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In armed conflicts, the civilian casualty ratio (also civilian death ratio, civilian-combatant ratio, etc.) is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties, or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by or to a particular belligerent, casualties inflicted in one aspect or arena of a conflict or to casualties in the conflict as a whole. Casualties usually refer to both dead and injured. In some calculations deaths resulting from famine and epidemics are included.

Starting in the 1980s it was often claimed that 90 percent of the victims of modern wars were civilians.[1][2][3][4] The claim was repeated on Wikipedia's Did You Know on 14 December 2010. These claims, though widely believed, are not supported by detailed examination of the evidence, particularly that relating to wars (such as those in former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan) that are central to the claims.[5] Some of the citations can be traced back to a 1991 monograph from Uppsala University[6] which includes refugees and internally displaced persons as casualties. Other authors cite Ruth Leger Sivard's 1991 monograph in which the author states “In the decade of the 1980s, the proportion of civilian deaths jumped to 74 percent of the total and in 1990 it appears to have been close to 90 percent.”[7]

The most comprehensive examination of civilian war deaths throughout history is by William Eckhardt,[8] in which Eckhardt states:

"On the average, half of the deaths caused by war happened to civilians, only some of whom were killed by famine associated with war...The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century." (p. 97)

Mexican Revolution (1910–20)[edit | edit source]

Although it's estimated at least 1 million people died in the Mexican Revolution, most died from disease and hunger as an indirect result of the war. Combat deaths are generally agreed to have totaled about 250,000. According to Eckhardt, these included 125,000 civilian deaths and 125,000 military deaths, creating a civilian-combatant death ratio of 1:1 among combat deaths.[9][10]

World War I[edit | edit source]

Some 9 to 10 million combatants on both sides are estimated to have died during World War I, along with an estimated 6.6 million civilians. The civilian casualty rate in World War I is therefore approximately 2:3 or 40%. Most of the civilian fatalities were due to famine or Spanish flu rather than military action. The relatively low rate of civilian casualties in this war is due to the fact that the front lines on the main battlefront, the Western Front, were static for most of the war, so that civilians were able to avoid the combat zones. Casualties for the Western allies, consequently, were relatively slight. Germany, on the other hand, suffered 750,000 civilian dead during and after the war due to famine caused by the Allied blockade. Russia and Turkey suffered civilian casualties in the millions in the Russian Civil War and invasion of Anatolia and deportation of Ottomans from Balkan region respectively.[11]

World War II[edit | edit source]

According to most sources, World War II was the most lethal war in world history, with some 70 million killed in six years. The civilian to combatant fatality rate in World War II lies somewhere between 3:2 and 2:1, or from 60% to 67%.[12] The high rate of civilian casualties in this war was due in part to the increasing lethality of strategic weapons, used to target enemy industrial or population centres, and famines caused by economic disruption. A substantial number of civilians in this war were also deliberately killed by the Axis Powers as a result of racial policies (for example, the Holocaust) or ethnic cleansing campaigns.[11]

Korean War[edit | edit source]

The median total estimated Korean civilian deaths in the Korean War is 1,547,000. The total estimated North Korean military deaths is 215,000 and the estimated Chinese military deaths is over 400,000. In addition to this the Republic of Korea military deaths is around 138,000 dead and the military deaths for the United Nations side is around 40,000. The estimated Korean war military dead is around 793,000 deaths. The civilian-combatant death ratio in the war is approximately 2:1 or more precisely 195%. One source estimates that 20% of the total population of North Korea perished in the war.[13]

Vietnam War[edit | edit source]

The Vietnamese government has estimated the number of Vietnamese civilians killed in the Vietnam War at two million, and the number of NVA and Viet Cong killed at 1.1 million — estimates which approximate those of a number of other sources.[14] This would give a civilian-combatant fatality rate of approximately 2:1, or more precisely 182%. These figures do not include civilians killed in Cambodia and Laos. However, the lowest estimate of 411,000[15] civilians killed during the war (including civilians killed in Cambodia and Laos) would give a civilian-combatant fatality rate of approximately 1:3, or more precisely 37%. Using the lowest estimate of Vietnamese military deaths, 400,000, the ratio is about 1:1.

