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Casualty reporting in Ukraine: AOAV debate in UK Houses of Parliament with Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviychuk

On the 4th July 2022, Action on Armed Violence, with the assistance of Henry Smith MP, helped convene a meeting in the Houses of Parliament to discuss casualty recording in Ukraine. Speakers included Oleksandra Matviychuk, Head of the Board of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Center for Civil Liberties, Professor Erica Charters, Professor of the Global History of Medicine at the University of Oxford and Professor Susan Breau, Professor of International Law, University of Victoria, Canada.

This meeting was made possible by the generous support of Birkbeck University with Experimental Humanities Collaborative Network funding.

This is a transcript of the meeting.


Henry Smith MP: Welcome everyone to the houses of Parliament. I’m the Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on explosive threats. My involvement previously has been with regard to that subject in the Middle East, but of course, since the beginning of this year, we’ve had the appalling Russian aggression against the people of Ukraine, and sadly the issue of explosive threats and the fallout from conflicts has come back to Europe. Therefore, this is a very timely discussion that we are having today. I’m going to hand over to Iain, who will introduce our panellists today, and then each member of the panel will give their presentation, and we’ll have the opportunity for questions and answers. 

Iain Overton: Thank you very much. We have a lively event behind us, a celebration of, or a commemoration of, the Windrush anniversary. But on to more sober issues today– just to give a bit of background as to who I am, I run Action on Armed Violence, which is an organization that basically has one central remit: to research the origins of, and the consequences of, conflict. And we do this through casualty recording, in-depth field research, and other systemic research into conflicts around the world. Personally, I’ve been to around 25 conflicts in a career that spanned from journalism through to academia, and I’ve been five times to Ukraine over the last few years, mainly to cover the pre-invasion conflict, which has been going on since 2014. And it was a conflict that touched me really deeply, which is the main reason I kept on going back, because of the way people raised in Russian-speaking households were suddenly finding themselves under attack from a Russian-speaking military, what that does for the psyche, what that does to a nation, and what that does to a population at large. 

When I was out there last I met Oleksandra, who is a human rights advocate and runs the Center for Civil Liberties. When we met, we spoke extensively about the human rights abuses

conducted by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine: enforced detentions, the murders, the torture, that was occurring on a low, simmering and extensive level across eastern Ukraine. But then, since the invasion, obviously, everything has blown up, Pandora’s box is open. And the reason we’re here today is really the magnitude of the consequences of what’s happened in the last few months for the civilians of Ukraine. Oleksandra will speak about what she has witnessed, and I’d like to just point out that in order to get here, there was no jumping on EasyJet flights: it was two trains just to get out of Ukraine into Poland, and then another train to get to Brussels. In Brussels, she couldn’t get a visa to enter the UK. So she had to go to Paris, and then from Paris, she had to take transport to come here. So it’s incredible that she’s made that journey, but it’s also absolutely awful that she has had to make that journey. It’s a journey that I think almost resonates with something you would expect to hear in 1939, but not today. 

Alongside Oleksandra is Professor Erica Charters, who has very kindly travelled for Oxford, where she’s a professor of Global History of Medicine, and she has a huge expertise and understanding of the history of conflict, the history of disease within conflict, and, within there, of course, are the consequences of disease: the dead. I have yet to read it, but her monograph, Disease, War and the Imperial State: the welfare of British Armed Forces during the Seven Years War, sounds really like the sort of work that AOAV does on a regular basis. So I’m really looking forward to Professor Charters placing the casualties in Ukraine within the current context. 

And certainly, last but not least, is Susan Breau. Professor Breau is a fellow board member, with myself, on Every Casualty Counts, and has a very distinguished career as a professor of International Law at the University of Victoria, as well as Head of School of Law at the University of Reading. Most specifically, for this event, she has a background in the Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law, and International Disaster

Law. I think we can pretty much say that there is a confluence of all four in the case of Ukraine, and she, alongside Rachel Taylor and Gavin Crowden, with Every Casualty, has been at the forefront of trying to get the issue of casualty recording absolutely front and centre of modern-day conflict. 

But before I throw it to Oleksandra, I’d like to share a little bit of context within Ukraine and the number of casualties we’ve seen. Now, the figures I’m about to give are really the reason why I wanted to host this event here, with the APPG. The figures I’m about to give are not absolute, they are merely an indication of the level of harm. I think there are probably three major sources of data on how many civilians have been killed or injured in Ukraine. There’s the UN data, so the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), and they say that they’re counting 10,600 civilian casualties in the country, of which 4,731 were killed. Of those known to have been civilians, 1,812 have been men, 1,225 women, 134 girls, and 156 boys. The Armed Conflict, Location and Event Data project (ACLED) thinks it has witnessed 10,470 deaths, of which it estimates around 3,600 are civilians. So that’s a lower figure than the UN, but ACLED also acknowledges its limitations. 

