The highs and lows of a long week for casualty recorders

From advocacy breakthroughs at the UN to the devastating death of one of our own, it has been an intense week for the casualty recording community and our allies.

Every Casualty Counts’ Advocacy Director Rachel Taylor, shares her thoughts on the events as they happened.

Casualty recorders are human rights defenders

This week, at the Human Rights Council’s 53rd session, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presented its report on the impact of casualty recording on the promotion and protection of human rights (A/HRC/53/48). The report was requested by the Council in a resolution adopted at its 50th session, following intense advocacy by Every Casualty Counts and a core group of supportive states. We and our Casualty Recorders Network members contributed extensively to the report drafting process and we were pleased to find it received almost universal support from states participating in the meeting. (Copies of states’ remarks and OHCHR’s presentation are available online, as are ECC’s statements.)

We have long campaigned for casualty recording to be recognised as a human rights obligation of states, and not only a matter for humanitarian law. Earlier this year, we published ‘Casualty Recording in Human Rights and Humanitarian Law’, a report which emphasises the numerous provisions in both international and regional human rights instruments which detail states’ casualty recording obligations. Notably, during last year’s negotiations on the resolution mandating OHCHR’s report, several states had expressed doubts about the positioning of casualty recording within the human rights agenda. Some argued that this was an issue of international humanitarian law, which should be addressed in humanitarian fora or the Security Council. However, when the report was presented this week only one state – Venezuela – repeated this objection. (Venezuela’s hostility to addressing casualty recording at the Human Rights Council may have been influenced by the fact that Venezuela is currently subject, against its consent, to a Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into widespread human rights violations, including unlawful killings and enforced disappearances.)

Answers for Syrian families

Several states, including delegations from the Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe regional groups spoke supportively on the importance of casualty recording with a passion arising from painful national experience. The US delegation encouraged all violence-affected states to develop national casualty recording systems, and raised the possibility of developing an international casualty recording mechanism. This suggestion reflects favourably on the continued evolution within the US military and government of national policy on casualty tracking by its armed forces. It was also likely inspired, at least in part, by the successful adoption last week of a General Assembly resolution mandating the creation of a new, independent institution ‘to clarify the fate and whereabouts of all missing persons’ in the Syrian Arab Republic. Since the conflict began in 2011, tens of thousands of people have been forcibly disappeared or gone missing, in addition to the hundreds of thousands known to have died. Relatives of the missing have campaigned for more than a decade for the right to know the fate of their loved ones.

Presenting the report on behalf of the High Commissioner, Peggy Hicks (Director of OHCHR’s Thematic Engagement, Special Procedures and Right to Development Division) reiterated some of the most fundamental challenges to effective and universal casualty recording: resourcing which is both prompt and long-term; mutually coherent and compatible approaches; access to information; and security.

Victoria Amelina

The last point is a painful one, which has overshadowed the campaigning successes this week. On the morning that OHCHR’s report was presented to the Council, we heard the news that Ukrainian author-turned-war-crimes-investigator Victoria Amelina had died from injuries she sustained in a Russian missile strike on Kramatorsk on 27 June.

I met Victoria only once, almost exactly a year ago, when she came to London alongside Oleksandra Matviichuk to participate in a discussion at the Houses of Parliament on civilian casualties in Ukraine. Alongside other Ukrainian writers, journalists and activists, since the full-scale Russian invasion Victoria had turned her professional skills to the task of documenting war crimes against civilians. The hideous irony that her work became her fate is, tragically, not unique among those involved in recording casualties.

Victoria’s life and work have been featured in media outlets around the world this week. She is recognised in the public record, as she deserves to be. Other victims of armed conflict, whoever they were and wherever they died, deserve the same. Those who searched frantically for updates on Victoria’s condition following the missile strike last week did not do so because she was a prominent author. They did it because, like every other casualty, she was a beloved friend, colleague, neighbour.

Success and tragedy

At the global level, this has been a good week for casualty recording. The positive reception to OHCHR’s report, the potential this generates for further action, and the creation of the missing persons institution for Syria, are important steps towards a future where every life lost in armed conflict is accounted for. These were hard-won developments which, a few years ago, were far from guaranteed.

At the personal level, it has been a week of anger and sadness. The addition of one more name to a list of thousands will always be heartbreaking if it’s the name of someone you knew. Victoria Amelina is one such name within our community. There have been others before her, and we know there will be more to come. These are the extraordinary people who risk everything to let the world know for whom each bell tolls; it tolls for them.

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