The Body Counts: Civilian Casualties in War


Throughout the post Cold War period there has been a widespread view that war and armed conflict have changed radically since the First World War to the point where some 80-90% of war victims are now civilians. Many modern wars have been accompanied by significant depopulations, along with destruction of infrastructure and resources.

Civilians in war zones may be subject to war atrocities such as air bombardments, mass killings or genocide, while survivors may suffer the psychological aftereffects of witnessing the destruction of war or become victims of remnants of war such as anti-personnel landmines. Civilian casualties is a military term describing non-combatant or civilian persons killed, injured, or imprisoned by military action. The description of civilian casualties includes any form of military action regardless of whether civilians were targeted directly. This differs from the description of collateral damage that only applies to unintentional effects of military action including unintended casualties. Military action, which has the sole purpose of inflicting civilian casualties is illegal under modern rules of war, and is considered to be a war crime or crime against humanity.

Civilian Casualty Ratio : the 80-90% Claim

The civilian casualty ratio in armed conflict is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by a particular belligerent or to casualties in the conflict as a whole. Generating reliable assessment of civilian casualties of war is a notoriously complex process. One problem is the attribution of the label ‘civilian’. Who is a civilian in the context of international armed conflict? And in what way can a civilian become a casualty of war? Another problem is how to find reliable statistics? Although there continues to be much professional discussion about these issues, there is a broad consensus that war has changed significantly since the early twentieth century. In particular in the assumption that overall casualties and direct participation in various modern wars tend to be lower, but the ratio of civilian to military casualties appears to have risen quite dramatically.

Several studies have made similar statements on the proposition that 80 to 90% of victims of modern war are civilians. In his article Lives and Statistics : Are 90% of War Victims Civilians?, Adam Roberts (*), analyses some of these statements. He argues and concludes that ‘certainly these publications have drawn attention to the terrible impact that war has had on civilians populations, but as a generalisation about all wars since 1990 it has been based on shaky foundations’. The indiscriminate adoption of conclusions by others is one example. The ‘80-90%’ generalisation, be it correct or not, certainly contributes to alert the world to the importance of protection civilians in war. But there's the paradox: despite the growth of international humanitarian and human rights law, and  institutions and movements organized around the protection of civilians, civilian casualties in war are disturbingly high.

(*) President of the British Academy and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, Oxford University Department of Politics and International Relations. Emeritus Felow of Balliol College, Oxford.