Now, at AOAV, on a daily basis, we look at global media reports of explosive violence, and we’ve recorded almost 600 incidents in Ukraine since the invasion, with 4,696 civilian casualties. 88% of all the casualties we have recorded, as reported by the BBC, by CNN, by Al Jazeera, and the like, have been civilians. And when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, that rises to 96%. 96% of all people who were killed or injured by explosive weapons in Ukraine’s towns and cities have been civilians. The majority of that harm comes from ground-launched weapons, but we’ve seen around a third of civilian harm coming from air-launched weapons as well.

This is the direct impact. There’s another form of death that stalks war. That’s very much Professor Charter’s area: the reverberating effects of conflict, the disease, the impact on nutrition, the impact on displacement. In particular, the one thing that really struck me in my time travelling out to the Eastern Front in Ukraine last year and the year before, was just how old the populations were. You’re talking to eighty-five-year-olds queuing to cross the border. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine believes that 3,000 civilians have died in besieged or contested cities because they couldn’t get medical care, or just because of the stress. I interviewed an eighty-seven-year-old whose husband died of a heart attack in the middle of a barrage in Mariupol. 

This is just the civilians. I think we should also talk about armed actors. Of course, we have the situation where an awful lot of Ukrainian soldiers were civilians a few months ago. In early June, the Ukrainian government said that up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers were dying in Donbass every single day. In April, Russia killed 23,000 Ukrainian troops. Ukraine has also claimed around 35,000 Russians have been killed as of late June. The UK government in April said at least 15,000 Russian soldiers have died, with at least 4,000 Russian soldiers individually verified by BBC News Russia. However you’re looking at this, we see a huge amount of lives being lost, and I guess Oleksandra will ask you the question: for what? 

Now, rather than just giving you a deluge of facts and numbers, I’d like to just finish by giving you one concept, a conceptual note, something to hold in my hands as a philosophy. I’ve been very influenced over my years reporting on war by the Austrian German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who was to take his own life, as a Jewish philosopher, on the Franco-Spanish border at the height of the Second World War. Before he died, he contemplated something which he referred to as the angel of history. He had bought a picture from Paul Klee, the artist, and he wrote the following:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. 

I think that, to me, the angel of history is the Casualty Recording Angel. That Angel sees all of death. He sees every mother’s pain, every father’s pain, every sister’s pain, every wife’s pain, every husband’s pain. But he also witnesses the totality, not just the immediate death. He sees the death from injury; or death from heartache; the death from malnutrition that stalks every conflict. I think the most important thing is that we should record the dead for justice. And Susan will talk about the imperative of this. 

If I can just finally finish before I hand over to Oleksandra, who will talk about what the angel is witnessing, as we live and breathe, in Ukraine, I’ll say what Walter Benjamin said, and this actually speaks explicitly to what Erica Charters does with her work: The only writer of history with the gift of setting alight the sparks of hope in the past, is the one who is convinced of this: that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious

Oleksandra Matviichuk: It’s a huge privilege for me to be here today. And to be alive, because I spent more than one month in Kyiv, which was surrounded by Russian troops, and I remember

that feeling when you don’t know what is going to happen, not even in the next few days, but in the next few hours. 

Since this large-scale Russian invasion started, we re-started our volunteer initiative and united several hundreds of people. They started to report the testimonies of the victims and the witness of war crimes and violence. Working together we have been recording and documenting more than 11,000 criminal episodes which Russian troops have committed on Ukrainian territory since the 24rth of February. 

Maybe that’s the first explanation of why it’s very difficult to understand the real scope of casualties, the real pain of the war which is going on in Ukraine. Because even we, who were on the ground, who spoke or speak to people directly, who work in the zone of hostilities, we can see only the tip of the iceberg. And there are three main reasons why it’s very difficult to have an idea of real numbers. First, because Russians use war crimes as a method of warfare, there is an enormous amount of crimes. The General Prosecutor’s Office, in the beginning of June, said that they have officially opened more than 15,000 criminal procedures. So you can understand what a challenge you can face. Second, because the war is in a hot stage, and everyday people are dying, from Russian missiles, from Russian bombarding, in battles, defending our freedom, and our people. Third, it’s also very difficult to calculate and search because, unfortunately, Russian troops are progressing further. Before the large-scale invasion, we had 7% of territory under occupation by Russia, now we have more than 20% of Ukrainian territories under Russian control, and there is no international presence there. It’s very difficult to clearly understand each single incident which has happened in the occupied parts of territories. 

