Every Casualty Counts (ECC), a global organisation dedicated to documenting lives lost in armed conflict and human rights violations, has released a report detailing states’ legal obligations to accurately record casualties. The report outlines key principles and provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law that pertain to casualty recording and provides guidance on best practices for recognizing and acknowledging the deceased.
ECC’s mission is to ensure every life lost to armed violence, conflict, or gross human rights violations is correctly identified, effectively recorded, and appropriately recognized and remembered. Casualty recording seeks to provide a basic level of recognition and respectful treatment to those who die in such situations.
International humanitarian and human rights law contain extensive requirements for states to account for the dead and missing in armed conflict and other situations involving gross human rights violations. Despite these legal obligations being binding, they are often neglected or inadequately fulfilled due to a lack of awareness, understanding, or resources.
The ECC report emphasizes legally binding obligations and highlights non-binding but widely accepted protocols and guidelines. It aims to educate policy makers, diplomats, military leaders, and other relevant actors on states’ duties to account for the dead in areas such as searching for and collecting the dead, accounting for missing persons, identifying the deceased and determining their cause of death, recording identifying information before disposing of the dead, informing families of their relatives’ fate, facilitating future identification and location of the deceased, ensuring graves are marked, maintained and locatable, and returning the remains to the next of kin.
In active armed conflict and widespread violence, individually identifying each person killed may seem an insurmountable task. However, the obligations are predominantly efforts-based rather than outcome-based and may be subject to specific limitations for imperative military or hygienic necessity. Authorities must take feasible and reasonable steps to comply with their duties in a timely manner, as even basic measures can significantly improve the likelihood of successful identification and recognition of the deceased in the long term.
Prioritizing resources for the living is logical during emergencies, but addressing the needs and rights of survivors and their communities is interconnected with the identification and acknowledgement of the dead. Families require closure to mourn and access compensation or inheritance rights, and societies need to know the truth and memorialize victims to rebuild trust and prevent recurrence. Recording and recognizing the dead is a commitment to both the living and the deceased.
The ECC hopes the report will help establish a comprehensive understanding of states’ duties to ensure all casualties are recorded, identified and acknowledged. This shared understanding is essential for developing effective means to implement these obligations and uphold the rights of victims and survivors.
ECC calls on states, international organizations, civil society, and other stakeholders to collaborate in identifying, developing, and sharing best practices for implementing the obligations highlighted in the report.
Additionally, ECC urges all states to:
- Review national legislation, policy, and military manuals to ensure they adequately incorporate and give effect to their international legal obligations to account for the dead in all situations of armed conflict or other gross and widespread human rights violations.
- Ensure all relevant national actors, including policy-makers and military personnel, are aware of the nature and full extent of the state’s obligations to account for the dead; develop protocols and training as necessary.
- Use all relevant opportunities to promote international recognition and implementation of the principles and obligations detailed in this study.
- Support and adequately resource independent mechanisms to assist with the implementation of these obligations in situations where the responsible state is unwilling or unable to do so adequately.
ECC’s report serves as a vital reminder of the importance of casualty recording in armed conflict and human rights violations. By providing a comprehensive guide to the relevant principles and obligations, the report seeks to improve understanding and implementation of these duties, ultimately promoting accountability, closure, and justice for the victims, their families, and communities affected by conflict and violence.
Casualty recording not only has moral and humanitarian implications but also plays a critical role in post-conflict reconciliation and peacebuilding. It can help identify patterns of violence, reveal the extent of war crimes, and support efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.
A comprehensive understanding of states’ obligations and a commitment to implementing these responsibilities can contribute to more accurate data collection, improved support for victims’ families, and better-informed policy decisions in the future.
By highlighting the importance of casualty recording and promoting a shared understanding of states’ obligations, the ECC’s report aims to ensure that the lives lost in armed conflict and human rights violations are not forgotten. The organization’s work is a vital step toward upholding human dignity, honoring the memory of the deceased, and fostering an environment in which survivors and communities can heal, rebuild, and work toward lasting peace.
Declaration: Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, is on the Board of Every Casualty Counts
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