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Interview with John Sloboda of Every Casualty Worldwide

Professor Spagat interviews John Sloboda, co-founder of Every Casualty Worldwide about the purpose, activities and achievements of the organization.
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So I’m here now with John Sloboda who is one of the founders of Every Casualty Worldwide. So John, can you tell me the motivation for starting this Every Casualty project in the first place? Well, Hamit Dardagen and myself founded the Iraq Body Count project in 2003, which was a casualty recording project to look at civilian victims in the Iraq war. And as we worked on this project, people from around the world started approaching us and saying, well, there were people dying in other conflicts. Will you expand your project to Lebanon or whatever war happened to be happening? And we realised two things about that. One that we didn’t have the capacity to do that ourselves.
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We were focused on Iraq, but secondly there was this huge need and gap that all over the world there was this expressed sense that casualties needed to be recorded. But there wasn’t a system or a procedure or a kind of reference group in place for people to get that kind of project going. And so we thought, well, there actually needs to be a global project to match our local project, which is about promoting casualty recording as a practise around the world. Right.
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So something that, perhaps, a lot of people wrongly assume, and it’s maybe worth clearing up, is that the organisation, Every Casualty Worldwide, for which I’m actually on the board, that this organisation is actually recording casualties all over the world. And that it took on this project of trying to fill this global gap. And this is not exactly true. That’s not exactly true. So people, when they hear about us say, oh, what’s your figure for Syria? Or what’s your figure for Georgia? And we have to say, no, we are not collecting the data in all these places.
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We are trying to develop and help others develop the systems, the impetus, the political will, and the tools so that when that is done, it’s done to proper standards. So it’s more like a professional association for casualty recording organisations around the world. But it’s actually individual governments, individual NGOs who need to step up and do this work in the various conflicts. Yes. And can you tell us something about the goals of this organisation and this project? So the goals are very clearly encapsulated in the call of a philosophical statement called the charter, which we actually agreed with other partners around the world back in 2011.
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And it’s a call on states to ensure that every casualty of armed violence is properly recorded, correctly identified, and publicly acknowledged. Now there’s quite a lot of detail to be unpacked in that statement. But that, in a nutshell, is what the Every Casualty programme is aiming towards. A world where no casualty in any conflict goes unrecorded. So far in describing the work of Every Casualty Worldwide you’ve really talked about this campaign aspect. But there’s another part of the work as well, which is this setting of standards. So perhaps you want to discuss this. So there’s a more technical, almost scientific aspect to all of this work.
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It began with us actually doing some groundbreaking and fundamental research to find out what casualty recording is actually going on around the world right now. Who’s doing it and what it looks like. And what we did it was we commissioned a piece of research, which is summarised in this book called Towards the Recording of Every Casualty, which is a study of 40 casualty recorders of different sorts around the world, which involved intensive interviews with the staff of all of these recorders, and then the pulling out of the picture or the map, if you like, of the types of casualty recording that are going on. And they’re quite varied.
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And that is because according to the stage of the conflict, you need a different kind of process. So as the conflict is raging, you need to grab as much as you can. But it’s very often very difficult to get in to highly dangerous areas and do that more detailed work. So when the conflict ends, it’s possible to do different kinds of work, including, in some cases of the 40 we studied, people who would actually be disinterring remains and doing DNA matching in order to identify victims in mass graves. Many organisations do some form of casualty recording. And some of these are states or UN mandated organisations.
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But a lot of them keep the detail of the data to themselves for a variety of reasons. Some which are understandable. Some which are perhaps not so good. And they will just come out from time to time saying in a particular year, or in a particular month, 675 civilians were killed. And that’s it. And then they go away. Now what the standards say is that isn’t useful. Because if another group publishes some data and said, well, we’ve got 720 civilian deaths, you don’t know whether that’s a different 720 to the 675 of the first organisation, or whether there’s some overlap. So how do you resolve that?
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You can only resolve that if you can get to the level of detail of individual incidents. And this is what’s called disaggregated data. So what is most useful is a database, a spreadsheet or however you’d like to describe it, which describes each incident of lethal violence in terms of these features which we’ve already talked about. Date, time, place, weapon, perpetrator, numbers killed, and whatever other detail there is available. And then you can knit two data sets together and say, ah, that’s the same one in both data sets, so we won’t double count that. It’s also very, very politically useful to ward off certain kinds of attacks.
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So what you find very often is a casualty recorder sets up in a particular domain. And immediately people start saying you’re inflating the numbers. So if you are open and transparent about your data, you can simply say, well here are the incidents. Tell us which one of these incidents didn’t happen and therefore shouldn’t be in the database. Provide your evidence and we’ll take it out. Or alternatively, people say that’s a vast underestimate. There are thousands more people killed than in your database. And then the invitation is equal. Well, provide the data and provide the source of something that’s missing from our database, and we’ll add it. OK. Thank you very much.
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I’m sure that everybody will find this a very interesting interview. Thanks for coming in. Thank you.

In this video, I interview John Sloboda who is Co-Director of Every Casualty Worldwide with Hamit Dardagan, with whom he also co-founded Iraq Body Count in 2002.

Full disclosure – I am on the Board of Every Casualty Worldwide (ECW) which we discuss in this interview.

Casualty recording work is often controversial. Casualty recorders are sometimes physically attacked. And, more frequently, their work is attacked. Of course, casualty recording work should not be placed above criticism. Indeed, incisive criticism can help can help any research project to develop and grow and casualty recording projects are not exempt from this rule.

Criticisms of casualty recording projects are varied but John mentions two common ones in the interview. The first is that a project is claiming to document deaths that did not really happen. The second is that a project has failed to document many deaths that did really happen. He has a generic response to each of these two criticisms.

Activity

  1. What do you think of John’s responses?
  2. Are they equally strong?
  3. What are their weaknesses?
  4. How might the principles of good casualty recording practice help in arguments of the type that John envisions?

Please think through these issues and post your thoughts, ideas and questions in the comments area. It would be great if you can also read and respond to the comments of your fellow learners, as always in a respectful manner.

Also, you might want to bookmark some of your thoughts for possible redeployment for the discussion activity at the end of this Casualty Recording activity.

Upon my request John provided the following bio:

From 2004 to 2009 he was Executive Director of Oxford Research Group, and with Paul Rogers and Chris Abbott he was co-author of “Beyond Terror: the Truth about the Real Threats to Our World” (Rider, 2007). With Elizabeth Minor he is co-author of “The Range of Sources in Casualty Recording” (Oxford Research Group, 2012). He is also Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Keele, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a member of the advisory board of openbriefing.org. He has written on peace and security issues for a number of publications including opendemocracy.net.

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Accounting for Death in War: Separating Fact from Fiction

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