Civilian casualties

The HOPE Columbine Memorial Library at Columbine High School, where most of the massacre took place on April 20, 1999. 13 civilians, among them 12 students and a teacher, were killed and 23 others injured by two perpetrators named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who also attended the school.

Civilian casualties occurs in a general sense, when civilians are killed or injured by non-civilians, mostly law enforcement officers, military personnel, or criminals such as terrorists and bank robbers. Under the law of war, it is referred to civilians who perished or suffered wounds as a result of wartime acts. In both cases, they can be associated with the outcome of any form of action regardless of whether civilians were targeted directly or not.


Casualties of a mass panic during a June 1941 Japanese bombing of Chongqing.[1] More than 5,000 civilians died during the first two days of air raids in 1939.

In times of armed conflict, despite numerous advancements in technology, the European Union’s European Security Strategy, adopted by the European Council in Brussels in December 2003, stated that since 1990, almost 4 million people have died in wars, 90% of them civilians.[citation needed] However, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that civilian fatalities have climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.[2]

Generating reliable assessments of casualties of war is a notoriously complex process. Civilian casualties present particular difficulties. One problem is that the attribution of the label ‘civilian’ is contested in some cases. On the surface, the definition of a civilian, at least in the context of international armed conflicts, is relatively simple: a civilian is any person who is not a member of the armed forces and is not a combatant in situation of armed conflict. To make effective use of such statistics as there are about civilian casualties of war, it is necessary to be explicit about the criteria for inclusion. All too often, there is a lack of clarity about which of the following categories of civilian casualties are included in any given set of figures.[3]

1. Those killed as a direct effect of war;
2. Those injured as a direct effect of war;
3. Those dying, whether during or after a war, from indirect effects of war such as disease, malnutrition and lawlessness, and who would not have been expected to die at such rates from such causes in the absence of the war;
4. Victims of one-sided violence, such as when states slaughter their own citizens in connection with a war;
5. Victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence in connection with a war;
6. Those uprooted in a war – that is, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs);
7 Those who, even after a war is over, die prematurely from injuries sustained in war.

The inclusion of people in each of these categories may be defensible, but needs to be explicit. Each category presents its own methodological problems. In the case of people dying from indirect effects (category 3), much careful work is needed to distinguish between ‘expected’ and ‘excess’ levels. of mortality. In the case of victims of sexual crimes (category 5) there could be an argument for including not only direct crimes by combatants, but also 'indirect’ crimes due to general social collapse. In the case of those uprooted in war (category 6), the implication that refugees and IDPs always count as war victims is too simple. Some may be fleeing one-sided violence from a repressive state apparatus, natural calamity, or general social breakdown. Moreover, in certain episodes, such as the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Afghanistan War of 2001, military campaigns have enabled large numbers of refugees to return home. Indeed, in the 1971 and 1999 wars, refugee return was a stated reason for launching hostilities. Yet this key observation finds remarkably little reflection in the literature about the casualties of contemporary war. A focus on the numbers of those uprooted in war is especially problematic as those who are trapped in conflict zones may in fact be worse off than those uprooted, but seldom feature in statistics. Figures for war deaths and for war-related migration should be presented separately, not amalgamated.[3]