On 25 October 2018, the Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations organized a side event entitled “Data-Driven Protection and Arms Control: How Civilian Casualty Recording and Civilian Harm Tracking Can Strengthen the Protection of Civilians and Arms Control”. The panel discussion was moderated by Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, Permanent Representative of Austria to the United Nations in Geneva.
Ms. Chloé Marnay-Baszanger, Chief of the Peace Mission Support Section at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, shared her reflections on data gathering practices developed in Afghanistan during a project to count and report civilian casualties. In this context, Ms. Marnay-Baszanger stressed the importance of establishing a clear scope for any collection of casualty data in conflict areas.
The project’s methodology consisted of deploying human rights officers to medical facilities and affected communities to collect first-hand data that was later corroborated with military and satellite information, Ms. Marnay-Baszanger said. She argued that the collected data is accurate enough to provide useful context to discussions on counter-terrorism operations.
The data-collection practice developed in Afghanistan was later implemented in Somalia, Iraq and Mali, primarily to track civilian casualties, Ms. Marnay-Baszanger said. It is important to engage civilians in conflict areas, she emphasized, because “the more the population hates you, the less likely they will support any military intervention”. Speaking with civilians about how military operations and other activities are affecting them can yield useful information both for understanding related risks and for finding better means of protecting local populations, she added.
Mr. Michael Spies, Political Affairs Officer at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, opened his remarks by mentioning the Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda and the importance of collecting authoritative data on arms. The “Disarmament Agenda recognizes that today’s armed conflicts are more complex, more protracted and more lethal for civilians”, he said.
Mr. Spies said there is a growing understanding that weapons designed for open battlefields have devastating and foreseeable impacts on civilians and civilian objects when used in populated areas. He noted that specific casualty-recording efforts may only focus on certain weapons of concern—such as improvised explosive devices, cluster munitions or landmines—without addressing other weapons used in a given context.
Existing United Nations mechanisms currently report only limited or general information on the arms attributed to civilian casualties, Mr. Spies said. Citing an example, he said that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan counts civilian casualties under several broad categories of “incident type”, including aerial operations; explosive remnants of war; targeted/deliberate killings; ground engagements; combined improvised explosive devices; and other.
The collection of disaggregated arms data, Mr. Spies added, is therefore central to an underlying objective in the Secretary-General’s Disarmament Agenda: integrating disarmament into the priorities of the whole UN system and promoting new partnerships and greater collaboration within the Organization as well as with Governments and civil society.
As this methodology is developed and more UN missions introduce casualty-recording mechanisms, “we look forward to working with all interested entities on practically supporting this work, including through the possible development of training, handbooks and other practical measures”, Mr. Spies concluded.
As the event concluded, Ms. Marnay-Baszanger said that obtaining data in a conflict area can be difficult, as the sex or age of a victim sometimes cannot be identified following the use of a highly destructive weapon.
Drafted by Ester Rivarola