Civilian casualties in the three-year horror in Yemen has been vastly underestimated by mainstream organizations, reports Nicolas Davies.
Total Deaths in Yemen
Top More Than 100,000
By Nicolas J. S. Davies
An NGO responsible for reporting on war deaths in Yemen has acknowledged that it has underestimated the casualties in the three-year-old conflict by at least five to one.
Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project had originally estimated that about 10,000 people had been killed in the war in Yemen, roughly the same number reported by the World Health Organization. WHO surveys are regularly cited as estimates of war deaths in Yemen by UN agencies and the world’s media. But ACLED now estimates the true number of people killed in Yemen is probably between 70,000 and 80,000.
ACLED’s estimates do not include the thousands of Yemenis who have died from the war’s indirect consequences, such as starvation and preventable diseases like diphtheria and cholera. UNICEF reported in December 2016 that a child was dying every 10 minutes in Yemen, and the humanitarian crisis has only worsened since then. At that rate the total of all deaths caused directly and indirectly by the war must by now be more than one hundred thousand.
Another NGO, the Yemen Data Project, revealed in September 2016 that at least a third of Saudi-led airstrikes, many of which involve U.S.-built and (until Friday U.S.-refueled warplanes) using U.S.-made bombs, were hitting hospitals, schools, markets, mosques, and other civilian targets. This has left at least half the hospitals and health facilities in Yemen damaged or destroyed, according to the Yemen Data Project, leaving them hardly able to treat the casualties of the war or serve their communities, let alone to compile meaningful figures for the WHO’s surveys.
Even comprehensive surveys of fully functioning hospitals would capture only a fraction of the violent deaths in a war-torn country like Yemen, where most of those killed in the war do not die in hospitals. And yet the UN and the world’s media have continued to cite the WHO surveys as reliable estimates of the total number of people killed in Yemen.
In a three-part series for Consortium News in April, I claimed that such estimates of civilian deaths in U.S. war zones were likely to be dramatically wrong because that is what epidemiologists have found whenever they have conducted serious mortality studies based on well-established statistical principles in war zones around the world.
Epidemiologists recently used some of the same techniques to estimate that about 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Studies in war-ravaged Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been widely cited by Western political leaders and the Western media with no hint of controversy.
Some of the same public health experts who had worked in Rwanda and Congo used the same methods to estimate how many people had been killed as a result of the U.S. and U.K.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. In two studies they published in the Lancet medical journal in 2004 and 2006, they found that about 600,000 people had been killed in the first three years of war and occupation.
Broad acceptance of these results would have been politically disastrous for the U.S. and UK governments. It would also have further discredited the Western media that had supported the invasion of Iraq and were still blaming the Iraqi victims of the illegal invasion of their country for the violence and chaos of the occupation. The British Defence Ministry’s chief scientific advisor described the Lancet studies’ design as “robust” and their methods as “close to best practice,” and British officials admitted privately that they were “likely to be right.“ The U.S. and UK governments nonetheless launched a concerted campaign to discredit them.
No Scientific Basis
In 2005, as American and British officials and their acolytes in the corporate media discounted his work, Les Roberts, the lead author of the 2004 study, told the UK media watchdog Media Lens, “It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.”
Roberts, at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health at the time of the 2004 study and now at Columbia, accurately said there was no legitimate scientific basis for the objections being raised to his work and its results. But it was not so odd that embattled political leaders would use all the tools at their disposal to try to salvage their careers and reputations—and to preserve the U.S. and UK’s future freedom of action to destroy countries that stand in their way.
By 2005, most Western journalists in Iraq were hunkered down in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, reporting mainly from the CENTCOM briefing room. If they ventured out, they were embedded with U.S. forces traveling by helicopter or armored convoy between fortified U.S.bases. Dahr Jamail was one of a few brave, un-embedded Americans reporting from Iraq. (He later named his book about his time there Beyond the Green Zone.) Dahr told me he thought the true number of Iraqis killed might well be even higher than the Lancet studies’ estimates and that it was certainly not much lower, as the Western propaganda machine insisted it was.
Unlike Western governments and the Western media in the Iraq case, and UN agencies and the same Western media in Afghanistan and Yemen, ACLED does not defend its earlier, inadequate estimates of war deaths in Yemen. Instead, it is conducting a thorough review of its sources to come up with a more realistic estimate of how many people have been killed. Working back from the present, it now estimates that 56,000 people have been killed since January 2016.
Andrea Carboni of ACLED told Patrick Cockburn of The Independent newspaper in Britain that he believes ACLED’s estimate of the number killed in three and a half years of war on Yemen will be between 70,000 and 80,000 once it has finished reviewing its sources back to March 2015, when Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and their allies started the war.
But the true number of people killed in Yemen is inevitably even higher than ACLED’s revised estimate. As I explained in my Consortium News report, no such effort to count the dead by reviewing media reports, hospital records, and other “passive” sources, no matter how thoroughly, can ever fully count the dead amid the widespread violence and chaos of a country ravaged by war.
This is why epidemiologists have developed statistical techniques to produce more accurate estimates of how many people have really been killed in the world’s war zones. The world still waits for that kind of genuine accounting of the true human cost of the Saudi-U.S. war in Yemen and, indeed, of all America’s post-9/11 wars.
A earlier version of this article appeared on CounterPunch.
Nicolas J.S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapter on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.
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