Is the Administration Understating Darfur Deaths?

According to the Washington Post, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick recently weakened the case for action in Sudan by performing a statistical dance:

Darfur’s Real Death Toll

He said that the State Department’s estimate of deaths in Darfur was 60,000 to 160,000, a range that dramatically understates the true scale of the killing. If Mr. Zoellick wants to galvanize action on Darfur, he must take a fresh look at the numbers.

The lowest Darfur mortality number previously cited came from the World Health Organization. Last year it reported that 70,000 people had died, and many observers repeated this number without explaining it. WHO’s estimate referred only to deaths during a seven-month phase of a crisis that has now been going on for 26 months. It referred only to deaths from malnutrition and disease, excluding deaths from violence. And it referred only to deaths in areas to which WHO had access, excluding deaths among refugees in Chad and deaths in remote rural areas. In other words, the 70,000 estimate from WHO was a fraction of a fraction of the full picture. The 60,000 number that Mr. Zoellick cited as low-but-possible is actually low-and-impossible.

Other authorities suggest that mortality is likely to be closer to 400,000 — more than twice Mr. Zoellick’s high number. The component of this estimate involving deaths by violence is based on a survey by the Coalition for International Justice, a nongovernmental organization operating under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which asked 1,136 refugees on the Chad-Darfur border whether family members had died violently or gone missing.

I can verify neither the WHO nor the CIJ figures. But I can agree that there is indeed something bizarre about Zoellick’s numbers. First, let’s examine his actual statement (emphasis added):

The State Department analysis has been that the number of people who died beyond what would normally die is in the range of sixty to a hundred and sixty, as I believe. That̢۪s thousands. There are numbers that are higher and what I would emphasize in this is that I don̢۪t think anybody could know for sure. So, I think, you know, one has to be cautious with all these estimates, but since you asked I gave you sort of, our range estimate. But recognize that I, as a policy maker, take it with a certain degree of uncertainty around the sides.

To be sure, nobody can deny the haziness of the estimates. Yet the State Department itself has used the lower-bound WHO figures to which the editorial refers:

Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2004 – 2005

The situation in Darfur deteriorated during the year. Government and government-supported militia committed serious abuses, including bombing and razing hundreds of villages. Based on a study conducted between June and August, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that up to 70,000 civilians were killed or died as a result of the conflict. In addition more than 1.5 million civilians were internally displaced, and over 200,000 refugees fled to neighboring Chad by year’s end.

Another State Department publication, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, uses the same numbers. Note that it makes no reference to the WHO, giving the impression that the statistics are its own:

At year’s end, there were more than 1.5 million Internally Displaced Person (IDPs) in the Sudanese Province of Darfur, and another 200,000 civilians had fled into Chad, where the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) coordinated a massive refugee relief effort. Approximately 70,000 people reportedly died as a result of the violence and forced displacement.

As for the upper-bound estimate, see this piece on the London Embassy’s site. It’s part of “The Washington File,” which is “a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State”:

The Sudan conflict claimed over 2 million lives and displaced 4 million people. In Darfur, the death toll reached approximately 300,000 by the end of 2004 due to worsening humanitarian conditions alone, without taking into account deaths resulting from violence and the ongoing conflict.

This number is certainly closer to the CIJ estimate than to Zoellick’s range, which leads me to side with the Post.

In the 1990s, we learned that the government used various political tricks, like making questionable distinctions between “genocide” and “acts of genocide,” to delay action in Rwanda — only to discover later on unimaginable piles of corpses. We can’t afford to make the same mistakes again. That means the State Department must, at the very least, be more forthcoming about the death toll.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Thanks for writing on Darfur’s real death toll. Unfortunately, the media has lost credibility in not doing any fact-checking whatsoever on this important crisis. You started a good trend by asking questions, even though you do not know all the answers. More people like you are needed on the Internet and in our media. If we asked more questions instead of taking things at face value we would be much better off as informed citizens. Thank you!

    Just a note: Another great resource for Darfur’s real death toll is Professor Eric Reeves’ analysis’ located on I highly recommend looking into his reports on Darfur.