Bangladesh war killed four times more than thought earlier: report

June 20th, 2008 - 6:51 am ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, June 20 (IANS) The war leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 killed 269,000 people - nearly five times the number previously estimated, a new study says. The study by researchers from Seattle, US - published by the British Medical Journal - says globally war has killed three times more people than previously estimated, and there is no evidence to support claims of a recent decline in war deaths.

By employing new methods of counting the report has also scaled up estimates of the current conflict in Sri Lanka, saying 215,000 people have been killed between 1975 and 2002, compared to previous estimates of 61,000.

The largest differences, the report says, were in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. During Bangladesh’s war for independence, it estimates there were 269,000 violent war deaths, compared to previous estimates of 58,000. The figure for Zimbabwe is 130,000 deaths, compared to previous estimates of 28,000.

The new figures for Bangladesh are set to revive a debate about the victims of the independence war in that country, which saw a three-way conflict pitting Pakistani troops against Bangladeshi freedom-fighters and Indian soldiers.

The real casualty figure has always been a contentious issue - while the official Pakistani estimate is a low 26,000, successive governments in Bangladesh have maintained that up to three million people died in the brutality unleashed by Pakistani soldiers.

Bangladeshi authorities officially employ the term ‘genocide’ for the Pakistani killings and compare their independence casualties with the infamous Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia.

Current survey-based techniques used to estimate violent war deaths have been criticised for their potential biases and inaccuracies. For instance, surveys estimating war deaths on the basis of household deaths, such as those recently done in Iraq, were alleged to be statistically invalid, and to incorporate “politically motivated over-reporting of deaths”, the BMJ says.

But the alternative technique used during most ongoing conflicts such as Iraq - collecting from eyewitnesses and media reports - is also subject to “major biases”, including the fact that high levels of war deaths occur in dangerous areas where eyewitnesses are least likely to go.

To overcome some of these problems, Ziad Obermeyer and colleagues from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, US, designed a new method of estimating violent war-related deaths using data on the siblings of respondents in large household surveys conducted in peacetime.

According to the researchers, by comparing “passive surveillance data” of violent war deaths (mainly from eyewitnesses and the media) in 13 countries over the past 50 years, to peace time data collected after conflicts in the UN’s World Health Surveys, they were able to provide more accurate data on war deaths.

For example, say the researchers, the new technique avoids the “constraints imposed by active combat”, and using siblings’ histories rather than household deaths, reduces double counting and exaggeration of deaths.

They estimate that 5.4 million deaths occurred as a result of war in the 13 countries studied between 1955 and 2002 - ranging from 7,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo to 3.8 million in Vietnam.

The researchers point out that these estimates are on average three times higher than those obtained from previous reports. For example, they estimate that 378,000 people died a violent death as result of war each year between 1985 and 1994, compared to previous estimates of 137,000.

Importantly, say the authors, these new data do not support the prevailing view that war deaths are declining and have been since the mid-twentieth century, or that recent wars have killed relatively few people thanks to technological and strategic innovations designed to minimise civilian deaths.

In light of the substantial differences in estimates, conclude the authors, these claims need to be re-evaluated.

Even these figures are still likely to underestimate the importance of conflict as a cause of death because they only address violent deaths, cautions Richard Garfield, a professor from Columbia University.

“In the poorest countries, where most conflicts now occur, a rise in deaths from infectious diseases often dwarf the number of violent deaths during a conflict.”

In an accompanying article in the BMJ, Garfield predicts that the “promising method” pioneered by Obermeyer and his team will force a re-evaluation of commonly-held assumptions about these deaths.

“The importance of war as a public health problem and a social problem makes this imperative,” he says.

The 13 countries studied by the team are: Bangladesh, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Laos, Myanmar, Namibia, Philippines, Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

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