Some time back, the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a study that put the number of violent deaths attributable to the invasion and occupation of Iraq at 601,000.

While Messrs Bush, Blair and Howard – noted statisticians all – dismissed the figure with lordly waves, an impressive array of Australian scientists was less sanguine. They explained to The Age why they judged the report valid: “The cross-sectional household cluster sample survey method used is a standard, robust, well-established method for gathering health data. A copy of a death certificate was available for a high proportion (92%) of deaths. Conservative assumptions were made about deaths of uncertain cause and about the small areas not sampled.”

The Lancet study was based on data current to July 2006. Now the American group Just Foreign Policy has produced an updated figure, suggesting that to date the war and occupation have killed nearly a million Iraqis.

As Just Foreign Policy acknowledges, the number is an extrapolation and it lacks the methodological rigour of The Lancet report. Basically, it projects the earlier figures forward, using a rate based on the Iraq Body Count project’s tabulation of deaths reported in the media.

Less than perfect, sure – but the best estimate we have. And it indicates that more people have died in Iraq than during the Rwandan genocide. Now what took place in Rwanda was undoubtedly a crime. So what about Iraq?

It should be remembered that, in 2003, many – perhaps most – experts doubted that the invasion had any basis in international law. As thirty-one Canadian law professors explained in one of the many open letters circulating at the time, the Iraq war represented “a fundamental breach of international law (that) would seriously threaten the integrity of the international legal order that has been in place since the end of the Second World War.”

Of course, as recent events have shown, law enforcement maintains its own priorities. Recklessly loaning a SIM card lands you in indefinite detention; devastating another country, not so much.

Whatever the legal consequences of the Iraq death toll, the moral implications are inescapable. WH Auden put it perfectly, in lines that might have been composed after reading the Just Foreign Policy report:

And the truth cannot be hid;
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened did.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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