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Review of Congo war halves death toll

The Congo conflict has been dubbed the world's deadliest since World War II, causing 5.4 million deaths, in a widely cited study. But one group is challenging that count.
Congo Deadliest Conflict
Rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, in red berets, inspect government prisoners of war at Kala, Congo, in 2000. Cranimer Mugerwa / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Congo conflict has been dubbed the world's deadliest since World War II, causing 5.4 million deaths, in a widely cited study. But a research group is challenging those figures, saying proper survey techniques would cut the number in half.

The figure of 5.4 million deaths since 1998 has become widely used since it was publicized by the International Rescue Committee, a private relief agency. The figures jolted the U.S. and U.N. into elevating the Congo crisis on their agendas.

The U.N. Security Council cited IRC's figures in the process of deciding to raise a peacekeeping force for Congo, which has now grown to over 20,000 troops, the U.N.'s biggest peacekeeping operation.

"Following the release of the 2000 survey results, total humanitarian aid increased by over 500 percent between 2000 and 2001. The United States' contribution alone increased by a factor of almost 26. It is probably fair to assert that the mortality data played a significant role in increasing international assistance," one of IRC's key researchers, Richard Brennan, wrote in a 2006 journal article.

But a new review released Wednesday says the statistics themselves are questionable, "dramatically elevating the 'excess' death toll" — deaths caused by disease, lack of food and medicine, and malnutrition.

Problems cited
The Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada found two major dilemmas with the IRC's 2000-2008 study:

  • The Human Security Report rejected the interview-based sampling that was done in dangerous eastern Congo regions, arguing that the areas were not representative of the entire country.
  • It also questioned the figure the IRC used for the "normal" mortality rate in Congo, where prewar statistics were unreliable. The IRC used the average mortality rate for sub-Saharan Africa, but some experts argue Congo's rate was higher even before the conflict. If the baseline death rate is set lower than it actually is, a larger proportion of deaths would be attributed to the war and its consequences.

"In Congo, people were already dying in higher numbers than in the rest of Africa, even before the war. And they continued to die in higher numbers after the war," said professor emeritus Joshua Goldstein of American University's School of International Service, American University. He is writing a chapter on Congo for his next book, and estimates that 1 million to 2 million Congolese died as a result of the conflict.

The IRC said in response that it stands by its research, pointing out that it has been transparent about field sampling problems and assumptions about baseline mortality rates. IRC said in a written response that "5.4 million is our best estimate based on established methodology and conservative assumptions, but the real figure could be as low as 3 million or as high as 7.6 million."

Congo has been mired in conflict since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled war across the border and ethnic Rwandan Hutu militias sought refuge in Congo. Rwanda has invaded twice to eradicate the militias, toppling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the process. Fighting from 1998-2002 drew in half a dozen African armies and split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms.