Book Launch for Counting Civilian Casualties

The Ford Institute in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University’s University Lecture Series held an event on Friday 20th, 2103, to launch a new book entitled Counting Civilian Casualties: An Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflict, edited by Taylor B. Seybolt, Jay D. Aronson, and Baruch Fischhoff, and published by Oxford University Press. The book and the conference on which it is based were funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Ford Institute for Human Security at the University of Pittsburgh.

The director of the Ford Institute, Louis A. Picard, opened the event with a brief celebratory note congratulating the editors and the authors on bringing a difficult, but successful collaborative project to fruition. Picard underlined the support of the Ford Institute in providing a platform for important interdisciplinary research projects. The book’s three editors were joined by Patrick Ball, who was an influential consultant throughout the project, coauthored one chapter, and is the executive director of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group. Luke Condra, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, rounded out the panel in the role of discussant.

Baruch Fischhoff, of Carnegie Mellon University, informed the audience about the evolution of the idea behind the book project. Pointing to the inherently controversial and value-laden nature of the core concepts of the book such as casualty and risk, Fischhoff recounted how his research article on this topic was rejected by a highly regarded political science journal. Fischhoff reminded the audience that the U.S. government does not publicly count civilian casualties and the dearth of information the standard U.S. death certificates record. Fischhoff ended his presentation by expressing his hope that this book will contribute to the advancement of better understanding of civilian casualties by policymakers, academics and the public at large.

Jay D. Aronson, also from Carnegie Mellon University, explained the two goals of the book: first, to provide essential tools for policymakers so they can better evaluate the complexities surrounding the counting of noncombatant deaths in armed conflicts; and second, to make these tools accessible for ordinary citizens as well as judges, nongovernment officials and activists so that they can better hold their governments accountable. Aronson emphasized the importance of this book for scientists and policy analysts because “false and misleading information about civilian casualties potentially fuels ongoing conflicts.”

Taylor B. Seybolt, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, started his overview of the book by pointing out that despite popular views to the contrary, civilian suffering has lessened over the course of the history. Stressing the inherently political nature of counting civilian deaths, Seybolt elaborated on advantages and drawbacks of various methods used to count civilian deaths such as enumeration of death records from multiple sources and estimation of death toll using statistical techniques. He illustrated these methods by showing how different actors arrived at different casualty counts in the case of Bosnian War of 1992-95. Seybolt highlighted the book’s call for the development of two international practices in order to enhance the analysis of the patterns of violence and to better memorialize the victims of armed conflicts: first, to establish scientific standards for counting civilian casualties; and second, to promote a convention on legal and moral obligations of actors to provide a transparent record of civilian casualties.

Patrick Ball welcomed the launch of this book, which, he said, will certainly contribute to better “educate technologists and activists about statistical methods.” Pointing out that “stakes are high and being wrong about civilian casualty counts has high costs,” Ball focused on a major debate regarding the compilation of numbers of civilian casualties: a direct witness method of enumeration vs. a statistical method of estimation. By giving several examples, Ball showed how studies that used the enumeration method cannot tell the public about the unknown—those casualties that were not recorded, and that the lack of information in estimation studies about the ideological backgrounds of the activists who counted civilian casualties in their biased ways.

Luke Condra praised the book for producing an essential “handbook” of counting civilian casualties and also for attempting to allay the distrust of statistics and thus fill the gap between scientists and policymakers on the one hand, and scientists and the public on the other. Condra suggested that this book offers a great promise in helping researchers “adjudicate between competing theories about the patterns of recruitment and development in armed conflicts and insurgencies.” He also noted that international institutions such as conventions affect the behavior of violent groups and that this book is a great asset for those who are working on institutionalizing early warning systems in conflict states.

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session. Responding to questions, Aronson noted that enumeration techniques over-report deaths from high impact violence and under-report deaths from events of lower impact violence where one or two civilians were killed. Ball elaborated on the problems associated with research that estimates deaths using data from samples that are not truly representative of the larger population, as is true of most data used by political scientists, and the dangers of “learning the wrong thing” from academic studies that use anonymous reports of civilian casualties. Seybolt noted that enumeration studies do not necessarily give lower toll of civilian casualties as many such studies fail to de-duplicate their counts. Ball reiterated that there are usually high levels of variance between observed and unobserved deaths and between urban and rural deaths, making it very difficult to count casualties of conflicts in rural and tribal areas.

For more information on the book,

click here.

To watch the video of the event,

click here.



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