Britain and global deaths in conflict – an estimate

Table – Britain and global deaths in conflicts

The following table is taken from Mark Curtis’ book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, published in 2004. It gives figures on the estimated number of deaths for which Britain bears ‘significant responsibility’. There are four categories of British responsibility:

  • ‘Direct responsibility’ is where British military and/or covert forces have played a direct role.
  • ‘Indirect responsibility’ is where Britain has provided strong support (through trade, arms exports, aid and/or diplomatic support) for allies engaged in aggression or killing.
  • ‘Active inaction’ is where Britain has specifically helped to block international action to halt killings (Note that this and the second category are different than merely ‘turning a blind eye’, which would include many other cases).
  • The ‘others’ category contains a solitary case, that of the Idi Amin regime’s state terror, a description of which is provided below.

Estimates on the number of deaths in any conflict always vary, often very widely. Where there is no footnote below, I have used the most commonly cited estimate. For others I have generally sourced the varying estimates. The overall figure is between 8.6 million and 13.5 million – or ‘around 10 million’. Of these, Britain bears ‘direct responsibility’ for between 4 million to nearly 6 million deaths.

Note that this figure is if anything likely to be an underestimate. For one thing, not all British interventions have been included, such as those in Oman in 1957-9 and in 1964-74 owing to lack of available on the scale of deaths. In the category of ‘indirect responsibility’, I have excluded many repressive regimes that Britain has backed throughout the postwar period; I have tended to include those cases on which I have focused in this and previous books. I have also not included US backing of the Guatemala regime from the 1960s to the 1980s, responsible for around 200,000 deaths. The reason is that while Britain strongly backed US policy in Central America, there is not as much direct and specific support for US policy in Guatemala as there was in the case of El Salvador and Nicaragua, explained in the third column.

The figures generally refer to the number of ‘enemy’ deaths rather than total deaths, where it has been possible to disaggregate the estimates.

Finally, I do not pretend this is a fully scientific analysis – the exclusion of certain episodes, the extent of British responsibility and the estimates on numbers of deaths are of course all open to interpretation, as in any table of this kind. Nevertheless, it gives a reasonably accurate reflection of British responsibility for a very large number of deaths in the postwar world.




Estimated number of deaths Britain’s role
    Direct responsibility
2003 – invasion of Iraq 10,000-55,000[1] British forces played secondary role to US in military operations
2001 – bombing of Afghanistan 15,000 – 25,000[2] Ditto
1999 – bombing of Yugoslavia 1,000[3] British forces played secondary role to US in military operations as part of wider NATO campaign
1998 – bombing of Iraq 600 – 1,600[4] British forces played secondary role to US in military operations
1991 – Gulf war against Iraq over 100,000[5] Ditto
1982 – Falklands war 655 British military fought Argentina
1961-73 – war against Southeast Asia 2 – 3 million[6] Britain privately backed US strongly, regularly supported it publicly but also played several direct roles: providing military and ‘counter-insurgency’ advice to South Vietnam; British covert forces took part in the war; intelligence was passed to US military. The British role was therefore more ‘direct’ than ‘indirect’ (see Unpeople, chapter 12)
1962-70 – war in Yemen 100,000 – 200,000 British secret operation involving covert action and arms supplies (see Unpeople, chapter 16)
1964-7 – British suppression of Aden revolt 300 – 900 British ‘colonial’ government forces responsible
1965/6 – Indonesian army slaughters 500,000 – 1 million[7] Britain provided Indonesian generals with variety of direct, covert support, including ‘information’ operations[8]
1952-60 – war in Kenya up to 150,000[9] British colonial war and ‘resettlement’ operations[10]
1948-60 – war in Malaya 10,000 – 13,000 Ditto[11]
1957/8 – rebellion against Indonesian central government thousands[12] Covert operation with US to support the rebellion, including arms supplies (see Unpeople, chapter 11)
1956 – British invasion of Egypt 1,600 – 3,000[13] Military intervention with France and Israel
1948-55 – Uprising in Baltic states of the USSR 75,000[14] British covert operation to fund and support uprisings[15]
1953 – coup in Iran 300 Covert operation with CIA[16]
1950-3 – Korean war at least 1 million[17] Military played key role technically as part of UN force, in reality led by US
1944-9 – Greek civil war 65,000 – 80,000[18] Military/covert operations to support Greek government
1945-9 – war for Indonesian independence 5,000 – 80,000[19] Military involvement to suppress independence movement
SUB-TOTAL   4.03m – 5.71m

