State Dept. Defends Estimate Of Deaths in Darfur Conflict

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The State Department posted on its Web site yesterday an internal analysis of the death toll in Sudan's Darfur region since violence broke out two years ago, providing an analytical explanation for figures cited by Deputy Secretary Robert B. Zoellick that had stirred outrage by human rights groups.

But the release of the study appeared to do little to calm the storm over the figures. Authors of other studies immediately faulted its methodology and lack of sources.

State Department officials generally have declined to estimate the number of dead from violence, disease and malnutrition in Darfur, where Arab militiamen armed by the government have battled largely black African rebel groups. But while visiting Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, earlier this month, Zoellick held a news conference in which he cited an internal State Department finding that 60,000 to 160,000 had died in the conflict, after accounting for normal mortality rates for the region.

At the time, Zoellick acknowledged that "there are numbers that are higher" and there is a "degree of uncertainty" about any estimate. Other surveys had pegged the death toll much higher -- ranging from a low of 180,000 deaths just from health causes to an overall high of 400,000. One such study, by the Coalition for International Justice (CIJ), relied on 17 months of interviews with nearly 6,000 survivors of attacks and information on deaths from malnutrition and disease collected by the World Health Organization.

Human rights activists have reacted with fury to the State Department estimate, overshadowing nearly a full week of diplomacy conducted by Zoellick to deal with Sudan's myriad conflicts. John Prendergast, special adviser on Sudan to the International Crisis Group, told reporters in a conference call Monday that figures cited by Zoellick are "a deliberate effort by the Bush administration to downplay the severity of the crisis in order to reduce the urgency of an additional response."

State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli denied that, saying "charges such as these are absurd and irresponsible. No country has done more than the United States to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or to mobilize international action on behalf of those in need."

Zoellick, in a letter to The Washington Post, noted that he "did not invent intelligence or stretch it" and did not try to persuade analysts to change their estimate. State Department officials said they decided to release the study, written by the department's intelligence bureau, to explain the estimate and also demonstrate why they believe its lower estimate is more reliable.

The State Department report said 63,000 to 146,000 people had died since March 2003 because of violence, disease and malnutrition. "Wildly divergent death toll statistics, ranging from 70,000 to 400,000, result from applying partial data to larger, nonrepresentative populations over incompatible time periods," it said, with mortality rates much lower since humanitarian assistance ramped up in mid-2004.

The study said it was based on more than 30 health and mortality studies but did not cite sources. But one senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the report was "less scientific than you'd think" and reflected figures that had "circulated in the building."

Eric Reeves, an independent researcher who has also calculated 400,000 deaths, and John Hagan of Northwestern University, who helped conduct the CIJ study, said the State Department attacked other studies for flaws they said did not exist. The report is "so intellectually shoddy that it is difficult for me to believe it was not politically inspired," Reeves said.

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