On 21st March 2011 Hamit Dardagan, Co-Director of Oxford Research Group’s Recording Casualties in Armed Conflict Programme and Co-Founder of Iraq Body Count, was interviewed on The World Today about civilian deaths in Libya.
Interviewer: Well in Libya, it can be difficult to know who is a civilian and who is an armed rebel. Much less, how many of either of them have been killed. Both Colonel Qaddafi and rebels in Benghazi claim that a number of civilians have been killed by the other side and by allied air raids. But what is real and what is propaganda? During the Iraq war the independent group Iraq Body Count became known as the most reliable recorder of civilian deaths. I asked the group’s co-founder, Hamit Dardagan, how easy it is to answer those questions in Libya.
Hamit Dardagan: That’s probably not possible instantly. But the real answer is to make a commitment to discover those casualties for yourself. And I think that’s one of the commitments we’re looking to see from the governments involved in this action but we haven’t seen so far. You’d think that for an action that involves protecting civilians lives, you would make it a chief concern of yours to discover whether you’ve actually saved lives, how many lives might actually have been killed or lost as a result of the action, as well as events before the action.
I: So what would be good sources for this?
HD: Generally speaking, its hospitals and morgues, medics, and other people who are close to the events on the ground who have the best information, at least early on. Families of course ultimately have the best information about who they’ve lost.
I: It is of course a key propaganda tool, the number of dead. And we’ve seen the Qaddafi forces say that there are x number of civilians killed. We’ve also seen leaders of the rebels say that there are 8,000 civilians killed – a huge number. How much credence should we give to both of those claims from both sides?
HD: I think in principle where there are high explosives going off in populated areas, no matter where the explosives are coming from, in principle there’s a very high risk of causing civilian casualties. So the real answer is to not get too distracted by claims and counterclaims, but to actually be committed to finding out what happened.
And as I think we saw from the WikiLeaks releases of the Iraq War Logs and also the Afghanistan War Logs, militaries are actually quite capable of recording this information – but they tend to keep it to themselves rather than seeing them as something that the public, and the general public as a whole, has a right of access to.
I: I suppose one of the difficulties in the Libya situation is that although the forces under Colonel Qaddafi do have a structure, the rebel forces are very much a loose conglomeration of…some people call them rag-tag, rag-tag forces. So actually getting a legitimate number could be quite difficult – if they’re being relied on to give a figure.
HD: I think in the first instance you just simply take everything that comes in and sort of collect it. At Iraq Body Count our policy has always been to not just throw any information away. And sometimes analyzing it does take some time: you have to wait until you can actually correlate some information with other information. Ultimately you sort of arrive at the truth through multiple sources and listening to everyone and getting as much data as possible – and that be detailed data. I think it’s worth emphasizing that if you have names of who has been killed, that’s one of the hardest things to fake. So people can fake figures, but names are a little bit tougher to fake. You tend to get found out if so-and-so who you claimed was killed hasn’t been killed. That’s one of the sort of one of the, if you like, gold standards of casualty recording is to know not just how many have been killed, but who has been killed.
I: Twitter, facebook, social media–reliable sources or not?
HD: I think it’s to the extent that these things are transparent and you can actually again see what precisely is being claims other than pure figures. The problem always is with raw figures – they’re quite difficult to get behind. But if you can actually trace particular deaths, particular incidents, particular bombings, particular shellings, and so on, you start to be able to build up a real, if you like, data-driven reality of what’s occurred.
I: When the military strike a target, how often do they actually know when they’ve hit civilians or not? Or whether they’ve hit soldiers or not?
HD: They have this system called a ‘battle damage assessment,’ which often just involves fly-pasts. There were something like thirty or so decapitation strikes, all of them targeting people high up in Saddam’s hierarchy. And it turned out later that although these strikes, on a technical basis, had been entirely successful – the bombs went where the lasers guided them to go – not a single one of them actually contained such a high level target. So the intelligence that was being supplied on the ground, the human intelligence, didn’t actually match the capabilities, which are not flawless, but in those instances were better than the human intelligence. So even when the weapons work, the targeting is wrong anyway.