Mark Curtis: Britain and global deaths in conflict – an estimate

9th January 2019 / United Kingdom
Mark Curtis: Britain and global deaths in conflict – an estimate

The following table (see link) is taken from Mark Curtis’ book, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. 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.


See article and table of conflict, deaths and involvement.


Mark Curtis is an author and consultant. He is a former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and has been an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde. Mark has written six books on British foreign policies and international development.

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