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"Dead Reckoning: Challenges in Measuring the Human Costs of Conflict"

Apr. 7, 2011: residents visit their relatives' graves at a Baghdad cemetery. Iraq Body Count, a British group monitoring Iraqi civilian deaths, says between 100,293 and 109,573 Iraqi civilians and police have been killed since the war began in Mar. 2003.
AP Photo

"Dead Reckoning: Challenges in Measuring the Human Costs of Conflict"


February 10, 2012

Author: Kelly M. Greenhill, Research Fellow, International Security Program

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security


This memo was prepared for a World Peace Foundation seminar on "New Wars, New Peace" held at the Fletcher School, January 12–13 2012.


Contemporary policymakers face something of a conundrum. Concerns about the human costs of conflict, including refugees, internally displaced persons and military and civilian casualties, tend to figure prominently in decision-making processes—strategically, operationally and politically. And pressures to count and take account of these costs are on the rise, from growing Western casualty sensitivity on the military side to a greater emphasis on the prevention of collateral damage on the civilian side, and a growing fetishism towards quantification and counting, more generally. Yet, these imperatives do not come without their own costs and challenges. Despite significant recent technological innovations—both in the context of an improved capacity to observe from above and enhanced computing power on the ground—in many contexts, accurately assessing the human costs of conflict can be difficult at best. Given increased attention and incumbent pressures associated with counting these costs, the incentives to distort and politicize these numbers can be profound. Four overlapping, yet distinct, factors tend to impede accurate and agreed-upon measurement of the human costs of conflict: data availability; data reliability; measurement disparities; and political imperatives and biases. Below I outline the challenges each of these factors can pose to conflict measurement, drawing upon illustrative recent examples to illustrate these challenges in action. I conclude with a brief set of recommendations for consumers and for producers of conflict-related statistics....

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For Academic Citation:

Greenhill, Kelly. "Dead Reckoning: Challenges in Measuring the Human Costs of Conflict." REINVENTING PEACE, February 10, 2012.

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