Is there such a thing as an unknown civilian?

I was in Dublin last month as 82 governments came together to sign the Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas political declaration.

To start the day I took part in a moving ceremony unveiling the Memorial to the Unknown Civilian in the grounds of Dublin Castle, organised by the incredible folks at Humanity and Inclusion and INEW.

In the early morning sunshine it was a moment to pause. To reflect. To think of the thousands of civilians who have needlessly lost their lives in conflicts they weren’t even fighting.

At the ceremony, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Izumi Nakamitsu said something which I’ve thought of many times since:

“But they were not unknown. Remember that they all have a name. Known by those who love them”.


It’s such a simple, elegant and obvious observation.

There really is no such thing as an unknown civilian. Each of these people were of course known:

To their families.

To their friends.

To their classmates.

Indeed, the idea of the unknown has become so familiar to many of us. I would argue too familiar.

Here in the UK, we have the Grave of the Unknown Warrior – or Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to some – which plays a role in our national remembrance each November.

Yet increasingly, I’ve come to think of the unknown as less rightful acknowledgement and more admission of failure.

A failure of power. Of politics. Of priorities.

A failure to respect those people killed, to ensure their dignity, and uphold rights of those they leave behind. There’s a hint even of ‘inevitable’ collateral damage with its whisper of acceptability.

And this failure continues today.

Despite our huge leaps in forensic science and other ingenious ways to identify people, thousands of people are killed in conflicts every year who stay unrecorded. Nameless.

This is a collective failure.

That’s why I – and all of us at Every Casualty Counts – are passionate about our mission to make sure every person killed by armed violence is recorded and remembered.

As the person they were – with a name, with people they loved, and who loved them back.

The time has surely come to end the unknown.


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