1982 Lebanon War[edit | edit source]

In 1981, the PLO in Lebanon began shelling villages in northern Israel. In 1982, Israel mounted its response.[16] The war culminated in a seven-week long Israeli naval, air and artillery bombardment of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, where the PLO had retreated. The bombardment eventually came to an end with an internationally brokered settlement in which the PLO forces were given safe passage to evacuate the country.[17][18]

According to the International Red Cross, by the end of the first week of the war alone, some 10,000 people, including 2,000 combatants, had been killed, and 16,000 wounded—a civilian-combatant fatality rate of 5:1.[19] Lebanese government sources later estimated that by the end of the siege of Beirut, a total of about 18,000 had been killed, an estimated 85% of whom were civilians.[18][20]

According to Richard A. Gabriel between 1,000 and 3,000 civilians were killed in the southern campaign.[21] He states that an additional 4,000 to 5,000 civilians died from all actions of all sides during the siege of Beirut,[21] and that some 2,000 Syrian soldiers were killed during the Lebanon campaign and a further 2,400 PLO guerillas were also killed.[21] Of these, 1,000 PLO guerrillas were killed during the siege.[21] According to Gabriel the ratio of civilian deaths to combatants during the siege was about 6 to 1 but this ratio includes civilian deaths from all actions of all sides.[21]

Chechen wars[edit | edit source]

During the First Chechen War, 4,000 separatist fighters and 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died, giving a civilian-combatant ratio of 10:1. The numbers for the Second Chechen War are 3,000 fighters and 13,000 civilians, for a ratio of 43:10. The combined ratio for both wars is 76:10. Casualty numbers for the conflict are notoriously unreliable. The estimates of the civilian casualties during the First Chechen war range from 20,000 to 100,000, with remaining numbers being similarly unreliable.[22] The tactics employed by Russian forces in both wars were heavily criticized by human rights groups, which accused them of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas and other crimes.[23][24]

NATO in Yugoslavia[edit | edit source]

In 1999, NATO intervened in the Kosovo War with a bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces, who were alleged to be conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The bombing lasted about 2½ months, until forcing the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Kosovo.

Estimates for the number of casualties caused by the bombing vary widely depending on the source. NATO unofficially claimed a toll of 5,000 enemy combatants killed by the bombardment; the Yugoslav government, on the other hand, gave a figure of 638 of its security forces killed in Kosovo.[25] Estimates for the civilian toll are similarly disparate. Human Rights Watch counted approximately 500 civilians killed by the bombing; the Yugoslav government estimated between 1,200 and 5,000.[26]

If the NATO figures are to be believed, the bombings achieved a civilian to combatant kill ratio of about 1:10, on the Yugoslav government's figures, conversely, the ratio would be between 4:1 and 10:1. If the most conservative estimates from the sources cited above are used, the ratio was around 1:1.

According to military historian and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, for every Serbian soldier killed by NATO in 1999 (the period in which Operation Allied Force took place), four civilians died, a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 4:1. Oren cites this figure as evidence that "even the most moral army can make mistakes, especially in dense urban warfare".[27]

Coalition forces in the Iraq War[edit | edit source]

According to a 2010 assessment by John Sloboda of Iraq Body Count, a United Kingdom-based organization, American and Coalition forces had killed at least 28,736 combatants as well as 13,807 civilians in the Iraq War, indicating an essential civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 1:2.[28] It is unclear what percentage of civilians were killed in the initial invasion by the coalition.

US drone strikes in Pakistan[edit | edit source]

The civilian casualty rate for U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan is notoriously difficult to quantify. The U.S. itself puts the number of civilians killed from drone strikes in the last two years at no more than 20 to 30, a total that is far too low according to a spokesman for the NGO CIVIC.[29] At the other extreme, Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill "10 or so civilians" for every militant killed, which would represent a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 10:1. Byman argues that civilian killings constitute a humanitarian tragedy and create dangerous political problems, including damage to the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and alienation of the Pakistani populace from America.[30] An ongoing study by the New America Foundation finds non-militant casualty rates started high but have declined steeply over time, from about 60% (3 out of 5) in 2004-2007 to less than 2% (1 out of 50) in 2012. The study puts the overall non-militant casualty rate since 2004 at 15-16%, or a 1:5 ratio, out of a total of between 1,908 and 3,225 people killed in Pakistan by drone strikes since 2004.[31]

Israeli–Palestinian conflict[edit | edit source]

The head of the Shin Bet reported to the Israeli Cabinet that of the 810 Palestinians killed in Gaza in 2006 and 2007, 200 were civilians (a ratio of approximately 1:3). Haaretz assessed this to be an underestimation of civilian casualties. Using B'tselem's figures they calculated that 816 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza during the two-year period, 360 of whom were civilians.[32] 1,010 Israelis were killed between September 29, 2000 and January 1, 2005. Of these, 773 were civilians killed in Palestinian attacks, resulting in a ratio of approximately 5:1.[33]

Israeli airstrikes on militants in the Gaza Strip[edit | edit source]

