How Do We Count the Civilian Costs of War?

Experts on a DGHI panel argue that conventional assessments of harm from military action are often imprecise and incomplete.

Published October 25, 2023, last updated on October 27, 2023 under Around DGHI

When Mara Revkin, J.D., Ph.D., visited schools in Mosul, Iraq, in 2018, she was surrounded by stark reminders of the battle against ISIS, the Islamic regime that seized the city during the Syrian war. Although Iraqi and coalition forces had reclaimed control of the city, many school playgrounds had been converted into graveyards because there were no other spaces to bury those who died in the fighting.  

“This is one example of how persistent the legacies of armed conflict really are,” said Revkin, an associate professor at the Duke School of Law who studies peace-building and transitions from armed conflict. “The impacts on education and on child development are one type of harm that is generally ignored by the social sciences.”

Revkin shared the story during a Think Global event at the Duke Global Health Institute titled “Human Rights, Health and Conflict: Counting Civilian Harm.” Panelists discussed the challenge of accurately assessing the impact of war and violence on civilian life, which they argued includes not only assessing death and mortality from conflict, but considering reverberating effects on societies in the wake of military action.

“In short, the question we are considering is how might better counting make civilian harm count?” asked Catherine Admay, J.D., a senior lecturer at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke who moderated the discussion. Admay, who is an affiliate faculty member with DGHI, studies human rights, law and development.

Debarati Guha-Sapir Ph.D., director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, discussed the importance of using sound epidemiological approaches to estimate the number of people who die as a result of conflict. She noted that governments and advocates may have political reasons to offer understated or overstated estimates of death, making it imperative that neutral observers provide an unbiased accounting.

But the most important reason to provide accurate assessments, she said, is to honor the humanity of those who died.

“If we don’t have some kind of accounting of how many people died, we are essentially saying that we don’t really care. It’s a moral imperative,” she said.

Revkin’s research looks at the impacts of conflict beyond the number of lives lost. She has worked in Iraq and Syria to evaluate the long-term effects of the ISIS war on education and other socioeconomic conditions, which she said are systematically underestimated in assessments of civilian harm. She noted that the principles used in international humanitarian law to define when military action is justifiable were mostly conceived before the advent of drones and long-range weapons, which exact a much higher toll on civilians than conventional ground wars.

Both Guha-Sapir and Revkin emphasized the critical role for academic research in providing trustworthy assessments of the costs of war. Researchers should be careful not to sacrifice that trust by overinterpreting results or yielding to political pressures, they said.

“Academia has that independence and that credibility, and that’s a very important thing to hang on to,” said Guha-Sapir.

Panelists noted the timeliness of the discussion in relation to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and the humanitarian crisis for Palestinians in Gaza. But they noted the need for stronger protections against human rights abuses and long-term damange to civilian societies extends to many ongoing conflicts.

"The current conflict is very much on my mind, but the same is true of conflicts in Ukraine and Sudan and other places," said Revkin.