ORG's legal consultant, Susan Breau, was interviewed by ABC South Australia last week about our legal team’s finding that an obligation exists in international law to record all the casualties of conflict, civilian and combatant. The responsibilities include searching for and identifying civilian casualties, and notifying the family, as there is a “right of the family to know the fate of its relative, and that’s an international human right”. This is the extended version of the interview.
Prof Breau argues that:
It matters because there is such an issue these days with civilian casualties of armed conflict, and there’s such a debate about how many lives are being lost during wars, and yet we don’t really have the answer to that.
There are a number of responsibilities on any state that engages in armed conflict:
To search for casualties, to identify the casualty (were they civilian or combatant?), to notify the family (...). One of the most important parts of the responsibility is the right of the family to know the fate of its relative, and that’s an human right, an international human right.
When asked whether states are likely to want to undertake this obligation, given the bad publicity this may result in, Prof Breau responds:
I argue exactly the reverse, that in fact when you don’t account for civilian casualties, and this is what happened in the Iraq conflict very much so to the parties involved, civilian casualties can be exaggerated. Statistics can be done whereby one death suddenly becomes 10 deaths, if you don’t have an accurate record, the state can be accused of killing many more people than actually die in the armed conflict.
It’s not only states, in fact I argue that groups such as the Taliban should be doing the same thing, they have an international responsibility to account for their civilian casualties. And the argument of course is that they’re not going to do it and some rouge states such as Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya will not do it, Syria will not do it, but do we really want to be in the same club as countries like that? I mean the point is we want to be respectful of international law and by and large we are.
Media coverage on this issue:
‘Drone Warfare: Cost and Challenge’, Paul Rogers on OpenDemocracy
‘Report Questions Legality of Drone Strikes’, Time.com
'Hit and Run' Drone Strikes Are 'Breaking Laws of War', Channel 4
Read More From ORG:
The discussion paper that this coverage is based on: ‘Discussion Paper: Drone Attacks, International Law, and the Recording of Civilians of Armed Conflict’
Press release on this finding: 'Press Release: Drones Don't Allow Hit and Run - If You Use Drones You Must Confirm and Report Who They Killed, Says Legal Team'
The original discussion paper identifying the legal obligation to record casualties: 'Discussion Paper: The Legal Obligation to Record Civilian Casualties of Armed Conflict'
Our paper discussing different efforts to record the casualties of drone attacks in Pakistan: ‘Working Paper: The Drone Wars and Pakistan’s Conflict Casualties, 2010’