Failure to count Iraqi casualties is irresponsible, say experts

03/09/05

News: BMJ Volume 330, p 557/Editorial: Counting the dead in Iraq BMJ Volume 330, pp 550-1

An international group of public health experts has accused the British and American governments of being "wholly irresponsible" over their failure to count Iraqi casualties.

In a statement published online by the BMJ today, 24 experts from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Spain, Italy and Australia call for an independent inquiry into Iraqi war-related casualties. "We believe that the joint US/UK failure to make any effort to monitor Iraqi casualties is, from a public health perspective, wholly irresponsible," they write.

They argue that the British government's reliance on Iraqi Ministry of Health figures is "unacceptable." These figures "are likely seriously to underestimate casualties," since they do not take into account deaths during the first 12 months since the invasion, only include violent deaths reported through the health system, and they do not allow for reliable attribution between different causes of death and injury.

The inadequacy of the current US/UK policy was highlighted when the Lancet published research suggesting that Iraq had suffered around 100,000 excess deaths since the 2003 invasion, but the UK government rejected this survey as unreliable.

The experts call for a large, scientifically independent study to "remove uncertainties that remain," but both the British and American governments contend that they have no legal responsibility to count civilian casualties.

A Foreign Office spokesman told the BMJ: "We continue to feel that the Iraqi Ministry of Health figures are the best available in an uncertain situation, being based on an actual head count instead of extrapolation. In the current security climate, more accurate research is not feasible."

Professor Klim McPherson, public health epidemiologist at Oxford University, and instigator of the statement, said: "Basically this is a response to the government's continuing procrastination. Counting casualties can help to save lives both now and in the future … we have waited too long for this information."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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