Indirect responsibility

2000-present – Israeli killings in occupied territories 2,723[20] Blair government is strong supporter of Israeli policies, in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 9)
1999-present – killings in Nigeria up to 10,000[21] Blair government is strong supporter of Nigerian policies, in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 10)
1999-present – Second Russian invasion of Chechnya 15,000 – 25,000[22] Blair government is strong supporter of Russian policies, in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 9)
1996-present – Nepal civil war 3,300[23] Blair government provides military/diplomatic support to Nepal government (see Unpeople, chapter 9)
1990- present – Colombia state killings 20,000 – 40,000[24] Blair and previous governments are strong supporters of Colombian policies, in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 9)
1976-present – Indonesian attacks in Aceh province 15,000 Blair and previous governments are strong supporters of Indonesian policies, in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 11)
1969-present – Indonesian attacks in West Papua province 100,000 ditto
1991-2003 – Sanctions against Iraq 500,000 – 1 million[25] Technically maintained by the UN; in reality supported virtually solely by Britain and US
1999 – Indonesian attacks in East Timor around 5,000 Blair government continued to support, and arm, Indonesia, throughout violence[26]
1984-1999 – Turkey’s campaign against Kurds around 30,000[27] Blair and previous governments are strong supporters of Turkish policies, in various ways[28]
1998 – US bombing of Sudan perhaps tens of thousands[29] Britain strongly supported US attack that destroyed  pharmaceutical factor producing most of Sudan’s life-saving drugs
1994-6 – Russian invasion of Chechnya 60,000 – 100,000 Major government provided strong support to Russia, in various ways
1948-94 – Apartheid South Africa state killings 10,000 – 20,000 British governments consistently backed South African regimes, in various ways[30]
1989 – US invasion of Panama 350 – 3,000[31] Britain provided strong diplomatic support
1980-88 – Iran/Iraq war 1 million Thatcher government effectively supported Iraq’s attack on Iran, supplying it with military equipment and financial aid
1987-8 – Iraq’s campaign against Kurds 100,000 Ditto[32]
1984/5 – Ugandan civil war 100,000 – 300,000 Britain provided strong support to Ugandan government and maintained military training programme
1984/5 – Indonesian state killings 5,000 Thatcher government was strong supporter of Indonesia, in various ways
Early 1980s – El Salvador civil war 75,000-80,000 Thatcher government provided strong diplomatic backing to US strategy supporting Salvadoran regime
1980s – US aggression against Nicaragua 30,000 Thatcher government provided strong diplomatic and other backing, including covert support, to US strategy[33]
1953-79 – Shah’s regime in Iran 10,000 British governments provided strong support to Shah’s regime, in various ways[34]
1975 – Indonesian invasion of East Timor 200,000 Wilson/Callaghan governments provided strong backing to Indonesia in various ways[35]
1973 – coup in Chile at least 3,000 Heath government welcomed coup and backed Pinochet regime, as did subsequent British governments (see Unpeople, chapter 14)
1967-70 – Nigeria/Biafra civil war 1 – 3 million Wilson government gave strong backing to Nigeria in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 10)
1963 – Iraq killings 5,000 Macmillan government in effect supported massacres and welcomed new military government (see Unpeople, chapter 5)
1960s – Iraq campaigns against Kurds 12,000 – 100,000[36] British governments gave strong backing to Iraq in various ways (see Unpeople, chapter 5)
SUB-TOTAL   3.32m – 6.20m
    Active inaction
1990s – Yugoslav civil wars 200,000 – 250,000 Major government played key role to prevent international action against Milosevic regime[37]
1994 – Rwanda genocide 800,000 – 1 million Major government played key role at the UN to prevent international action to prevent or stop genocide[38]
SUB-TOTAL   1m – 1.25m
1971-9 – Ugandan state terror (Idi Amin era) 300,000 Heath government welcomed and supported Amin’s rule in its first year. Most atrocities were committed after this period but Britain bears significant responsibility in enabling Amin regime to consolidate its rule.
SUB-TOTAL   300,000
TOTAL   8.65m – 13.47m

