Darfur: the casualties

Estimating the casualties in a situation of inter-group conflict and mass mayhem is always difficult. But in a letter in today’s NYT, Ruth Messinger, the Executive Director of American Jewish World Service writes about Darfur that, “Half a million people are dead and 3.5 million are displaced, the victims of a genocide that uses rape, murder, assault, displacement, hunger and illness to claim its victims.”
I note that in an article at the end of April, the WaPo’s generally excellent and very careful Africa correspondent Emily Wax, reporting from the Chad-Darfur border, wrote only of “tens of thousands” dead from the genocidal violence in Darfur. Since then, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional (mainly civilian) deaths– many of them having been caused by inter-necine fighting amongst the anti-Khartoum rebels. (As I noted here and here.)
Whom should we trust? Emily Wax, writing from the borderlands there, and based on her lengthy field reporting, knowledge of the situation, and contact with aid workers and community leaders of all persuasions– or Ruth Messinger, sitting in her office in New York City?
I have never previously seen any estimate as high as “half a million dead.” I have earlier seen estimates of 200,00, and 400,00 dead, that I already thought were very high. But they, at least, were described as “estimates.” Ruth Messinger now states as bald fact that “half a million” are dead because of the genocidaires there.
This matters. It is a basic principle of reporting of human rights abuses not to exaggerate, and where there is uncertainty always to err on the side of caution in one’s estimates. Exaggeration of casualty figures or of any other dimension of the abuses does not help anyone. Indeed, by making the person who exaggerates far less credible in general, it weakens the fabric of responsible human rights reporting and ends up doing a disservice to those people whose rights have been abused.
I see no possible basis in any reports that I have seen for any estimate anywhere near as high as “half a million deaths.”
Messinger wrote her letter in response to this op-ed by Alan Kuperman, that the NYT ran May 31 and that I commented on here.
This part of her letter seems a little confusing to me: “We do not tout the rebels as freedom fighters, nor have our actions fueled the genocide. That has been done by the Sudanese government…” (What? The Sudanese government has been touting the rebels as freedom fighters? H’mmm.)
I applaud her call that, “all armed actors … lay down their weapons, end the conflict and provide safe space for both civilians and humanitarian aid agencies that are saving lives.” But I really fear that by (a) exaggerating the number of those killed by the pro-government side beyond any reasonable estimates, and (b) making no mention whatsoever in her letter of the suffering caused by the rebels, she is being quite unfair and also further stoking the sentiments and energies of those who still want to act militarily against the Sudanese government and its allies.
Also, though Messinger’s letter was in response to the Alan Kuperman op-ed, she did nothing to challenge any of the very specific points he made about the dynamics of the situation inside Darfur.