"A State of Ignorance". Report by Brian Rappert

A State of Ignorance


A State of Ignorance critically examines attempts by the UK to assess the number of civilian deaths resulting from the 2003 Iraq war and the violence that followed. Using documents released under the UK Freedom of Information Act over several years, it outlines the internal deliberations within government and Whitehall about Iraqi deaths. It concludes that the effort was fundamentally inadequate.


A State of Ignorance, by Prof. Brian Rappert




The UK is part of a Core Group of states promoting the 2006 Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development, which commits states to achieve “measurable reductions” in armed violence.


This report is not endorsing particular methodologies or particular studies estimating civilian deaths and injuries in Iraq.  Rather,“A state of ignorance” is documenting how the UK failed to undertake such measures and how it responded to those that did seek to estimate civilian harm.


The UK government actively sought to maintain a position of ignorance regarding measurements of death, injury and deprivation resulting from violence in Iraq.


This means not simply that UK officials did not know the impact of violence, but that they worked – in various ways – to avoid knowing. The FoI material that this report is based on suggests officials selectively used information to undermine studies that estimated relatively high casualty figures, made little effort to develop a systematic understanding of the tallies being offered.


The UK should recognize the imperative of understanding the impact of conflict and other forms of armed violence on civilians.  There is growing international recognition of the importance of avoiding civilian casualties not simply as a fundamental moral and legal obligation, but also as a strategic interest for military commanders.


The UK should acknowledge that in situations where it directly initiates conflict, it should bear also a responsibility to understand the impact of that decision.


The Coalition government has pledged it will “extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.”


International humanitarian law (IHL) relating to the prosecution of war is founded upon finding a proportionate balance between military necessity and humanity.  For instance, Article 51(5)(b) of the Additional Protocol I (1977) of the Geneva Conventions prohibits indiscriminate attacks: those “which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”


The UK is also a member of the Core Group of the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development.  Among other goals, the Declaration includes a commitment by governments to “strive to achieve, by 2015, measurable reductions in the global burden of armed violence and tangible improvements in human security worldwide” [emphasis added].Achieving this goal relies on gathering evidence and devising means of measurement.


Despite this history of engagement, the UK government did not join 61 other states in May 2010 in endorsing the Oslo Commitments on Armed Violence.  Those countries committed themselves to:


Measure and monitor the incidence and impact of armed violence at national and sub-national levels in a transparent way, and develop a set of targets and indicators to assess progress in efforts to achieve measurable reductions in armed violence.


Three FoI requests made between 2008-2010 resulted in 30 email exchanges, 12 letters, and 7 other documents being released.


As part of the responses to the FoI requests noted above, for instance, it was stated that relevant material was withheld because it “would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states and international organisations”


It details the inadequate efforts undertaken by the British government to gauge civilian deaths resulting from the conflict, and suggests that officials fostered ignorance about what could be known about civilian casualties. This argument is advanced through contrasting what ministers and officials said in “onstage”
public statements against the “offstage” deliberations of civil servants and others, in so far as they can be made out through material released under the UK FoI Act.


52 former senior British diplomats who stated that “it is a disgrace that the coalition forces themselves appear to have no estimate [of civilian casualties]”.


The Secretary [Straw] restated themes made by Lord Triesman in 2006; namely that the Iraqi government was the one that should be monitoring deaths and that the variability of results by method meant that there were no reliable (or comprehensive) figures.  


There was no suggestion by British government ministers in public statements that the Iraqi government might be compromised in its ability to monitor deaths


The Guardian reported on the history of attempts to derive figures:


The Iraqi ministry of health initially tried to keep a count based on morgue records but then stopped releasing figures under pressure from the US-supported government in the Green Zone. The director of the Baghdad morgue, already under stress because of the mounting horror of his work, was threatened with death on the grounds that by publishing statistics he was causing embarrassment. The families of the bereaved wanted him to tell the truth, but like other professionals he came to the view that he had to flee Iraq.


Tony Blair did not offer any official British government figures for the number of civilians killed since 2003.  The reason for this is simple: the UK never produced any.  Neither did it act to support the production of officially recognised figures by others. 


Blair cited those findings giving comparatively low estimates for civilian deaths – figures measuring only direct violence deaths – without any acknowledgement that such methodologies necessarily underestimate the wider civilian impact of violence.


Blair continued with the makeshift manner in which numbers were latched on to in an attempt to reduce anxiety about deaths to civilians.  In quoting the figures of Iraq Body Count, Blair was endorsing a civil society project that had been run throughout the conflict with very limited resources and which had achieved a strong baseline documentation of civilian deaths whilst the UK Government, one of the actors with fundamental responsibilities in relation to those deaths, had done nothing.


Establishing a sense of the scope of deaths is a central part of gauging the extent and consequences of violence, assessing the requirements for reconstruction, adhering to the laws governing war, and – however inadequately and incompletely – acknowledging the suffering experienced by Iraqis.  


Since 2003 the British government sought in various ways to undermine the prospect for doing so.  Instead of helping produce working figures or improve estimates made by others based on methods widely used elsewhere, it has presented official positions to the effect that it was not possible for the UK or for anyone to derive ‘reliable’ estimates.  Yet, since 2003, the meaning of ‘reliable’ has shifted around as much as the reasons for why it was unachievable.


A State of Ignorancehas provided reasons for demanding better policy and practice more broadly. For all its apparent sophistication and expressions of sympathy, the UK did not undertake or support basic types of analysis in the case of Iraq, let alone use these towards some meaningful end.


Extract from a letter of April 2004 from 52 former senior British diplomats to Tony Blair




The military actions of the coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theatre itself, not by criteria remote from them. It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders. Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Falluja, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition. The Iraqis killed by coalition forces probably total 10-15,000 (it is a disgrace that the coalition forces themselves appear to have no estimate), and the number killed in the last month in Falluja alone is apparently several hundred including many civilian men, women and children. Phrases such as "We mourn each loss of life. We salute them, and their families for their bravery and their sacrifice," apparently referring only to those who have died on the coalition side, are not well judged to moderate the passions these killings arouse.


Letter of December 2004 urging an inquiry to determine Iraqi deaths subsequent to the 2003 invasion, signed by British academics, former diplomats and personalities.


Dear Prime Minister, 


The medical journal The Lancet recently published a study that estimates the post-invasion Iraqi death toll at 98,000. The same study reported that the risk of death from violence among Iraqis is vastly higher than it was before the war began. 


You have rejected these findings, but offer no comparable assessment of your own.  As you know, your government is obliged under international humanitarian law to protect the civilian population during military operations in Iraq, and you have consistently promised to do so. However, without counting the dead and injured, no one can know whether Britain and its Coalition partners are meeting these obligations. 


We therefore urge you immediately to commission a comprehensive, independent inquiry to determine with the greatest possible accuracy how many Iraqis have died or been injured since March 2003 - and the cause of those casualties. 


The inquiry should be independent of government, conducted according to accepted scientific methods and subjected to peer review so that all parties can be confident of the findings. It should report regularly to Parliament and the public for as long as British forces remain in Iraq.