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Interview with Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence

Professor Spagat interviews Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence about the AOAV Explosive Violence Monitor and his views on casualty recording.
I’m here now with Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence. Thank you for joining us today. Action on Armed Violence– or AoAV– maintains an explosive weapons monitor. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Yeah. We’ve been running it since 2010. We’ve had seven and a bit years now of total data. And what we do is we just look at English language media reporting. And we take from that any instance of a single incident of an explosive violent attack that has led to one or more individuals being either killed or injured. And we record that in as much detail as we can glean from a reliable media source. And then we do that every single day.
And at the end of the month, we do monthly tallies. And at the end of the year, we do a monthly analysis. So by coincidence, you’re actually here on the day that you released the yearly analysis. Indeed. We found in 2017 that there was a 38% increase in civilian deaths from explosive violence compared to 2016. And this was largely pushed forward by a sudden uptick in airstrikes that we’ve seen in Syria, in Iraq, and Yemen, and in other parts of the world. But essentially a driving force of civilian deaths from last year was found to be at the hands of airstrikes. So what exactly do you cover? It’s all explosions that you’re able to find in the English language press.
Do they have to be deliberate attacks or do you have any accidental explosions? We have a small minority of accidental explosions. But generally, we try to analyse those where it is explicitly explosive violence. There have been moments where we’re not entirely sure whether it was an accident or intentional, because obviously in a number of cases non-state actors don’t immediately claim for an attack. And so we will always err on the side of caution and then put it in the question mark box, [INAUDIBLE].. But for instance, a few years ago there was a Japanese pensioner who blew himself up in Tokyo. And we recorded that as a suicide bombing because three people were also harmed in that attack.
But it may well have just been an act of despair that was not intended to harm anyone in the process. What is the minimum amount of information you have to have in order to record an event? So in many ways it’s probably easier to describe it as what we don’t record. So if, let’s say, The Independent newspaper reported over 100 people were killed last week in Syria in explosive violence. We would not record that. That would be insufficient. If The Times reported yesterday there were seven strikes with 63 people injured in Damascus, we would not report that. What we expect is there to be an articulated single event that is discrete and separate from other events.
And we record over a 24-hour period in a specific geolocation how many people would be injured or killed in that event. We leave at 24 hours because obviously there’s a lag time between a blast and maybe somebody being killed from that blast due to extreme injuries. And we also revisit stories a couple of weeks later to make sure that the casualty number hasn’t increased. OK, that’s good. And what is the maximum amount of information– that is, all of your fields that you would like to fill in if you could.
So it would be time; place; the perpetrator; the number of people injured; the number of people killed; the type of weapon broken down into various categories, whether it’s air strike, ground-launched, or improvised explosive device; the subcategories of various weapons as well; gender of the victims; age of the victims– so we’re interested if children were harmed; and then any other extraneous circumstances that might be relevant towards a wider recording. So if something came out that it was a unique type of explosion, or if something came out that, for instance, it was an explosion accompanied by AK-47 attacks, we would also include that. What would you say are the main insights that this project has generated over the years?
When it comes to our data, we acknowledge that what we’re merely recording is trends and patterns as reported by English language media. And there are challenges in there, and I don’t deny that. But nonetheless, I think that our data over the years shows that our English language media reporting is sufficient for its purpose, which is to identify trends and patterns happening in the utilisation of explosive violence. And the reason I say this is because despite the acknowledgment that we’re not getting every single explosive violence incident, the patterns of explosive violence have been remarkably similar over time.
So in 2010, ‘11, ‘12, ‘13, ‘14, ‘15, ‘16, every single year the number of civilians, the number of people killed or injured in what we call populated areas who are civilians, has been between 89% and 94%. So that statistically I think is a significant finding. OK. So let’s pause and reflect on that. So what you’re saying is that when there are explosions in densely-populated areas– Yes. –roughly 90% of people killed or injured have been civilians. That’s what we’ve found. And that is a consistent finding using our methodology over time. OK. Thank you very much for a great interview, Iain. Thank you.

In this video I interview Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV).

Full disclosure – I am on the Board for Action on Armed Violence.

Casualty recording often feeds into political activism. For example, AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor supports the work the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) which calls “for immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.”


  1. When research is closely connected with advocacy there is a danger that research findings might be distorted to support advocacy goals. How can casualty recording work avoid this trap?
  2. Do the principles of good casualty recording practice help to prevent advocacy goals from overwhelming research goals?

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.

At my request Chris provided the following bio:

Iain Overton is the director of Action on Armed Violence, a charity that investigates the impact of explosive weapons and small arms on civilians around the world. He has been witness to the devastating impact of armed violence on numerous occasions and has reported on conflict or extremes of violence in Pakistan, Philippines, Kosovo, Nagorno Karabakh, Colombia, Honduras, Iraq, Solomon Islands, Mexico, the West Bank, Somalia and Liberia, among others. His human rights reporting has been awarded a Peabody Award, two Amnesty Awards and a BAFTA Scotland, among others.

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