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An Index of Atrocity

STATE-SPONSORED violence in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in many civilian casualties, has been referred to as the Dirty War. Now researchers have developed a new tool they call the Dirty War Index (DWI), which measures the rate at which particularly undesirable or prohibited (dirty) outcomes occur during a civil or international conflict.

The index was devised by Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks of the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London and Michael Spagat, a professor in the Department of Economics, Royal Holloway College, University of London.

The DWI is calculated by dividing the number of dirty cases occurring in a conflict (such as child injury, torture, or civilian death) versus the total number of cases. For example, to calculate the DWI of civilians killed during a conflict, the researchers would divide the total number of civilians killed by the combined total number of civilians and opponent combatants killed. (The DWI does not delineate which side of a conflict, if any, civilians are on.)

There are several reasons that the researchers chose to use the word “dirty.” There was the common usage of the term as a descriptor of unacceptable warfare that violates international humanitarian standards, such as those set by the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Hicks says that she and Spagat also wanted to avoid talking of war in sanitized terms.

“Dirty has immediate real repercussions when you hear it,” she says. She adds that it links bad behaviors “directly to the moral standing of whoever’s responsible for it.”

Hicks hopes the DWI shows researchers that they can produce good data on armed conflicts. But another major goal of the DWI is to make the information important to society.

The DWI may be a deterrent, according to Hicks, in that it could lead to monitoring of current or imminent conflicts. “You know you’re being watched and, therefore, you’re being held to a standard, you’re being held accountable for what you do,” says Hicks.

Hicks compares it to Berlin-based nongovernmental organization Transparency International’s well-known corruption perceptions index that ranks nations on the basis of how corrupt others believe they are. Hicks stresses that “it’s not a black or white thing, like either you’re dirty or you’re clean. It’s the idea of comparing to others to create that pressure for better behavior. Or even comparing yourself over time.”

For example, in the Colombian civil conflict, in data taken from 1988 through 2005, there were 6,944 civilians and 41 combatants reported killed by paramilitaries. The DWI on killings by para-military was 99 (on a scale of 0-100, 0 being the cleanest) due to the high number of civilian deaths.

The concept may be good, but getting reliable data isn’t always that easy. Nathan Taback, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, wrote a paper examining some of the statistical aspects of the DWI. He says one of the issues in doing a DWI is feasibility. “It’s very hard to get good data in conflicts,” Taback says.

One concern in generating data is selection bias due to the way the data is collected—through media accounts rather than firsthand reports, for example. There may be underreporting of crimes, such as rape, or overreporting of civilian casualties in conflicts where combatants don’t wear uniforms. Hicks admits that the DWI is not appropriate in all cases.