Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Counting the Dead in Darfur

The NY Times ran this piece this morning on the challenge of coming up with estimates of the total dead as a result of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. The problem is common in the face of mass humanitarian disasters: how to estimate death tolls in a place with no birth or death certificates or accurate census data, where complete villages have been destroyed, and where the size and conditions on the battlefield are such that actual counting of bodies is next to impossible. Moreover, survivors are often so traumatized that they cannot be relied on to recount precisely what happened to their family or neighbors. In Darfur, many of the deaths are caused by malnutrition and/or disease arising as a consequence of conflict and displacement. So we have a range of death estimates: the US says 60,000-160,000; one NGO observer, the Coalition for International Justice, puts it at 400,000. Even at the low end, the numbers are horrifying. Ironically, the UN Commission investigating whether genocide had been committed in Darfur was confident in its conclusions that the acts committed did not meet the legal definition of genocide, but refused to estimate an overall count of the dead. The magnitude of the death toll -- by violent or non-violent means -- should be enough to overcome whatever technical legal arguments can be made to oppose more robust outside intervention. (Compare reactions to Darfur with responses to the Tsunami.) Sadly, the discussion of numbers -- large or even larger -- doesn't appear to making too much difference:

[W]hen Darfur's violence mercifully ends, a number will be agreed upon. That number, like the figure of 800,000 for the Rwanda massacre, will be forever appended to the awful events. The rest of the world, slow to react to Darfur, will then have plenty of opportunity to think about it, and wonder why it was able to grow as large as it did.


Blogger Mike Lorrey said...

And of course, the UN will be at the forefront of apologia and excuse making about why it did absolutely nothing about a type of event it was specifically created to prevent.

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