Darfur & the need for care in reporting casualty tolls (again)

The NYT had an informative and very thoughtful op-ed in today, by Sam Dealey, described as a writer on Africa for Time. He noted that on Wednesday, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority had ruled against the Save Darfur Coalition there, judging that the high death tolls the SDC claims in some of its public advertising there “breached standards of truthfulness.”
Here is the ASA ruling.
It had to do with a national print ad campaign that stated, “In 2003, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir moved to crush opposition by unleashing vicious armed militias to slaughter entire villages of his own citizens. After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed … “.
That ad campaign has run in the US, as well as in Britain. And it hasn’t been cheap. Here in the US, I estimate it may well have cost more than half a million dollars.
In the UK, a complaint was launched by the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council against the claim made in the ad; and it was that complaint that was upheld by the ASA. The ASA ruling presented much of the evidence it considered, and concluded:

    SDC & AT [the Aegis Trust] were entitled to express their opinion about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in strong terms, we concluded that there was a division of informed opinion about the accuracy of the figure contained in the ad and it should not have been presented in such a definitive way.
    The ad breached CAP Code clauses 3.2 (Division of opinion) and 8.1 (Matters of opinion).
    We told SDC & AC to present the figure as opinion not fact in future. We urged them to consult the CAP Copy Advice team for help in amending their ad and we also advised them to state the source for such claims in future.

Of course, this is not the first time that Save Darfur campaigners have used unsubstantiated (and improbably high) casualty figures in order to enhance their case. In June last year I noted that Ruth Messinger had stated quite baldly in a letter to the NYT that “Half a million are dead… ” I presented some of the counter-evidence to her claim, and also pointed out the need for rights-abuse reporting always to be very careful and where necessary err on the side of caution.
In his NYT piece today, Dealey is absolutely right to note that this sloppiness with the figures has real consequences on the ground in Darfur. He writes of SDC:

    While the coalition has done an admirable job of raising awareness, it has also hampered aid-delivery groups, discredited American policy makers and diplomats and harmed efforts to respond to future humanitarian crises.

He then looks quickly at all the considerable (though not definitive) evidence that’s available, and concludes that: “Combining these estimates suggests Darfur’s death toll now hovers at 200,000 — just half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago in its ad and still claims on its Web site.”
He adds:

    whether 200,000 or 400,000 have died, the need to resolve the conflict in Darfur is the same. But Save Darfur’s inflated estimate — used even after Dr. Hagan revised his estimate sharply downward — only frustrates peace efforts.
    During debate on the House floor last month, for example, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee claimed that “an estimated 400,000 people have been killed by the government of Sudan and its janjaweed allies.” Ms. Jackson-Lee is hardly alone in making that allegation, and catering to the Sudanese government’s sensitivities may not seem important. But the repeated error only hardens Khartoum against constructive dialogue. If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker.
    Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur’s excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition. This suggests that policy makers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups — by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure, so far lacking, on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.
    Exaggerated death tolls also make it difficult for relief organizations to deliver their services. Khartoum considers the inflated numbers to be evidence that all groups that deliver aid to Darfur are actually adjuncts of the activist groups that the regime considers its enemies, and thus finds justification for delaying visas, refusing to allow shipments of supplies and otherwise putting obstacles in the way of aid delivery.
    Lastly, mortality one-upmanship by advocacy groups threatens to inure the public to both current and future catastrophes. If 400,000 becomes the de facto benchmark for action, other bloody conflicts around the globe — in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Somalia — seem to pale in comparison. Ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.
    Two-hundred thousand dead in Darfur is egregious enough. No matter how noble their intentions, there’s no need for activists to kill more Darfuris than the conflict itself already has.

I agree with nearly everything he has written there. I’ll just note that, on this page, the SDC website doesn’t say absolutely definitively that the genocide has killed 400,000. Rather, it uses the decidedly slippery formulation of saying that it “has… already claimed as many as 400,000 lives.”
“As many as… ” is not any kind of a scientific or systematic quantity. If SDC wants to be taken seriously as a good-faith participant in the discussion over Darfur, they should quit their partisan and fear-stoking exaggeration and go with the same figures that the best-informed people in the humanitarian-aid community are using. (They might also note that not all of the killing and mayhem is caused by the Government and its allies. A non-negligible part has been caused by the anti-government forces– and some of them have had their anti-government belligerence hardened by the prospect they might expect extra political help to be whipped up on their behalf by outsiders from the SDC.)
I would also note, regarding what Dealey wrote here: “If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker” that for the US to maintain its credibility is important in any case, not just when there’s a prospect it might be involved in some way in the Darfur peace negotiations. (Which actually, I don’t think there is, much, these days… After the Somalia debacle, I don’t think the Bush administration has much credibility as an honest broker in most of Africa.)
But we need to remember that exaggerated claims about rights abuses have also frequently been used to goad countries into wars. (Remember the Kuwaiti babies in 1990?) Waving the bloody shirt is a time-honored tactic of the war-mongers. That’s why it is always very important to stay sober, calm, and very, very close to the evidence when reporting rights abuses.
There was one small pro-Darfur organization in this country, Damanga, which last year was openly urging the US to engage in a policy of “regime change” in Sudan as a response to the suffering in Darfur. Luckily, Damanga did take that call for warmaking off its website.
Anyway, I am glad that the ASA made the ruling it did. If you read the whole ruling, and the whole of Sam Dealey’s article, you can get a fairly good idea of what the best evidence about the casualties is, and where it’s coming from.

