by DAVID AXE
In the U.K.’s House of Lords on Feb. 3, members of parliament debated expanding Great Britain’s aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of several intersecting security and humanitarian crises. “Some 5 million people have died there since 1998,” said Lord David Alton of Liverpool. “It is the most deadly conflict since World War II.”
Alton based his figure for Congolese war deaths on a widely cited 2008 report from the International Rescue Committee, which claimed that 5.4 million Congolese had died of war-related causes between 1998 and 2007. The causes included starvation, disease and combat between government forces and rebel groups.
But one university group has challenged the IRC’s report, and cast into doubt widely used methods for calculating war deaths in conflicts all over the world. The Human Security Report (.pdf), published in January by Simon Fraser University in Canada’s British Columbia, rejects the IRC’s Congo estimates, claiming they were based on “questionable methodological assumptions.” The university report instead endorses a Belgian study that found just 200,000 Congolese war deaths between 1998 and 2004.
The debate over war deaths in the DRC raises important questions about the way developed countries quantify warfare’s human cost. After all, the apparent severity of a conflict, based on death tolls, drives international intervention. The Human Security Report notes that the value of humanitarian aid to the DRC jumped fivefold following the IRC’s initial war-death report in 2000. The U.N. also increased the size of what would subsequently become the largest peacekeeping force in the world, at some 20,000 strong.
A report claiming a high death toll can be a politically powerful tool, Jennifer Cooke, an Africa analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told World Politics Review. But accuracy matters, not only regarding the total number deaths, but also when it comes to specifying exactly how people died. A report “can say something about how we focus our response,” Cooke said.
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