THE BLOG
09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fussing Over Numbers: Body Counts and Accountability

Since the new UN estimates on civilians killed so far in 2009 were released on Friday, I've been getting questions on whether these numbers are helpful, or even accurate, in describing the conflict: What's the value of the obsession with body counting?

In one sense, these numbers offer a measure of accountability for the human costs of the conflict. As I pointed out in my blog on Friday, in a month where the news has been dominated by competing press statements about attempts by both sides to the conflict to reduce civilian casualties, an estimate that 1000 people have already died so far this year is a stark reminder of how far these promises are from the past 6 month's reality.

Nonetheless, there is a strong argument that we shouldn't even be fussing about numbers when there is so much guesswork involved. In general, the UN has pretty accurate estimates, but it is a fair point that any estimates in Afghanistan should be treated with a wide margin of error. (The Globe & Mail published a great piece describing how access issues, local traditions, and sometimes deliberate misinformation by locals or local leaders, can make it impossible to find the "truth" in some of these investigations.)

Another critique raised by a friend of mine who is a human rights investigator is that these civilian casualty counts boil a thousand stories of loss into impersonal statistics, and obscure the real tragedy of these incidents. Once you digitize them, she would argue, no one bothers to ask about the names and faces behind those numbers.

A recent op-ed by Tom Hayden put a sharp point on this issue for me. He argued that the US Department of Defense should openly admit whether there is a standard number of civilian deaths that are considered acceptable for any given airstrike in Afghanistan (many confirmed that there was a "magic number" in Iraq), and what the decision-making process is for authorizing deaths that reach above a certain numerical threshold.

As a human rights advocate, this is the type of measure we tend to call for because it increases transparency over how these life and death calculations are made. Another common argument for releasing this type of information is that families have a 'right to know.' But thinking of my friend's argument that numbers dehumanize a loss, I do wonder whether it's something that really serves the victims and their families? Based on the interviews I've had with Afghan families who have lost a loved one, the last thing they'd want to hear is that their father, mother, or child was deemed expendable by a mean calculation made by an impersonal decision-maker a thousand miles away.