Casualty recording has been recognised as an essential component of human rights at the highest international level for the first time.
The 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva – suspended in March due to the coronavirus pandemic – finally concluded on 23rd June. Casualty recording was explicitly mentioned in three of the resolutions passed: the biennial thematic resolution on Prevention of Genocide; the resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar; and the resolution on the situation of human rights in Syria.
In the early months of this year, AOAV worked with Geneva-based diplomats to ensure the importance of casualty recording was recognised within the Council’s agenda. Working together, AOAV and its core contacts helped secure the inclusion of specific wording on casualty recording in three target resolutions. It is testament to the skill and commitment of the diplomats involved that casualty recording made it through the full drafting and negotiation process for all three resolutions.
The importance of civil society-led casualty recording, alongside initiatives by states and/or internationally mandated organisations, is acknowledged in the Prevention of Genocide resolution. Similarly, the resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar includes casualty recorders alongside human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and others for whom the right to access and share information publicly merits special protection. This strengthens high-level recognition of the validity of casualty recorders’ work and its legal relevance. It also supports casualty recorders’ demands for access to official information on casualties which states may be reluctant to share.
The Myanmar resolution cites casualty recording as a component of victims’ and survivors’ right to an effective remedy. This is reinforced in the Prevention of Genocide resolution which recognises the contribution of casualty recording towards ‘ensuring accountability, truth, justice, reparation, [and] guarantees of non-recurrence’. These rights are universal, non-derogable and legally binding under international human rights law. The incorporation of casualty recording as a component or contributing facet of these rights paves the way towards its recognition per se as a specific legal obligation of states.
The resolution on the Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arabic Republic draws a link between casualty recording and states’ obligations under humanitarian law to search for and identify missing persons in armed conflict. It also calls upon parties to the conflict to enable communication with families during the recording process. This supports families’ rights to demand information and transparency from state authorities concerning the death of a loved one.
Elsewhere, the Syria resolution notes that the absence of casualty records can affect inheritance and custody rights, particularly for women and children. This is important recognition of the gendered impact of inadequate casualty recording, which links the issue with the ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda as well as efforts related to the rights of children in armed conflict.
For many years, casualty recording has been promoted as a humanitarian tool rather than a human rights principle. This was misguided. Although there is clear evidence of casualty recording obligations in international humanitarian law, the link between casualty recording and human rights is far more pertinent. There can be no effective right to life, to truth, or to accountability without casualty recording, to name just a few.
Bringing new concepts and terminology into Human Rights Council resolutions is never easy. Semantic battles over virtual synonyms can rage for weeks. States seem to be – by default – often opposed to things that may place new or more stringent obligations upon them. Many arguments are used to push new issues away from the Council’s agenda and onto a different body whether this be humanitarian, development or security-focused.
Despite these challenges, AOAV applauds the fact that three resolutions incorporated language on casualty recording, all for the first time, in one (understandably chaotic) Council session. This demonstrates how intrinsic casualty recording is to the human rights agenda.
Effective humanitarian responses rely on rapid production and transmission of rough, ‘good enough’ data. This is far removed from the comprehensive and meticulous investigation, identification, and documentation of individual deaths which casualty recording entails. These initiatives take place over many years, often alongside judicial or pseudo-judicial processes, long after humanitarian actors have left the field. In short, casualty recording is not a humanitarian issue. It is an essential element of the human rights regime.
The 43rd session of the Human Rights Council recognised this and has taken the first steps towards international recognition a legal obligation on states to respect, protect and fulfil the right to comprehensive and individualised casualty recording.
This is only good news.
Rachel Taylor is a consultant researcher working with AOAV
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