The remains of an Islamic Jihad vehicle after an Israeli ambush that left six Islamic Jihad militants dead.[34]

The civilian casualty rate of the targeted assassinations was surveyed by Haaretz military journalist Amos Harel. In 2002 and 2003, the ratio was 1:1, meaning one civilian killed for every militant killed. Harel called this period "the dark days" because of the relatively high civilian death toll as compared to later years. He attributed this to an Israeli Air Force (IAF) practice of attacking militants even when they were located in densely populated areas. While there were always safety rules, argued Harel, these were "bent" at times in view of the target's importance.[35]

The civilian casualty ratio dropped steeply to 1:28 in late 2005, meaning one civilian killed for every 28 militants killed. Harel credited this drop to the new IAF chief Eliezer Shkedi's policies. The ratio rose again in 2006 to 1:10, a fact that Harel blamed on "several IAF mishaps". However, in 2007 and 2008 the ratio dropped to an unprecedented level of less than 1:30, or 2–3 percent of the total casualties being civilian.[35] Figures showing an improvement from 1:1 in 2002 to 1:30 in 2008 were also cited by Jerusalem Post journalist Yaakov Katz.[28]

Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School stated that the 2008 figure of 1:30 represents the lowest civilian to combatant casualty ratio in history in the setting of combating terrorism. Dershowitz criticized the international media and human rights organizations for not taking sufficient note of it. He also argued that even this figure may be misleading because not all civilians are innocent bystanders.[36]

In October 2009, Dershowitz stated that the ratio for Israel's campaign of targeted assassinations stood at 1 civilian for every 28 terrorists. He argued that "this is the best ratio of any country in the world that is fighting asymmetrical warfare against terrorists who hide behind civilians. It is far better than the ratio achieved by Great Britain and the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan, where both nations employ targeted killings of terrorist leaders."[37]

Testifying before the United Nations, Col. Richard Kemp, a British commander, stated that:[38]

Mr. President, based on my knowledge and experience, I can say this: During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defence Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.

Israel did so while facing an enemy that deliberately positioned its military capability behind the human shield of the civilian population...

The truth is that the IDF took extraordinary measures to give Gaza civilians notice of targeted areas, dropping over 2 million leaflets, and making over 100,000 phone calls. Many missions that could have taken out Hamas military capability were aborted to prevent civilian casualties. During the conflict, the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza. To deliver aid virtually into your enemy's hands is, to the military tactician, normally quite unthinkable. But the IDF took on those risks.

Despite all of this, of course innocent civilians were killed. War is chaos and full of mistakes. There have been mistakes by the British, American and other forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq, many of which can be put down to human error. But mistakes are not war crimes...

More than anything, the civilian casualties were a consequence of Hamas way of fighting. Hamas deliberately tried to sacrifice their own civilians.

Although the IDF has the lowest ratio in the world, they attribute[39] civilian deaths to Hamas' use of human shields, as well as other groups in Gaza that use human shields.[40][41][42]

The IDF blog lists various counter-terrorism methods used by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties and lower the civilian casualty ratio, and includes videos related to each method:[39]

  • Pinpoint targeting - singling out terrorists for an airstrike in a way that won't harm civilian bystanders.
  • Aborting strikes due to risk of civilians being injured or killed.
  • Advanced technology - the IDF has heavily invested in smart bombs,[43] and has developed special missiles, such as the F-16I Sufa and the Delilah Missile, which has the ability to cancel a strike while in the air.

Israel in the Gaza War[edit | edit source]

Several analysts have attempted to calculate the Israel Defense Force's civilian casualty ratio in Operation Cast Lead during the Gaza War. All have noted that the ratio differs significantly depending on which figures are used regarding the total number of casualties and their identity. The main sets of figures are those published by the IDF, essentially corroborated by Hamas, the opposing belligerent in the conflict, on the one hand; and those published by B'Tselem on the other hand.[44] The final IDF report identified 709 militants out of a total of 1,161 Gaza fatalities, with another 162 whose status could not be confirmed (300 were ID'd as civilians).[45]

Journalist Yaakov Katz states in The Jerusalem Post that the ratio is 1:3 according to the Israeli figures and 60% civilians (3:2) according to B'Tselem's figures. Katz attributes the IDF's low ratio in the Gaza War and in the year preceding it to Israel's investment in special weapons systems, including small smart bombs that minimize collateral damage, and to an upscaled Israeli effort to warn civilians to flee areas and to divert missiles at the last moment if civilians entered a planned strike zone. Katz notes that over 81 percent of the 5,000 missiles the IDF dropped in the Gaza Strip during the operation were smart bombs, a percentage which he states is unprecedented in modern warfare.[28]

