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The UN and Casualty Recording: Good Practice and the Need for Action

Jacob Beswick and Elizabeth Minor
16 April 2014

Ultimately, the reason we do this is to prevent civilian deaths and injuries. Accurate, impartial and comprehensive data is crucial for advocacy with parties to the conflict, and they listen very carefully to what the United Nations says about civilian casualties. Effective, targeted advocacy with good data effectuates changes in policy and operational and tactical practice. Such change saves lives. – Current UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Human Rights unit staff member, on civilian casualty recording

This report from the Every Casualty programme explores the current state of casualty recording practice and the use of information about casualties within the UN.

It concludes that when the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. However, casualty recording is not currently a widespread practice within the UN system.

The report recommends that the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued, as this would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve.

This report looks at experiences of, and attitudes towards, casualty recording from the perspectives of UN staff based in New York and Geneva that we interviewed. It includes a case study of UN civilian casualty recording by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit. Finally, the report discusses challenges to UN casualty recording, and how these might be met.

The Executive Summary and Recommendations from the report are reproduced below. 

Download the full report as a PDF.


Casualty recording is gaining increased recognition by states, UN experts and civil society organisations worldwide as a practice that can help save lives. In his last report on the Protection of Civilians, the UN Secretary-General raised this agenda and made a recommendation to establish a UN-wide mechanism to record civilian casualties as part of an effort to improve human rights monitoring.

In response to a request by the Group of Friends on the protection of civilians for an overview of existing practice in casualty recording, the Every Casualty programme at Oxford Research Group (ORG) and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) have undertaken research to address the gap in knowledge about state and UN practice in casualty recording. This report is published alongside a joint summary of ORG and AOAV's findings and recommendations, and the results of AOAV's research. ORG previously undertook research into the casualty recording practice of forty organisations, who were predominantly NGOs.

On 16 April 2014 ORG and AOAV launched our research, at an event hosted by the Permanent Mission of Canada in Geneva. Read ORG and AOAV's press release about our research.


Executive summary

UN civilian casualty recording has helped save lives

When the UN systematically records the direct civilian casualties of violent conflict, and acts effectively on this information, this can help save civilian lives. UN civilian casualty recording in Afghanistan has clearly shown this. Because of the potential value of casualty information, a number of the respondents to this study asserted that civilian casualty recording should be an essential first step in UN efforts to support the protection of civilians in armed conflict. In Afghanistan, advocacy based upon robust UN civilian casualty data has helped influence conflict parties to change their behaviour, and decrease the civilian death and injury that they cause. Oxford Research Group’s interviews with UN staff on the subject of casualty recording, primarily focused on the recording of civilian casualties, also showed other benefits to this practice. Using systematic casualty data could contribute to UN operational planning and the assistance of victims and communities, both during and following the cessation of armed conflict. Casualty recording can or has supported the UN with: conflict analysis and situational awareness; humanitarian response and development planning, by helping identify areas of risk and need; programming such as mine action, including risk education; referral to and provision of assistance to survivors; promoting accountability; and advocacy with UN Member States in New York and Geneva as well as within conflict-affected countries, for policies and action to decrease the harm suffered by civilians in armed conflict.

The UN does not generally record the casualties of armed conflict

Despite this, the UN does not systematically record casualties except in very few cases. As such, casualty recording is not a well-defined or widespread practice within the UN, nor is it recognised as an essential activity by the UN. Even where a mandate for it may exist, country-level leadership may not take undertake recording. Alternatively, the responsibility for casualty recording among the UN agencies, departments, and offices present in a country may be unclear. In order for effective civilian casualty recording to be routinely implemented, it must be more widely understood and supported within the UN as a priority activity in the protection of civilians. Its contribution to other action to assist civilians should also be recognised. One of the most important uses of information about casualties for the UN is advocacy for the prevention of future deaths and injuries. Given the difficulty of gaining influence in some political contexts, this may not always succeed. Yet without casualty recording, a key tool for leveraging action for violence reduction is missing, which could have implications for the protection of civilians.

The UN should advance practice and pursue casualty recording as an essential activity

This study concludes that there is a demand for better casualty data in the UN for a range of purposes. While states hold ultimate responsibility for the prompt recording, correct identification and public acknowledgement of the deaths of individuals within their territory, or in territories where the state conducts military operations, the advancement of casualty-recording practice by the UN in conflict-affected countries should be pursued. This would have clear benefits to the work of a range of UN entities, and so to the people that they serve. This report aims to contribute to the advancement of UN casualty-recording practice by: showing the need for casualty recording in different parts of the UN; analysing an example of the effective implementation of UN civilian casualty recording, by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s Human Rights unit; and elaborating key challenges and how these might be met. Essential steps for the development of casualty-recording practice within the UN are given in the recommendations that follow.