6 thoughts on “Darfur & the need for care in reporting casualty tolls (again)

  1. bevin

    I hope that this is not redundant, but this is an excerpt, from a letter in The Guardian, which touches upon the problem of using the tragedy in Darfur in order to distract attention from those matters which are the direct responsibility of our own governments.
    “…Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stated in March that just over 131,000 people may have died in Darfur in 2003-05, of whom one fifth may have been killed in fighting. While any death is a tragedy, there is a big difference between 25,000 and 400,000 violence-related deaths. MSF noted that “since the second half of 2006, the UN has recorded an average of 200 civilian deaths per month”. This figure has not increased. Two hundred deaths per month is a marked contrast to ( Guardian columnist)Clark’s wild assertion of 7,000 and the fact that 200 people die per day in Iraq.
    “Sensationalist claims only serve to prolong conflict. Rather than focusing on the deployment of a peacekeeping force when there is no peace to keep, British and international pressure should be on bringing all parties to the table.
    Dr David Hoile
    Director, European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council”
    I suspect that Dr Hoile’s contribution is one worth considering.

  2. Donald Johnson

    Well, it’s absolutely normal across the political spectrum for most people to use the highest estimates for death tolls if that helps one’s case, and then repeat them often enough until they become “fact”. If the low numbers are favorable for one’s case, then those are the ones that get repeated and if you happen to side with the conventional wisdom in your society, then the low estimate becomes the “fact”. Only in some cases do we actually have enough evidence to know the true number.
    Look at Iraq–without getting into the arguments, most antiwar people (notably excluding Iraq Body Count and its supporters) take for granted the Lancet2 numbers are correct (around 650,000 dead by mid 2006) and so claim the number is about 1 million by now. War supporters are more comfortable with Iraq Body Count’s much lower numbers and will talk about tens of thousands (though by now a nice round 100,000 is reasonable for this group). People who aren’t sure will say tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands. I don’t think most people delve too deeply into the heated arguments on this subject–they just adopt the number that seems more supportive of their case.

  3. Salah

    Save Darfur campaigners have used unsubstantiated (and improbably high) casualty figures in order to enhance their case.
    i.e: lying?
    Its common practice by those who hitting these drams for war, wealth, fame and so on so forth.
    But its the affective way of life which make more people believe in,

  4. Save Darfur Coalition

    Sam Dealey misses a critical point. The real point is that, unfortunately, mortality estimates cannot be verified or updated because the Government of Sudan actively denies the international community – including diplomats, humanitarian workers, and epidemiology experts – real access to the Darfur region.
    History reminds us that the full scope and scale of genocide is unknown until it has ended. Past perpetrators, most notably the Nazis, actively concealed their campaigns of mass murder from public scrutiny and accountability. When the scale of this genocide did become known, a shocked world cried out, “Never again.” The same was true in Cambodia and Rwanda. And that is what is happening now in Darfur.
    The Save Darfur Coalition believes that as many as 400,000 Darfuris have been killed in this conflict because there is sound analysis to support this figure – analysis that is impossible to confirm or deny because of Sudan’s willful obstruction. Ultimately, no level of genocide is acceptable. The international community must continue to press the Sudanese government and President Omar al-Bashir to provide access to both international peacekeepers, humanitarian workers and experts who can more accurately document the scale of this tragedy, as well as provide protection and assistance to Darfur’s civilian population.

  5. Helena

    I do not believe that “Save Darfur Coalition” is a person. Please don’t come to use space on my blog only to make politicized points on behalf of an organization that has its own very well-funded website (and has only mysterious lines of accountability to any actual Darfuris.)
    I repeat my point. “As many as 400,000” is not a number that has any meaning. The figure of 200,000 has a lot of solid methodology and evidence behind it. Darfuri mortality figures are NOT completely un-estimatable, since such a high proportion of Darfuris are now (very unfortunately) on the rolls of international aid organizations. That means the situation is actually very different indeed from the situation during the Nazi Holocaust, where there was almost no international access to those in concentration and extermination camps.
    Instead of running round the world paying huge amounts of money to publicize the SDC’s unsupported and highly politicized and one-sided accusations regarding casualties and the responsibility for them, y’all would help the Darfuris a lot more if you would think about how to support the peace process that is the only way, yes the only way, this conflict will get resolved on an acceptable basis, and the people of Darfur will be able to return to their homes and regain decent livelihoods.
    You folks at the SDC have offered them no hope of that, and you continue to keep a vow of omerta regarding the responsibilities that the anti-Khartoum armed movements have (along with Khartoum) for keeping the conflict going and for inflicting their own measure of suffering on the people of Darfur.
    Now, thank God, there is a peace process that shows some hope of succeeding. Let’s keep our primary focus on giving it every chance of doing so. The SDC doesn’t seem to have much to say about that. That is a pity. You could take the influence you have, and your massive budgets, and help make a real difference… perhaps by funding the rehabbing of 20-30 entire Darfuri villages with the amount you currently spend on your misleading ads in the US media every month.

  6. salah

    If SDC have massive budgets, its as same as these agencies who working in humanitarians field like Tear Fund, Worldvison… long list, although they doing some work to help in Africa and other part of world, but in regards to Sudan and Darfure, recently Sudanese government accusing these Christina Humanitarians Ageneses for promoting the Christianity while they do listed as humanitarian agencies which really showing conflict in their business and goals.
    This bring us to stories from Iraq this was early days that some part of Baghdad residential area was surprised to see US military Hammve and US Military give shield and support while those Christina Humanitarians Ageneses distributing Bible books and other leaflets delivered to each doorstep in that area while they suffer from short of all basic services!!
    Recently Iraqi news paper published that Christians authorities in northern Iraq (Sulymaniyah) protesting against some US Christian official who offering Iraqis youth who are eager to leave Iraq by converting to Christianity with support given to them for funding refugee places in Europe.

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