Casualty recording is needed wherever the intensity or pattern of armed violence could result in deaths receiving no formal public acknowledgement. This includes situations of armed conflict, breakdowns in civil security, widespread crime, and other situations of extensive violence. Casualty recording is not exclusively relevant to situations where International Humanitarian Law applies.
Information about fatalities in conflict, particularly civilian fatalities, is always sensitive and frequently provokes controversy. Although casualty recorders may not be politically neutral in a given context, their data can still be relied upon if they adhere to common minimum standards laid out in the Standards for Casualty Recording. When casualty recorders are transparent about their methodology, it allows external verification of their data and independent assessment of their credibility. Casualty data from States, civil society and international agencies can be cross-referenced to identify errors or misrepresentations.
States are responsible for protecting and upholding the human rights of all those within their jurisdiction. This includes the right to life as well as the right to truth, justice and reparation. States therefore hold ultimate responsibility for ensuring that all casualties within their jurisdiction are recorded. This does not mean that States are exclusively responsible for conducting casualty recording. State institutions may record casualty data themselves, but they must also allow and facilitate the recording of casualties by independent entities such as civil society organisations, international agencies and the media. For the purposes of verification and accountability, it is important that State records are not the only public source of casualty information.
Although high rates of violence hamper access and endanger casualty recorders, research has shown that effective casualty recording is possible even under difficult and dangerous circumstances. New technology and diverse approaches to casualty recording mean that it is always possible to record a minimum level of information about a casualty incident, for example through media and social media monitoring. Such information provides a baseline for further investigation, on site or through witness interviews, when the security situation permits. Similarly, data from health institutions, police or military intelligence, death certificates and community records can all be incorporated as and when they become available, to corroborate or discount initial reports. The Casualty Recorders Network currently comprises more than 50 casualty recording organisations operating in a wide range of conflict and post-conflict situations globally. Their work demonstrates that casualty recording is always possible regardless of circumstances and resource.
Parties to a conflict will naturally promote a narrative which supports their political agenda, including using allegations of civilian harm against their opposing party. However, casualty records are statements of fact, which can be independently verified. Casualty recording therefore acts against tendencies to politicise, manipulate, or inflate casualty figures. Parties to conflict which conduct casualty recording must document all casualties they are aware of, not only those for which they may have been responsible. This means that belligerents who share casualty recording data publicly are not at a disadvantage if the opposing parties are less transparent. Evidence of civilian casualties may increase public concern about military engagements. However, democratic societies have a right of oversight of the State’s use of force. Furthermore, responsible armed forces which take all feasible measures to prevent harm to civilians should be able to support these claims through the evidence collected in casualty record.
The process of casualty recording recognises the dignity and rights of victims and their families. This in itself can play an important role in reducing cycles of violence and promoting reconciliation. The detailed information compiled in casualty records supports many outcomes. Casualty data can:
Support accountability processes, including memorialisation, transitional justice and criminal investigations. In Guatemala, Peru and the former Yugoslavia, information on conflict casualties has been used in high level prosecutions.
Support the protection of civilians by providing information to reduce unintended consequences of military activities and improve humanitarian response planning. In Afghanistan and Iraq, evidence on civilian casualties, specifying time, location and circumstances of death has led to a revision of the rules of engagement for soldiers at checkpoints, which has contributed to a reduction in the number of casualties in those situations.
Inform, monitor and improve protection measures aimed at specific populations, including children, women, persons with disabilities, journalists, health workers and older persons.
Enable victims and their families to receive reparation, compensation and access to services, as well as inheritance rights. As of June 2014, the Register of the Victims Unit in Colombia recorded over 6.5 million victims who are entitled to access a range of reparations from the State.
Highlight the unintended and unacceptable harm to civilians caused by the use of certain weapons. Casualty data on anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions helped drive international efforts to ban these weapons, and information on the effects of explosive weapons in populated areas is informing efforts to curb their use.
Although there is no single, explicit source of international law codifying States’ obligation to record all casualties of armed violence, many elements of existing International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and customary international law point to such an obligation, particularly for parties to a conflict. Relevant elements include the obligation to search for all civilians missing as a result of hostilities, to treat the dead with dignity, and to return the remains of the deceased to their relatives wherever possible.