Civilian Deaths During Armed Conflicts

By Dialogo
January 07, 2013

The wars and conflicts throughout history have always had a distinctive characteristic of high casualties among the civilian population. Ordinary people, who had nothing to do with the combat, would end up losing their lives to aerial bombing, artillery fire, and landmines, which specialists conceptualized as collateral damage.

The 20th century, an era linked to the arms industry development where two world wars and hundreds of other internal conflicts took place, is the historical champion of civilian deaths, reaching a staggering total of 110 million people killed, among them, 20 million children.

It has been estimated that during World War I, 6.5 million civilians were killed, in a period when new technologies were used in the battlefield, such as aerial bombs, and the use of gases and landmines, which were still incipient novelties. However, in World War II, which was characterized by the use of devastation zone techniques, and where there had been no target selection among the combatants and non-combatants, the numbers increased to 31.5 million, or 4 percent of the world population at the time.

The Cambodian Civil War (1970) killed 2.5 million civilians; 60 percent of whom died of starvation and diseases in the extermination camps. In Vietnam (1965-1975) there was an estimated number of two million victims, a majority of them the result of chemical agents and fragmentation bombs. The Soviet invasion in Afghanistan (1979) resulted in one million deaths among the Afghan population. In Kosovo (1998), approximately 18,000 people were killed.

One would expect that the impact of the wars against the civilian population would be reduced in the 21st century. However, that has not happened yet, despite the technological advancement in weapons of mass destruction, unmanned aerial vehicles, and missile precision systems, as well as other weapons. During the United States’ War of Terror (2001-2010), unofficial records reveal 2.6 million deaths in the theaters of operation in Iraq (1.2) and Afghanistan (1.4).

Internal conflicts have also been the stage of high mortality rates, especially among civilians. In Darfur (2003-2004), west of Sudan, where it was considered ethnic cleansing and genocide, the UN estimates a total loss of 400,000 people. From the 42,000 people killed since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the objective of which was to overthrow Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s government, 28,000 were civilians, the majority of whom were hit by aerial bombs in their homes. During Operation Cast Lead in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of 2012, 960 Palestinian civilians were killed in the Gaza Strip. Among them, 189 children up to 15 years of age compared to 20 Israeli civilians.

This is indeed a chaotic issue that needs to be mitigated. It is a matter of extreme importance to the international political scenario that beyond the millions of civilian victims, created 35 million refugees, the majority of whom live in inhumane conditions and under constant stress.

*André Luís Woloszyn, Strategic Affair Analyst