Unreliable data can incite and escalate a conflict – the latest UN-sponsored figure of 60,000 should not be reported as fact
The body of an unknown man, killed by Syrian army artillery shelling, in the Aleppo cementery. ‘It’s essential the media ask questions about reported deaths.’ Photograph: Maysun/EPA
Less than two months after the UN announced “shocking” new casualty figures in Syria, its high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay estimates that deaths are “probably now approaching 70,000″. But two years into a Syrian conflict marked by daily death tolls, the question arises as to whether these kinds of statistics are helpful in any way? Have they helped save Syrian lives? Have they shamed intransigent foes into seeking a political solution? Or might they have they contributed to the escalation of the crisis by pointing fingers and deepening divisions?
While physically present in Iraq, the US and British governments were unable to provide estimates of the numbers of deaths unleashed by their own invasion, yet in Syria, the same governments frequently quote detailed figures, despite lacking essential access.
But Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), whose casualty data are part of this count, calls the UN’s effort “political” and the results “propaganda”.
Abdulrahman, whose daily death toll releases are widely quoted in the western media, argues that many of the UN’s casualties don’t exist. “Yesterday in Qahtaniyah, I had a video of 21 people killed, but 19 names only. Other groups said 40 were killed – where are the 40? Tell them to provide me with only 21 names,” he demands, frustrated.
When I interviewed the UN spokesman Rupert Colville in January, he conceded: “We can’t prove most of these people have died.”
But questions about the accuracy of casualty numbers is only part of the story. Dig deeper, and it’s clear that this data also offers an insight into the Syrian conflict at odds with the story that this is essentially about a brutal regime killing peaceful civilians.
With the proviso that the data may itself prove unreliable, Benetech’s research nevertheless offers some useful clues about the makeup of the recorded death toll. Only 7.5% are female, making the casualties in Syria overwhelmingly male. Second, the largest segment of the 30% of victims whose ages are included in the records are between the ages of 20 and 30 – who might be classified as males of “military age”.
The SOHR’s statistics confirm this picture. On 27 December, Abdulrahman cited 148 violent deaths in Syria for that day: 49 rebels, 42 soldiers, three defectors, and the remaining 54 likely to be a mix of noncombatant civilians and unidentified rebels: “It isn’t easy to count rebels because nobody on the ground says ‘this is a rebel’. Everybody hides it.”
According to Abdulrahman’s conservative estimates, at least two thirds of the dead are armed men – an appreciatively different take on the perception of “civilian slaughter” in Syria created by reporting of the UN’s and other unverified casualty numbers. And the UN itself points out that “the analysis was not able to differentiate clearly between combatants and noncombatants”.
Even the civilian death toll is nuanced. There are civilians targeted by the regime through shelling and air strikes, civilians targeted by rebels via mortars, IEDs and urban bombings, and civilians caught in crossfire (not targeted). Further to that, there have been reports of sectarian and political killings by supporters of both sides.
It’s time to stop headlining unreliable and easily politicised casualty counts, and use them only as one of several background measures of a conflict. It’s essential too that the media help us avoid such manipulation by asking questions about reported deaths: how were these deaths verified? Are they combatants? Who killed them? How do we know this? Who benefits from these deaths? Was this a violent death or one caused by displacement? How is it even possible to count all these dead in the midst of raging conflict?
Numbers without context or solid foundations can incite and escalate a conflict, leading to even more carnage. Contemporary casualty data have been inaccurate in so many recent conflicts that it’s time to retire these numbers from the telling of the story.