The present opportunity to make UN casualty recording systematic should not be missed

The UN is currently implementing the “Rights Up Front Action Plan”, which, amongst other things, is concerned with the improvement of information coordination within the UN. The Action Plan has been developed following the UN’s conclusion that it failed in 2009 to advocate effectively with Member States and conflict parties on information about civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, leading to greater civilian suffering. The initiative presents an opportunity to bring about systematic casualty recording in the UN that supports the protection of civilians, as recommended in the 2013 Secretary-General’s report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. This opportunity has not yet been realised, but should not be missed.


This report demonstrates that advancing and developing casualty-recording practice and the use of casualty data in the UN would benefit the conflict-affected people that the UN serves. This report also shows that good practice already exists within the UN system and should be learned from. 

This study concentrated on the recording of the direct civilian casualties of armed conflict, which provides the scope for the following recommendations. However, consideration should also be given to the value of recording all casualties in order to better support the uses and benefits of this data identified, and to casualty recording in situations of armed violence more broadly.

The recommendations of this study focus on assisting the development of consistent and systematic casualty recording within the UN. Such recording must be credible to Member States and for engaging in dialogue with others, including all conflict parties. While this study does not recommend the specific type of system or systems the UN should implement, it evaluates different possibilities. It may be necessary for specific implementation to vary by context, according to institutional capacities and the operational constraints imposed by any given environment.

Our recommendations are directed primarily at UN entities, which are encouraged to take steps to: firstly, understand the application and benefits of casualty recording across the UN, and determine how the widest range of these could be effectively served; and secondly, design and implement effective casualty recording systems in conflict-affected countries, learning from existing practice. This might include implementing a UN-wide casualty recording system as recommended by the UN Secretary-General.  A single system is one way – but not the only way – to try to ensure that casualty data produced by the UN can be comparable, and that a range of entities can potentially use the information produced.

Member States should raise their awareness of casualty recording and its benefits.  Member States must also provide support for UN casualty recording practice by, for example, approving mandates and resolutions with consistent and clear language calling for casualty recording and its sustained implementation. 

The following recommendations for advancing UN casualty recording are derived from the analysis of interviews with individuals, working in a variety of capacities across a number of UN entities at headquarter-level and in Afghanistan. 

1. Understand the different benefits of and demands for casualty information across the UN

This study demonstrates that casualty recording can support protection and the reduction of harm to civilians in conflict, and contribute to operational planning for humanitarian response and victim assistance.  UN actors should take steps to better understand how information produced through casualty recording relates to the mandates, responsibilities, priorities, and operations of different UN entities. This study focuses on situations of armed conflict, but UN mandates and priorities in other situations of armed violence should also be considered. A fuller identification of information needs and objectives in utilising such information will help mitigate potential conflicts of interest regarding sharing and acting on casualty data, and support the development of a principled and productive approach to advancing casualty recording within the UN.

2. Ensure casualty recording can be sustained throughout the duration of an armed conflict, including post-conflict

Casualty recording serves populations and programming best when it is continually implemented across time, throughout the duration of an armed conflict, including post-conflict. Where its relevance lasts beyond the lifetime of UN programmes, plans should be made for handover and legacy. Given the potential impacts, commitment to sustaining casualty recording requires political support by Member States and UN actors alike. In the case of UN peacekeeping and political missions, for example, clear mandate language can be an advantage, but must also be matched by adequate planning and resourcing.

3. Ensure that the purpose of casualty recording is clear

Effective casualty recording benefits from having clear objectives and outputs. Without such focus, information collection may expend valuable time and resources without contributing, in a focused way, to advocacy or operations. Casualty recording is invariably challenging, and faces limitations that may vary by context. Defining the methods for obtaining the best information under a given set of circumstances can be done more effectively where the purpose that the resulting data must serve is clear. The primary function of the UN’s work to advance casualty recording should be to benefit the conflict-affected populations that the UN serves, through promoting better protection and assistance.

4. In implementing casualty recording, coordinate different UN entities’ needs and activities

Coordination between UN entities focused on human rights, humanitarian response, development and other priorities is necessary for a mutual understanding of what casualty data and analysis are needed at both HQ and field level in different contexts. This includes understanding where the duplication of efforts to produce and act on casualty information might be necessary for mandates, and where it might not. As Part 1 of this report explains, demands for information on casualties made by UN staff at headquarters level (New York and Geneva - UNHQ) tend towards comprehensive, disaggregated information on individuals and incidents. Due focus should be given to what is required by field-based staff, including consideration of potential risks, and the needs of UNHQ should be reconciled with this. Doing so will ensure purpose-driven casualty recording that can be used effectively in the work of UN actors, to benefit the populations in need of protection and assistance.