That’s why, in March this year, we issued an open request, which was supported by a dozen human rights organizations, to the UN. We asked the UN, when they provide the numbers of casualties, to make a big disclaimer: that it’s not an accurate number, and it does not express

the real scale of tragedy which is going on in Ukraine. We were very grateful that the UN listened to us and started to use this disclaimer, very visibly. 

The most problematic issue with the numbers is this: I’m afraid that if we start to use only a mathematical approach, we start to forget that it’s not only numbers, it’s broken lives of Ukrainians people, and when we speak about war crimes and the fact that Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare, it’s not warcraft for me. We speak about actions which had no justification and no legal military purpose. We’ve documented many episodes when Russia shelled residential buildings, churches, schools, roads, and critical civilian infrastructure. We document it in occupied territories, and every day we also receive many requests of help from people who have been arrested. They are faced with torture, murder, rape, and other types of offenses. 

All my knowledge, all my 20 years of working in human rights, all my understanding of UN systems and my experience of working with the international community, haven’t provided me the opportunity to protect even one single person. This is a number which you have to keep in mind, that all the international systems of peace and security are lying in ruins and don’t provide us the opportunity to protect even one single person. I’m very aware that I’m not simply recording violations of certain conventions or things like this. We are documenting human pain, because there is no justification for pushing people down into a basement to order them to choose eight volunteers, and no purpose in killing them. There is no purpose in using guns, to have fun firing at people in the streets. There is no reason to shoot, at close range, a fourteen-year-old boy, who was playing with his ball in the road. And there is no purpose in breaking into a house, killing the owner and raping the wife, and then the child. There is no purpose, there are no military goals in such actions. The Russians have done this only because

they could, because they try to use this human pain as an instrument, to break the resistance of the people. 

For me, the question is not only how to record casualties properly and how to calculate the casualties, the question is how to stop it. And I will finish this with two wishes, two recommendations which will help. We [Ukrainians] need to survive, because this war has a genocidal character. Russians are killing Ukrainians for two purposes. First because we are not Russians, and want to identify ourselves as Ukrainians, as an independent nation. And second, because eight year ago, we chose a democratic choice, to build a country – even to have a chance to build a country – where the rights of everybody are protected, where the judiciary is independent, where the government is accountable and the police do not beat peaceful demonstrators as we experienced before. 

And in order to survive, we need two things. First, long-range distance weapons and second, economic sanctions to such an extent that they can stop the ability of Russia to inflict suffering. And I understand, it’s very weird to hear from the human rights lawyer that Ukraine needs weapons. But Russians kill unarmed people. We have no other choice. We have to defend our people and our freedoms. 

And second, we need justice. And this is a huge issue, because in this war, there is a very clear world-view dimension: Putin is trying to convince Ukrainians, and the whole world, that the rule of law does not exist. He is trying to tell us: okay, if you believe in your freedom, democracy and human rights, why couldn’t you rely upon these values during the war? So we need justice, even postponed in time, in order to clearly show to Ukraine, and to other nations, that yes, it was a temporary period of disorder when nothing worked, when we couldn’t rely on legal instruments, but we managed to fix it.

And in order to do this, we need to create an international hybrid tribunal and hold criminals accountable, because Russia has for decades enjoyed impunity. They committed war crimes in Georgia, in Moldova, in Syria, in Libya, in Mali. They were even unpunished when they used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. We must break this cycle. Thank you. 

Erica Charters: It’s a great honour to be speaking here. As Iain mentioned, I’m interested in war and I’m interested in disease, but what I work on is the development of statistical methodologies as they’re applied in this context. I’m part of an international interdisciplinary research group called Body Counts, which looks at the history and the development and methodologies of casualty recording across the years. So what I want to do is give a brief historical overview of the development of casualty records, especially as they developed in Britain. And when I’m talking about the role of numbers in war and casualty records, I’m not just talking about whenever we use numbers in war. Obviously, in ancient texts and medieval accounts, very often people talk about the numbers of people fighting, the numbers of people getting killed. Those accounts, those numbers have a kind of small value. What I’m talking about today is when numbers become modern, in the way that we understand them today. So when numbers represent reality, when they become a tool for precision, but especially when numbers become a tool for political accountability. 