Journalist and commentator Evelyn Gordon writes in Commentary that the civilian casualty ratio in Operation Cast Lead was 39 percent (2:3), using however only the preliminary Israeli estimates, but that 56 or 74 percent were civilians according to B'Tselem's figures, depending on whether 248 Hamas policemen are considered combatants or civilians; and 65 or 83 percent according to the figures of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Gordon notes that all of these ratios, even if the worse were correct, are lower than the normal civilian-to-combatant wartime fatality ratio in wars elsewhere, as given by the Red Cross, and states that the comparison shows that the IDF was unusually successful at minimizing civilian casualty rates. She concludes by charging that terrorists fight from among civilians because they know that the inevitable civilian casualties will result in opprobrium for their victims who dare to fight back, and that this norm will not change as long as this modus operandi remains profitable.[46]

Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, spoke in 2011 about Israeli operations in the Gaza War. He said that a study published by the United Nations showed "that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in Gaza was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare." He stated that this ratio was less than 1:1, and compared it favorably to the estimated ratios in NATO operations in Afghanistan (3:1), western campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo (believed to be 4:1), and the conflicts in Chechnya and Serbia (much higher than 4:1, according to anecdotal evidence). Kemp argued that the low ratio was achieved through unprecedented measures by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties, which included providing warnings to the population via telephone calls, radio broadcasts and leaflets, as well as granting pilots the discretion to abort a strike if they perceived too great a risk of civilian casualties. He also stated that the civilian casualties that did occur could be seen in light of Hamas' tactical use of Gazan civilians "as human shields, to hide behind, to stand between Israeli forces and their own fighters" and strategic use of them for exploitation of their deaths in the media.[47]

The UN estimate that there has been an average three-to-one ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in such conflicts worldwide. Three civilians for every combatant killed.

That is the estimated ratio in Afghanistan: three to one. In Iraq, and in Kosovo, it was worse: the ratio is believed to be four-to-one. Anecdotal evidence suggests the ratios were very much higher in Chechnya and Serbia.