REFERENCES (See Unpeople book for full references)

[1] See chapter 1

[2] Figures vary widely. The Guardian estimated 10,000-20,000 civilian deaths as an indirect result of the bombing. Estimates of the military deaths are usually in the 3,000-6,000 range. Web of Deceit, p.49

[3] Human Rights Watch estimates 500 civilian deaths (‘Civilian deaths in the NATO air campaign’, February 2000, Some estimates, which include military deaths, are often over 1,000. 20th Century Atlas: Alphabetical list of war, massacre, tyranny and genocide,

[4] 20th Century Atlas

[5] Figures vary very widely; see 20th Century Atlas.  Immediately after the war the US government estimated 100,000 deaths. Other independent estimates are much lower, others much higher.

[6] Figures vary very widely, from hundreds of thousands to 4 million. Most deaths were those of Vietnamese, with figures usually ranging from 1 – 3 million. Hundreds of thousands were also killed in Cambodia and Laos.

[7] Some estimates are as low as 300,000 but most credible figures are much higher and some estimate over a million.

[8] See Web of Deceit, chapter 20

[9] estimated number of deaths due principally to the brutal ‘resettlement’ operations. Estimates of number of Mau Mau killed in actual fighting vary from 10,000-13,000.

[10] See Web of Deceit, chapter 15

[11]  See Web of Deceit, chapter 16

[12] Figures unknown

[13] 20th Century Atlas

[14] Prados, p.43

[15] See Dorril, chapter  16

[16] See Web of Deceit, chapter 14

[17] Figures vary very widely. This is approximate figure for North Korean and Chinese deaths

[18] This is approximate figure for deaths on the rebels (ie, EAM/ELAS) side.

[19] Figures vary extremely widely. See 20th Century Atlas

[20] Figure from September 2000 (beginning of second intifada) to March 2004; Palestinian Red Crescent Society,

[21] Nigerian police and army are complicit in many of these killings; See chapter 10

[22] Russia provided an official number of 15,000 Chechen deaths by August 2003 (AFP, ‘Russia underplays Chechnya deaths’, 8 August 2003). This is likely to be a severe underestimate, especially in light of the ferocious attack on Grozny in 1999/2000.

[23] Number of deaths by government forces from 1996-2002; Web of Deceit, p.81

[24] Figures vary. 35,000 – 40,000 is a commonly cited figure since 1990; some current estimates, however, state 15,000 in the past 10 years.

[25] The UN estimated half a million deaths of children under five as a result of the 1991 war and sanctions. Former UN Coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, has given a figure, including adults, of over a million. Web of Deceit, p.29

[26] See Web of Deceit, chapter 21

[27] The Turkish government in 2001 gave a figure of 23,000 Kurds killed;; Independent estimates are usually higher.

[28] See Web of Deceit, chapter 1

[29] see Web of Deceit, p.111; Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, p,206

[30] See Ambiguities of Power, pp.119-29

[31] The Central American Human Rights Commission estimates 2,000-3,000; Physicians for Human Rights estimates 300 civilian deaths and 50 military deaths (‘Panama: Operation Just Cause’, December 1990)

[32] See Web of Deceit, chapter 1

[33] See Web of Deceit, chapter 4

[34] See Web of Deceit, chapter 14

[35] See Web of Deceit, chapter 21

[36] Figures vary widely; 20th Century Atlas

[37] See especially Brendan Simms, Unfinest hour: Britain and the destruction of Bosnia, Allen Lane, London, 2001

[38] See Web of Deceit, chapter 18

1 comment

  1. Prashanth says:

    Misses out on India. Deaths due to Bengal Famine, Deaths due to Partition among others.

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