Hard to ascertain civilian death toll in Ukraine

rök på himlen över byggnader

Smoke from the explosion of a residential building after a Russian missile strike. A view of the city after the attack on the Ukrainian city Kharkov in June 2023. Photo: Getty Images

Every day we see pictures and receive reports from war-torn Ukraine, yet it remains almost impossible to imagine how the civilian population is suffering from Russia's war. Lisa Hultman, Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, researches into how civilians are affected by war and how international organisations can help.

Next February will mark two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Every day the Swedish news media report on events in the war and it is perhaps the stories of the civilian population that we remember most.

“The citizens of Ukraine are being severely affected, with many civilians directly affected by the violence: either killed or injured. There are also secondary effects, such as difficulties in obtaining food and medicine due to destroyed infrastructure,” says Hultman, Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, who researches into how the civilian population is being affected by war.

It is particularly when there is fighting over territories or cities that these effects are most pronounced and the civilian population most affected.

Wide variation in death tolls

It is very difficult to obtain reliable figures on how many people have died or been injured in the war so far.

“The figures vary greatly depending on the source – a sign that reliable figures are hard to come by. This is especially true in areas where there is fighting or where Russia controls territory,” notes Hultman.

portrait of Lisa Hultman, dark background.

Lisa Hultman, Lisa Hultman, Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The official UN figures dating from the beginning of the war until June 2023 have identified 9,000 civilian casualties, while the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) at Uppsala University estimates the death toll at 22,200 civilian victims. The reason these may differ is because different methods are used to verify the figures and collect the information.

“When access is eventually gained to the combat areas, testimonies and graves can be used to get more accurate figures. But we may never know for sure how many people died in the war,” explains Hultman.

What happens when the war is over?

Researchers at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) say that in this particular war, it will be easier to obtain data on civilian casualties than military ones. The parties have strong incentives to hide their own losses.

“We see on both sides that they do not acknowledge their own losses, but instead pump out information about how many from the opposing side they have killed. Not only is it difficult to get information, but the information provided is not reliable,” continues Hultman.

So what happens when the war is over, is it important for Russia to be held accountable for the war and is it even possible?
“That is very important, but it will be a difficult process. Russia has violated several laws by invading Ukraine in the first place, but also by abusing the civilian population and besieging cities,” explains Hultman.

“There is currently an extradition order for Russian President Vladimir Putin issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but Russia itself will not extradite him and if he visits other countries it is up to them as to whether he is extradited or not.

“There are other routes to pursue beyond the International Criminal Court, such as a special tribunal, but that requires the cooperation of the parties,” she notes.

External condemnation plays major role

The way in which a civilian population is affected by war and conflict can vary greatly depending on the nature of that conflict. In some conflicts we see a lot of direct violence, where the primary target is civilians in massacres or attacks, and then there is indirect violence, or accidental deaths, where civilians die in military attacks.

“In Ukraine today we are mostly seeing indirect violence. Civilian casualties are also heavily influenced by other aspects of warfare, such as whether a state is concerned about the outside world’s perception. Ukraine, for example, is very dependent on international support, which affects their approach to warfare,” explains Hultman.

The civilian population is also affected in ways other than through casualties, such as injuries, putting enormous pressure on the country’s healthcare. When infrastructure is destroyed, the supply of food, water and medicines also gets cut off, which of course leads to major consequences for the population.

“The trauma and psychological effects are also very intense, of course. In some long-running wars, we’re talking about whole generations being affected and losing their childhood and chances of gaining an education,” continues Hultman.

Toothless Security Council

The UN Security Council is the independent authority designed to manage wars and security. Russia is a member of the Security Council and has a veto, so when it comes to the war in Ukraine, the Security Council is left powerless.

“No condemnations, sanctions or military operations can be issued by the UN, so it’s a difficult path to pursue. There are many other UN bodies, such as the UNHCR, which can play an important role as well,” Hultman notes.

There are also other international actors that play an important role in helping civilians during a war, such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

“They can often talk to the combatants about allowing these types of organisations to come in and do their job,” she notes.

Agnes Loman

Uppsala Conflict Data Program

  • The Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) is the world’s main provider of data on organized violence and the oldest ongoing data collection project for civil war, with a history of almost 40 years.
  • Its definition of armed conflict has become the global standard of how conflicts are systematically defined and studied.

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