5. Develop UN-wide principles and standards for casualty recording, building from existing standards

Following discussions of information needs, UN entities should collaboratively design UN-wide principles that can guide casualty-recording practice, and which would help users and advocacy targets to assess the data produced. These principles might refer, for example, to transparency of methodology, impartiality, and mitigating risk. Standards such as the basic points of information about incidents and individuals killed also need to be set, so that any information produced can be useful to the maximum number of actors. Such standards can influence recording methodologies employed, encouraging good practice. In this process of setting principles and standards, lessons should be taken from examples of good practice, such as that of the Human Rights unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA HR) described in Part 2. Oxford Research Group’s own process to develop standards with NGO practitioners, drawing from their experiences and good practices, may also be useful,  as are existing documents such as the ICRC Professional Standards for Protection Work.  The principles and standards developed can also provide a starting point for using casualty information from others such as NGOs in a more effective and standardised way.

6. Determine responsibility for casualty recording, either overall or context-by-context

Once joint principles are agreed upon, determinations of responsibility for recording casualties should be undertaken. This task poses a significant challenge, as it requires deciding between various models of implementation. A standalone entity responsible for casualty recording could be created, or casualty recording could be incorporated within an existing UN entity’s responsibilities. Alternatively, implementation may require undertaking the following in each context: identifying and considering the capacities that can be deployed to achieve a dedicated mechanism; identifying the most practical and achievable mechanisms that nevertheless conform to the standards set; ensuring in design the avoidance of negative impacts on UN entities operating in the same environment as those recording or providing information; and developing understanding as to how casualty recording will relate to different organisational mandates.

7. Develop systems learning from experience within the UN

Future UN development and implementation of casualty recording should learn from experience. Looking to examples such as the work of UNAMA HR, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), as well as the UN’s recent experiences in Sri Lanka, Syria and other contexts, may provide insights into approaches and challenges useful for developing effective practice, both in recording and acting upon information. Sharing of practice in a way that is structured rather than ad-hoc would be beneficial. Consideration should also be given to state practices  and experiences from civil society.  The range of approaches to casualty recording, and what might be most useful or applicable given the constraints of the context and the core purpose of the information, should be considered.  A UN toolkit for casualty recording that can be adapted to context would be beneficial, and should include an effective, field-focused information system and practical guidelines. 

8. Consider the value of harm tracking by conflict parties alongside casualty recording 

Consideration should be given to the complementary roles of civilian harm tracking by conflict parties  and casualty recording. Having both mechanisms facilitates evidence-based discussions between military and non-military actors in conflict environments. All forces should undertake tracking. In Afghanistan the existence of tracking, by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and national forces, alongside UN casualty recording supported the protection of civilians and the reduction of casualties.

Ultimately, casualty-recording systems deployed by UN actors should reflect the range of needs and purposes articulated by different UN entities; information produced through casualty recording should be made accessible (within the UN, to all who can use it to support their activities, as well as publicly as long as it is safe to do so); and the work should be based on the political and practical lessons already learned by the UN in relation to this issue. In this way, casualty recording can contribute to supporting the needs of, and safeguarding the right to life and protected status, of civilians in armed conflict.


Note: The methodology and scope of this study, and it limits, are set out on page 9-10 of the report. If you would like any further information or to see the questionnaires used, please contact Elizabeth Minor, Senior Research Officer, Every Casualty Programme .


For clarifications and comments, please contact:

Elizabeth Minor, Senior Research Officer, Every Casualty Programme 


Further reading and multimedia

Press release with Action on Armed Violence: 'Systematically Recording the Casualties of Armed Violence Can Help Save Lives'

ORG and AOAV's joint summary of findings and recommmendations: 'Casualty Recording: Assessing State and United Nations Practices'

AOAV's report: 'Counting the Cost: Casualty Recording Practices and Realities Around the World'

'Counting the Cost of Conflict': Article on openSecurity by report authors Elizabeth Minor and Serena Olgiati, on value of casualty recording in Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Thailand

'Civilian Casualties: What Counts?': Article on TransConflict by Norah Niland, former head of the Human Rights unit of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, examining the role of the UN in recording civilian casualties

'Casualty Recording and the Law of Armed Conflict': Blog on everycasualty.org by Susan Breau, ORG's legal consultant, analysing the recommendations of AOAV and ORG's reports, and exploring how casualty recording ensures Member State compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict

Podcast on everycasualty.org interviewing the authors of AOAV and ORG's reports


Front page image: The UN building in New York (© Knowsphotos http://flic.kr/p/8kMp9v)


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