Congolese war survivors. Ferruccio Gobbi photo

Just How Many Congolese Were Killed in War?

Five million or 200,000, the number matters 

In the U.K.’s House of Lords on Feb. 3, 2010, members of parliament debated expanding Great Britain’s aid to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of several overlapping security and humanitarian crises. “Some five million people have died there since 1998,” said Lord David Alton of Liverpool. “It is the most deadly conflict since World War II.”

Alton based his figure of five million Congolese war deaths on a widely-cited 2008 report from the International Rescue Committee. The IRC report claimed 5.4 million Congolese had died of war-related causes between 1998 and 2007. The causes included starvation, disease and combat between government forces and rebel groups.

But one university group has challenged the IRC’s report, and cast into doubt widely-used methods for calculating war deaths in conflicts all over the world. The Human Security Report from Simon Fraser University in Canada’s British Columbia, updated annually, rejects the IRC’s Congo estimates as being based on “questionable methodological assumptions.” The university report instead endorses a Belgian study that found just 200,000 Congolese war deaths between 1998 and 2004.

The debate over war deaths in the DRC raises important questions about the way developed countries quantify warfare’s human cost. After all, the apparent severity of a conflict, based on death tolls, drives international intervention. The Human Security Report notes that the value of humanitarian aid to the DRC jumped fivefold following the IRC’s initial war-death report in 2000 — and the U.N. added to what would become the largest peacekeeping force in the world, some 20,000 strong.

A report claiming a high death toll can be a politically powerful tool, Jennifer Cooke, an Africa analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Medium. But accuracy matters, not only regarding the total number deaths, but also when it comes to specifying exactly how people died. A report “can say something about how we focus our response,” Cooke said.

At the heart of the debate over the dead in the DRC conflict is the IRC’s assumptions regarding the “normal” death rate in the country. War-death studies begin by assessing a baseline, peacetime mortality rate for a country, then attempting to establish wartime mortality rates. The difference between the two, multiplied by the total population and the duration of the conflict, renders the total for “war deaths.”

But if baseline mortality rate is assessed too low, it results in extremely high death tolls for the conflict. That’s exactly what the IRC did in the DRC, the Human Security Report claims. “It is this sudden increase from a very low –– we believe too low –– baseline mortality rate that creates the IRC’s huge cumulative excess death toll.”

To be fair, it is extremely difficult for any group to reliably calculate mortality rates in a country as remote and under-developed as the DRC, Cooke said. “How much of this [debate] might have been going on simply because it’s so remote and unreachable [even] without conflict?” she asked rhetorically.

Logistical difficulties aside, the IRC’s numbers don’t really feel right, John Campbell, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations, told Medium. “We’re talking about conflict amongst various groups, particularly groups of irregulars.”

And that kind of irregular conflict, as opposed to state-on-state mechanized warfare, tends to result in lower death tolls, according to the Human Security Report. “Warfare is less deadly in large part because wars today are fought with smaller armies, fewer engagements and lesser weapons systems, and so kill far fewer people on the battlefield and generate far less societal destruction than those of the Cold War era.”

Still, Campbell said the IRC’s potentially inaccurate figures could prove useful — for they have shock value that might draw world attention to a poorly-understood conflict. “Anything that tends to remind people that something hellacious is going on is a good thing.”

For her part, Cooke stressed “being skeptical and a bit dispassionate,” for too much attention on one conflict might detract from efforts to address an even worse, but less “popular” crisis. She cited the example of Darfur, the region of western Sudan where ethnic fighting killed potentially hundreds of thousands of people. Some officials have labeled it “genocide.” Alarming death tolls coming out of the Darfur crisis helped raise billions of dollars in international aid and prompted the deployment of a large U.N. peacekeeping force.

“Is genocide still happening?” Cooke asked. “It turns out there are more deaths in South Sudan at the moment,” she continued, referring to the breakaway region of Sudan. The South Sudan conflict has never had the public allure of the seemingly more easily-understood Darfur conflict. “But for activist groups in Washington, the [Darfur death] numbers are still out there because it prompts policy action.”

To fairly apportion aid and security efforts to the world’s conflict zones, “it’s worth being a bit more analytical,” Cooke said.

Originally published by World Politics Review.