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.
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But Brennan argues that without surveys of the kind the report calls into question such estimates are “plucked ... out of the air and ... propagated.” The IRC conducted its first Congo survey in response to an unsourced figure of 100,000 deaths that appeared in a New York Times article, he says.Skip to next paragraph
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“In the case of Congo, the scale was completely unappreciated,” he says. “That’s what death toll estimates can do. They can counter misinformation when noncredible estimates are too high and draw attention to a crisis when noncredible (estimates) are sometimes too low.”
The case for and against death tolls
The Human Security Report also casts doubt on numbers from other places. It questions the Darfur estimate and points out that the first comprehensive study on Iraqi civilian deaths, published in 2006 by the British medical journal, The Lancet, faced credibility challenges.
“Do people make mistakes? Absolutely,” says Ball. “Were mistakes made in IRC estimates? For sure. I think that Mack and his collaborators have pointed to some really important errors that need to be corrected.... Does that mean we should just give up on estimation? Absolutely not. It means we need to take the insights that Mack and his collaborators have brought form the IRC study and say, ‘How can we build a better study?’”
Today’s wars are less deadly
The project found a 70 percent decrease in high-intensity conflict – those wars with 1,000 or more battle-deaths per year – since the end of the cold war, and a 40 percent overall decrease in conflict, according to Mack.
Meanwhile, he says, emergency humanitarian assistance is increasingly effective – in part because those in war-torn areas are healthier when the fighting starts, a fact he attributes to peace-time health projects such as immunization or breast-feeding campaigns.
The number of battle deaths is also going down, he says, from 33,000 a year in 1950 to “just around” 1,000 a year in 2007.
But the costs of war on humanity are still significant.
Florian Westphal, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, sums it up in an e-mail: “War continues to have a devastating impact on the lives of millions of civilians across the world.”