What I think is really interesting is that this story begins with the British Parliament. It really begins with public debate in Britain, in the 1680s and the 1690s, if you know your British history, with the Glorious Revolution. The result of that settlement meant that here in Britain, the king could not go to war without actually having an agreement from the Parliament in terms of finances, in terms of taxation, and in terms of the number of men who would be sent to war. So as a result of that we see, from the 1680s in the 1690s onwards, open discussion about

numbers. Historians talk about this period as the rise of what they call the fiscal monetary state across the 18th century. They point out that Britain was uniquely numerical. People had the practice of numeracy within the whole nation, and numeracy here of course just means literacy as ascribed to numbers. And the really interesting point is that it’s here that people debated openly about, not just budgetary figures, but also numbers of men that were sent off to war, and then the numbers of men that returned, as well as the numbers of men that did not return. And that was very distinctive in this period. In places such as France, the budget, the financial system, even the number of the national population, were closely guarded state secrets. Britain was a completely unusual centre in terms of thinking about this discussion, and the way discussion about numbers was used in order to decide on the conduct of war. 

One of the very first examples of these numerical debates, and the role of these numerical casualties, comes from the Duke of Marlborough’s last field battle 1709. Marlborough led this amazing, very remarkable campaign, which many historians talk about as being one of the most magnificent campaigns of the period: the battle of Malplaquet, 1709. Marlborough is commander of the field when the French retreat. However, the day after the battle, British newspapers and European newspapers start to publish the numbers of casualties related to that battle. And they pick up on the fact that the French only lose 12,000 men. By contrast, the British and the Allied Forces lose nearly 20,000 men. So, immediately, a public debate began in the newspapers and in Parliament over what the significance of this battle actually was, according to the number of the casualties. Here in Parliament, the English Tories were very critical of Marlborough, and were also very critical of his wars, because they were very long and they were very expensive, and they’re expensive, not just financially but expensive in terms of the number of English men that were dying in the wars. The Tories use these reports, they use these numbers, and there’s a long debate in Parliament. A few days later, Marlobough is ousted.

We see the same debates happening in the American War of Independence, which of course, was also a very controversial and much-debated war. What’s fascinating is, in this war again, members of Parliament demand numbers of casualties. So the Duke of Richmond asks for, in his words, the exact number of men lost by death, wounds, captivity, sickness, or desertion. And he insists that these numbers be presented to Parliament, because he says Parliament is the regular and authentic channel for such information. This was in December of 1777. What we see as a result is, across the 18th century, the British Army and the Royal Navy implement reliable and precise methods of record keeping, of keeping track of casualties during wars. In the 19th century, this actually developed into civilian practices of census reporting in the colonies, and these records, often collected monthly, even weekly during war time, were recorded from all over the world and sent back England, where they were compiled, they were digested, they were analyzed, and they were very often discussed, and debated in Parliament during the course of the campaign, but also from the conclusion of the war. 

It’s actually based on these types of references that Florence Nightingale introduced her famous Coxcombs, these mortality coxcombs, when she presented her argument about lethal infections in the Crimean War. So she relied upon these casualty records. She used these various books and these various images to show the huge mortality of British young men who went on campaign. She actually was kind of an amazing image person, rather than thinking about numbers, so she would look at the numbers of British young men who died when they were overseas on the campaign, comparing them to British civilians, young men of the same age, to show just how expensive the war was, not in terms of finances, but in terms of lives lost. What I think you can see here is how Nightingale used the power of numbers and the power of precise statistics to make her case, and to convince the public, but also to convince politicians.

My point here is that numbers of casualties, especially this need for precise records, have been part of political debates ever since they took their modern form in the late 17th century, right up until today. But I think this also shows just how powerful these forms of record keeping are. They’re very powerful in terms of political accountability, but also in terms of moral accountability. 

Here, of course, I’m not really focusing on what some people call body counts. That is a practice that you first see used in the Spanish war. They were used most famously during the Vietnam war, where numbers of casualties of enemy forces were used to show the progress of military strategy. What’s very interesting is that these are actually relatively unconvincing to the public. What actually is much more convincing is talking about casualties in terms of the lives lost. The historical record really demonstrates that this catches the public attention in ways that even fiscal numbers just do not, to actually talk about the cost of war. 

Scholars actually call this phenomenon mortality salience, which I think is just a fancy word for saying discussions about deaths, and especially about casualties, really attract public attention. It creates, but it also can solidify, public support and support for political causes. What I want to point out here is how you can see this from long history, across the 18th and 19th centuries, especially starting from the Nuremberg trials of the 1940s, more recently, the Yugoslavian tribunals, that what happens when you have casualty records, is that we maintain and we restore social order, because we provide some kind of legal accountability.  