In Gaza, it was less than one-to-one.”[48]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Kahnert, M., D. Pitt, et al., Eds. (1983). Children and War: Proceedings of Symposium at Siuntio Baths, Finland, 1983. Geneva and Helsinki, GIPRI, IPB and Peace Union of Finland, p. 5, which states: “Of the human victims in the First World War only 5% were civilians, in the Second World War already 50%, in Vietnam War between 50 - 90 % and according to some information in Lebanon 97%. It has been appraised that in a conventional war in Europe up to 99% of the victims would be civilians.”
  2. Graça Machel, "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, Report of the expert of the Secretary-General, 26 Aug 1996, p. 9.
  3. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 107.
  4. Howard Zinn, Moises Samam, Gino Strada. Just war, Charta, 2005, p. 38.
  5. Adam Roberts, "Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians?", Survival, London, vol. 52, no. 3, June–July 2010, pp. 115–35. Print edition ISSN 0039-6338. Online ISSN 1468-2699.
  6. Ahlstrom, C. and K.-A. Nordquist (1991). Casualties of conflict: report for the world campaign for the protection of victims of war. Uppsala, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
  7. Sivard, R. L. (1991). World Military and Social Expenditures 1991. Washington DC, World Priorities, Inc. Vol. 14, pp 22-25.
  8. Eckhardt, W. "Civilian deaths in wartime." Security Dialogue 20(1): 89-98. Also at [1]
  9. Twentieth Century Atlas – Death Tolls. Users.erols.com. Retrieved on 2010-11-28.
  10. Missing Millions: The human cost of the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1930. Hist.umn.edu. Retrieved on 2010-11-28.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Neiberg, Michael S. (2002): Warfare in World History, pp. 68-70, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-22954-8.
  12. Sadowski, p. 134. See the World War II casualties article for a detailed breakdown of casualties.
  13. Deane, p. 149.
  14. "20 Years After Victory", Philip Shenon, clipping from the Vietnam Center and Archive website.
  15. http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/SOD.TAB6.1A.GIF
  16. Sorenson, David S. (2010). Global Security Watch--Lebanon: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-313-36578-2. 
  17. Hartley et all, pp. 91-92.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Mattar, p. 47.
  19. Layoun et al, p. 134.
  20. Hartley et al, p. 91.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Gabriel, Richard , A, Operation Peace for Galilee, The Israeli-PLO War in Lebanon, New York: Hill & Wang. 1984, p. 164, 165, ISBN 0-8090-7454-0
  22. Zürcher, Christoph. The post-Soviet wars: rebellion, ethnic conflict, and nationhood in the Caucasus. p. 100. http://books.google.com/books?id=C0DTtKEktdEC. 
  23. "Russian Federation - Human Rights Developments", Human Rights Watch report, 1996.
  24. Russian Federation 2001 Report Amnesty International
  25. Larson, p. 71.
  26. Larson, p. 65.
  27. Michael Oren, UN report a victory for terror, Boston Globe 24-09-2009
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Yaakov Katz, Analysis: Lies, leaks, death tolls & statistics, Jerusalem Post 29-10-2010
  29. "Pakistanis protest civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks", Saeed Shah, mcclatchy.com, 2010-12-10.
  30. Daniel L. Byman, Do Targeted Killings Work?, Brookings 14-07-2009
  31. "The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012", New America Foundation. Retrieved on 2012-10-24.
  32. Barak Ravid (14.01.08). "Haaretz probe: Shin Bet count of Gaza civilian deaths is too low". Haaretz. 
  33. "ICT Middleastern Conflict Statistics Project". Short summary page with "Breakdown of Fatalities: September 27, 2000 through January 1, 2005." International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Full report: "An Engineered Tragedy". Statistical Analysis of Casualties in the Palestinian – Israeli Conflict, September 2000 – September 2002. International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Article is here [2] also.
  34. "Yet another attempt to infiltrate Israel from the Gaza Strip". Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. 11 September 2007. http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/pij_100907e.htm. 
  35. 35.0 35.1 Amos Harel, Pinpoint attacks on Gaza more precise, Haaretz (unknown date)
  36. Dershowitz, Alan (January 3, 2008). "Targeted Killing Is Working, So Why Is The Press Not Reporting It?". The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-dershowitz/targeted-killing-is-worki_b_79616.html,. 
  37. Alan Dershowitz, The Hypocrisy of "Universal Jurisdiction", Hudson Institute 06-10-2009 [3]
  38. http://www.unwatch.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=bdKKISNqEmG&b=1313923&ct=7536409
  39. 39.0 39.1 http://www.idfblog.com/2012/03/11/bombing-gaza-or-pinpoint-strikes/
  40. http://www.idfblog.com/hamas/category/hamas-terror/human-shield/
  41. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas#Children_as_human_shields
  42. http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=171009
  43. http://www.timesofisrael.com/iron-dome-the-newly-beloved-missile-defense-system-that-nobody-wanted/
  44. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/hamas-admits-600-700-of-its-men-were-killed-in-cast-lead-1.323776 and http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20101101/wl_mideast_afp/israelpalestiniansconflictgazahamastoll
  45. "Majority of Palestinians Killed in Operation Cast Lead: Terror Operatives," IDF Research Department, http://dover.idf.il/IDF/English/News/today/09/03/2602.htm, also see Ben-Dror Yemini's article translated from Maariv, "How Many Civilians Were Killed in Gaza?" at http://www.solomonia.com/blog/archive/2009/07/ben-dror-yemini-how-many-civilians-were/index.shtml
  46. Evelyn Gordon, WikiLeaks and the Gaza War, Commentary 25-10-2010
  47. Richard Kemp, A salute to the IDF, Jerusalem Post 15-06-2011
  48. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX6vyT8RzMo

References[edit | edit source]

  • Anstrom, Jan; Duyvesteyn, Isabelle (2004): Rethinking the Nature of War, pp. 72-80, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-35461-5.
  • Deane, Hugh (1999): The Korean War: 1945-1953, p. 149, China Books & Periodicals, ISBN 978-0-8351-2644-1.
  • Hartley, Cathy et al (2004): Survey of Arab-Israeli Relations, p. 91, Routledge, ISBN 978-1-85743-261-9.
  • Larson, Eric V. (2007): Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime, pp. 65, 71, RAND Corp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3897-5.
  • Layoun, Mary N. et al (2001): Wedded to the Land? Gender, Boundaries, & Nationalism in Crisis, p. 134, Duke University Press, ISBN 978-0-8223-2545-1.
  • Mattar, Philip: (2005): Encyclopedia Of The Palestinians, p. 47, Facts on File, ISBN 978-0-8160-5764-1.
  • Sadowski, Yahya M. (1998): The Myth of Global Chaos, p. 134, Brookings Institution Press, ISBN 978-0-8157-7664-2.
  • Snow, Donald M. (1996): Uncivil Wars: International Security and the New Internal Conflicts, pp. 64-66, Lynne Rienner Publishers, ISBN 978-1-55587-655-5.

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