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Why an Iraq Body Count?

When the IBC project was first launched, many expressed surprise, puzzlement, even disapproval. Though less prevalent now, misunderstanding about the project's aims still exists.

These pages explain the reasoning behind our work: why we do what we do.

1. The human cost of war must be recorded

1.1 War is an abomination whose defining characteristic is the organised killing of humans.

War’s very existence shames humanity. It causes every imaginable injury and insult to the human body and spirit, every variety of suffering and loss — physical and mental, individual and social, immediate and prolonged. The core and most irreparable effect of war is its planned and efficient destruction of life. Human lives lost to war cannot be balanced by “lives saved,” nor adequately recompensed, because each of us is unique and irreplaceable, and the value of our lives immeasurable.

1.2 Our common humanity demands the recording of war deaths.

There can be no justification for insulating ourselves from knowledge of war’s effects, and it is a matter of simple humanity to record the dead. This means, as a minimum, establishing the basic facts about who was killed, where they were killed, and when they were killed.

1.3 Every individual killed must be identified.

The very minimum level of recording is the confirmation of a person or persons killed at a particular time and place. However we should not be satisfied with that. Each untimely death resulting from war is a profoundly private tragedy, and no collection of facts can ever do it justice. Even so, we must make every effort to obtain as much detail as possible about each person killed, establish beyond doubt his or her identity, and understand the precise circumstances of his or her death. It is our shared responsibility to preserve a historical record of war, and priority should be given to knowledge of its casualties.

1.4 We must use every available means to record and preserve knowledge of the dead.

Whatever the practical barriers there can be no moral justification for refusing to record war deaths by every available means, except where doing so risks further loss of life. An immediate responsibility is to preserve knowledge of those deaths already verified but lost from view because their publication has been piecemeal and highly dispersed.

2. Knowledge of war deaths must be available to all

2.1 The record of a war’s casualties must be made public.

It is our firm belief that all information about war related deaths belongs in the public domain. Only when people fully understand the consequences of war, assisted by detailed information of high quality, can they make informed decisions about the use of military force. There is no more serious consequence of war than the killing of civilians, and the public deserves to know all it can about it. Making information accessible on the internet is currently the most cost-effective way of providing global public access. Resources permitting, all of the output from IBC’s work is intended for such access.

2.2 Knowledge of war’s casualties promotes a human-centred approach to conflict.

1 Now the Human Security Unit at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Recent decades have seen the growth of a new human-centred understanding of conflict which places the security needs of ordinary people above the interests of regimes or state powers. The UN-sponsored Commission on Human Security with its focus on “protecting and empowering people” gave official voice to this approach.1 The Iraq Body Count project is an application of this human-centred ethic to Iraq, using methods which have the potential to be applied to other conflicts. It gathers information about the price exacted on ordinary people by the ravages of war, and makes this information as available as possible to ordinary people.