Susan Breau: Recently I completed an eighty page report, an updated legal report, which I feel very strongly has identified an international legal obligation.

We have also made a statement, and I have to commend Rachel Taylor for this, for her wordsmithing in this document, called Bodies of Evidence: violations of international law concerning the missing and the dead in the armed conflict in Ukraine. And I totally agree, I think we have not even begun to get the proper numbers. That’s clear. When you look at the methods of war that are being used, and from my experience of examining every armed conflict since 1945, you see that the numbers are going to be exponentially higher. And they’re going to be predominantly civilian casualties, because that is the way war has been waged since 1945: to destroy the will of the people, you kill the children and you kill the old people and you kill the women, and you systematically rape the women. And that is how you destroy the will to fight. And unfortunately, if you look at the history of armed conflict, that’s almost every single conflict since 1945, and every woman in this room is well aware of that. 

In terms of the legal obligation, I do want to read one statement that I have compiled, because I think it’s very important, because we’re not just talking about counting the civilian casualties. That’s extremely important. The cost of war is extremely important. But I have a little bit of homework, along with Florence Nightingale. If you ever want to see this in real life, go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Go to the last room. I broke down at the last room. It’s the book of the dead, and over 1 million people have never been identified on the Holocaust. Over 1 million. It brought it home to me.

Parties to conflict have an international legal responsibility, as a form of customary international law, as part of International Humanitarian Law, as part of International Human Rights law, and yes, the new area of International Disaster Law. The obligations are as follows: each party to the conflict must take all feasible measures to account for persons reported missing as a result of armed conflict, and must provide their family members with any information it has on their fate. Whenever circumstances permit, and particularly after an engagement, each party to the conflict

must, without delay, take all possible measures to search for, collect, and evacuate the dead without adverse distinction. One of the issues that we identified is, often military casualties are given priority because of organizations such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the fact that there’s so much specificity about military casualties. Our argument is that, with over 80% of the casualties being civilian, surely at this point, all casualties should be treated with the same dignity and respect. It’s an issue of human dignity. It’s an issue of Human Rights Law. 

Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited. In Russia, they are literally burning the corpses so that they will not be identified, and the cause of death will not be determined. That is a violation of humanitarian law. It’s a violation of international criminal law, and the Russians should be held accountable. 

All reasonable steps must be taken to identify the deceased and determine the cause of death. In terms of international responsibility, we’re seeing some good practice there. We’re seeing groups – and one of the forensic pathologists was here tonight, who has been in Kyiv – that are helping to identify these dead bodies. It’s an international responsibility because, in Ukraine, there are so many casualties, that there needs to be assistance from the international community to provide identification of the dead. And that’s a very complex process, particularly when the perpetrator of a crime is attempting to cover up what happened. So that’s extremely important. 

Parties to the conflict must endeavour to facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased on the request of the party to which they belong, on the request of the next of kin. The dead must be disposed of in a respectful manner, and the graves respected and properly maintained. The

dead are to be buried with dignity in accordance with religious and cultural beliefs. And importantly, and this is another feature that’s happening in Ukraine, the dead are to be buried individually, and not in mass graves. One of the issues is of course, mass graves are an effort to cover up what’s happened. It’s more complex to identify the cause of death when you have a grave where you can’t even identify who is who. And with a view to the identification of the dead, each party to the conflict must record all available information prior to the disposal, and mark the locations of the graves. These international legal obligations, taken together, constitute binding legal obligations on every party, whether in an international or non-international armed conflict. 

In our report, with respect to Ukraine, the issue that I want to emphasize for the British government, as a party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, is the issue of legal accountability, which is extremely important. These obligations ensure legal accountability. If you do not preserve the grave site, identify the cause of death, identify, if possible, the perpetrator, you cannot have legal accountability. This has to be done expeditiously. It is in all of our interests, as it was with the Holocaust, as it was with Kosovo, as it was with Bosnia, to identify these crimes. Does it stop? No. And when we call for more weapons, does it stop the war? Potentially not. But one of the things I’ve learned through my relatively long life now is the importance of memory, the importance that we hold these people, that they have names, that they have identities, that we know what happened. Also in terms of casualties, and what the cause was: was there starvation, were there health issues, were the elderly and disabled, targeted? 

There’s a number of issues that need to be identified in a conflict. And so I would urge you all to pressure your members of Parliament, to indicate that this is a really high priority for society. I think, and I’m hopeful, that the sense of outrage of the international community at the direct targeting of civilians that is going on in Ukraine, will spur us all on to make sure these perpetrators are held accountable within the legal obligations that I’ve identified. Thank you.