UN abandons death count in Syria, citing inability to verify toll

As reliable sources drop out, UN says any casualty estimate it could provide would be 'misleading'

Syrians inspecting bodies of adults and children killed in a toxic gas attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21. Rebels and the regime traded accusations over responsibility for that attack, which killed over 14,000 people.

The United Nations has stopped updating the death toll from Syria’s near-three-year civil war due to its waning ability to verify sources and produce credible estimates, a spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed Tuesday.

Prior to July, when the U.N. last published a death toll estimate of just over 100,000 people, the team of statisticians were able to cross-check estimates from six different sources – from various NGOs to the Syrian government itself. That number has since dwindled.

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“Effectively nothing is added by four of those groups so you’re really down to just two, and we don’t think that’s strong enough to warrant any kind of report,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

“It risks misleading through effectively weaker sourcing, which is not to discourage either of the two groups still functioning, but the strength of pulling all these sources together has really dissipated.”

Colville told Al Jazeera that financial constraints were not a factor behind the decision, and there is certainly no lack of demand for a reliable death count.

“The media wants it, the governments want it, we all want to know how bad things are,” he said. “When the conflict is over, when you’re looking at rebuilding and development, you need to know who’s alive and who isn’t. And the more accurate data you have the better.”

Estimates from other groups documenting casualties, including the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, puts the number killed upwards of 130,000. But given the inability of any third-party observer to directly verify information in war-ravaged Syria, no estimate can be truly reliable.

“You never know for sure, however well these groups are functioning and however honest they are in their work,” added Colville. “You can’t be sure if there are bodies lying unseen in a shallow grave somewhere, or if people who have disappeared are actually dead.”

As the U.N. drops out of the arduous – and highly politicized – death toll business, the media and policy experts will have to rely on organizations like the Observatory, which has an extensive network of about 200 sources scattered around Syria but is considered sympathetic to the opposition.

Numbers – of those tortured, missing, and killed on both sides of the conflict – will be under the microscope with peace talks in Geneva, slated for Jan. 22, right around the corner.

The Observatory’s estimate has consistently been higher than the U.N.’s, and some critics point out that overestimating the casualties in Syria bolsters the case against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who rebels accuse of a brutal crackdown on not only armed fighters but civilians, too.

The Syrian government, for its part, has totally abandoned its death count, in contrast to the persistence of activist groups whose sights are set on a post-Assad Syria where war criminals would be prosecuted.

But accurate death counts are important for reasons apart from politics. Journalists and government officials not qualified to assess the criteria involved in an estimate are liable to spread the largest number they hear. Big numbers make for more dramatic news, write Peter Andreas and Kelly Greenhill in their 2010 book, “Sex, Drugs and Body Counts.”

“The public announcement of an impressively large sounding number, regardless of its origins or validity, can generate prominent press coverage, which in turn legitimates and perpetuates the use of the number.”

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