UN says civilian death toll in Ukraine underestimated, true number may never be known

The United Nations warns that the civilian casualty statistics it publishes daily do not reflect the full impact of the war in Ukraine, while military experts say the number of Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian forces is unlikely to be known only years after the end of the conflict. .

Experts say the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provides the most accurate daily statistics on civilian casualties in Ukraine. But the OHCHR itself says it may be grossly underestimating the true casualty rate.

“OHCHR believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities took place has been delayed and many reports are still awaiting confirmation,” he said. declared.

Since the February 24 invasion, OHCHR has confirmed that 1,232 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and 1,935 injured. Of the civilians killed, the UN said it confirmed 250 were men, 176 women, 18 girls and 36 boys. Another 58 children and 694 adults were also confirmed dead by the UN, but the agency was unable to determine their sex.

Experts say wartime civilian authorities — unlike the military — typically lack the resources and time to accurately count civilian casualties.

Howard Coombs, an assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, said modern militaries need detailed battle damage assessments to shape targeting plans, assess ongoing operations and provide direction to troops.

“You have systems and calculations that are standardized and can be used to get the most accuracy, because if you don’t have accurate information, you can’t shape your operations properly and you don’t know if you have to. success,” Coombs told CBC News.

“It’s a very different thing on the civilian side. There’s no calculation, systemically, like there is when counting military damage.”

Full civilian death toll unlikely, says UN

Coombs said that reaching an accurate tally of Ukrainian civilian deaths could “take years.” He pointed out that no one knows for sure how many Russian civilians were killed during World War II.

An OHCHR official told CBC News that while a full count of all civilian deaths may never take place, the agency should be able to account for around 90% of civilian deaths within a few months. following the end of the war.

“An accurate picture of the number of civilians actually killed could be obtained relatively quickly, while the process of recovering and identifying all mortal remains would probably never reach the stage where every civilian death could be claimed to be taken into account,” the official said. noted.

The official said the UN was aware of many “improvised burials” and “individually marked graves” that could be verified once OHCHR could enter – but that would depend on the level of devastation that UN workers would find in the field.

“There could be a considerable number of bodies whose identification would remain problematic for years to come, as well as those who are missing and probably deceased,” they said.

Refugees and the Fog of War

Experts say that if a mass casualty event, such as a gas explosion, occurred in an urban setting in a Western democracy, it would take days to determine how many people died. When the authorities who do this work — the police and the paramedics — no longer function, this work does not take place.

Walter Dorn, professor of defense studies at the Royal Military College, said towns that come under heavy bombardment lack functioning local services and cannot expect outside help.

“In Mariupol’s case, their ambulances can no longer function,” Dorn said. “They have run out of fuel and can’t get to the sites. So there are people starving in their apartments that the UN and the local authorities aren’t even aware of.

“In these difficult war conditions, it is impossible to really know the condition of all citizens. And even local authorities do not have the capacity to control people.”

A view of a destroyed building in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 30, 2022. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

The UN says more than four million Ukrainians have fled the country and countless others have been driven from their towns and villages to other parts of Ukraine.

“When you have a mass casualty type incident in many regions, it would be incredibly difficult for authorities in a stable region to deal with that and report accurately,” Coombs said.

“You add to that migration, displaced people, disrupted governance, disrupted security and safety, emergency services, and it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s going on.”

Experts say that if a tank with a crew of three is hit by a rocket while moving, it is safe to assume that the entire crew has been killed. But without knowing where people are – how many have fled, how many remain – officials cannot estimate the casualties of a missile attack on a civilian target.

UN only publishes confirmed death totals

Military experts told CBC News the attack on the World Trade Center provided a good example of how difficult it is to track civilian deaths. According to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, between 30,000 and 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers on any given day in 2001 – but the official death toll from the attack was only 10% of the low number in that range. .

Another reason for lower than expected estimates of civilian deaths in Ukraine is the cautious approach taken by the UN and the 37 human rights monitoring mission staff who collect and verify information.

A Polish firefighter holds a baby at the Medyka border crossing on March 17, 2022. More than four million Ukrainians – mostly women and children – have fled across the border, according to the UN. (Wojtek Radwansky/AFP/Getty Images)

“Neutrality is a key element in all UN-type operations, military or otherwise. Without neutrality, they cannot operate with all parties to the conflict,” Coombs said. “So if the UN isn’t very judicious about how it counts civilian casualty figures, that plays into the information warfare that’s actually going on.”

Ukraine the Attorney General publishes a list of war crimes committed against Ukraine by Russia but only offers specific civilian tolls for children. Ukraine says 148 children have been killed in the war against Russia so far, while OHCHR’s estimate is 112.

Dorn said Ukrainian authorities were trying to develop a reputation for accuracy and had avoided announcing unconfirmed civilian deaths.

An OHCHR official told CBC News in an email that it only reports civilian deaths “based on our independent verification of incidents and casualties involved” and that the agency does not provide “totals provided by others, including government agencies”.

The UN official said that because his officials cannot travel to much of Ukraine, “it has been very difficult to get information from some places where there has been or there is has intense hostilities, and so many reports have yet to be verified.”