the widely cited death toll of 5.4 million in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is double what it should be.

The hotly contested report calls into question the larger estimate, made by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and alludes to controversies surrounding death tolls in Darfur and Iraq. It also questions the most general assumptions about conflict, from how deadly war is to whether the number of war dead can even be counted.

“[It’s] not just a battle of titans,” says Greg Greenough, director of research at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. “It really is [a battle] of philosophies, of how we approach a very difficult question of deaths of people in war.”

But it’s not just philosophical. Because government, military, and humanitarian officials all take into consideration death tolls and casualty rates, the numbers can play a key role in determining the response to a conflict.

Death tolls, the report argues, are better understood as fundraising arguments aimed at donors than as real scientific estimates of the human cost of war – a contention that has angered experts in the field.

"Many years ago we went out and attempted to report to the world about an unfolding crisis in the Congo. We did it carefully, but as we described at the time, crudely, at great risk to life and limb, and at only a few percent of the cost of this Human Security Report," wrote Les Roberts, a collaborator on former HSR reports and IRC studies, in an open letter to the Center. "It is unbecoming to grab a headline a decade after by tearing down a study with erroneous speculation,"

Criticism of the new report

After the International Rescue Committee published its early findings of the DRC death toll, humanitarian aid to Congo increased 500 percent. Peacekeeping assistance followed, and today the DRC hosts the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, with more than 20,000 members.

The IRC conducted five mortality surveys in the country between 2000 and 2007. The limitations of those surveys, the IRC says, have always been clear.

“We’ve discussed those [limitations], we’ve published those, and I think there’s been generally agreement among many experts that they don’t invalidate our findings,” says Richard Brennan, who helped write the IRC’s last two surveys from Congo.