For Syria’s bereaved, numbers don’t count

What casualty records can tell us about the situation in Syria – and what they can’t.

On Friday 24 September, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was briefed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on her office’s data regarding fatalities in the Syrian conflict. It was the first time the Council had asked OHCHR to produce such figures since 2014.

The request for this information came via Resolution 46/22, adopted by the Council in March this year, on the ten-year anniversary of the conflict. The resolution was driven not by a few diplomats’ pedantic desire to know precise figures, but their hope the numbers would shock the international community into a renewed sense of urgency to tackle the crisis.

Both the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and OHCHR work routinely with casualty recording organisations in Syria and elsewhere to document and investigate fatalities. It was this collective information, together with OHCHR’s own data sources, and the limited information shared by the Syrian government, that was used to produce the High Commissioner’s briefing.

High Commissioner Bachelet made clear that the fatality figure she quoted was ‘certainly an under-count’ and ‘is not – and should not be seen as – a complete number of conflict-related killings in Syria’. Contrary to headlines in global media, the figure was not even presented as a benchmark ‘minimum number’ of deaths. Rather, the figure quoted by OHCHR was the minimum number of individuals killed in the Syrian conflict which OHCHR and its partners had been able to identify and verify by full name, date and location of death. Any death for which one or more of these pieces of data were not available could not be included in OHCHR’s report.

In an ongoing conflict like that in Syria, those three deceptively simple verification criteria exclude tens of thousands of deaths from the records. Many researchers believe that fewer than half of the conflict’s casualties can currently be accounted for using these standards. People who died as an ‘indirect’ result of the conflict – for example, due to lack of access to essential healthcare – and people who have gone missing, ‘Disappeared’ or died on the journey to seek asylum elsewhere, are also left out. Even the resolution requesting the briefing from OHCHR cited a minimum civilian casualty figure 50 per cent higher than the number in the High Commissioner’s statement.

This disconnect illustrates an important and widespread misunderstanding about what casualty recording actually is, how it is done, and what it can – and can’t – reveal. Casualty recorders work meticulously to document, identify and acknowledge the people killed in conflict, in as much detail as possible. They aim to record the fate of identifiable individuals, not produce statistics. In practice, it can take decades before the details of a particular death are fully known. In Syria, many deaths occur in secret locations, isolated areas, or in bombardments so intense that no identifiable human bodies remain. Witnesses may be too frightened to share information; sometimes there are simply no survivors to tell the tale. It is just not possible at this point to produce a comprehensive account – or even accurate estimate – of the death toll, and no reputable casualty recording organisation has claimed to do so.

It is for this reason that casualty recording organisations find public requests for numbers and ‘data’ so frustrating. From their perspective, this type of information is at best meaningless and at worst harmful. When casualty records are misused or misinterpreted as a conclusive source of statistics, they can fuel unnecessary political controversy, historical revisionism and genocide denial. The point of casualty recording is to recognise the unique humanity of each person killed. This purpose is lost as soon as the debate becomes an argument over numbers. We should also acknowledge that discussing human lives as purely numerical values has uncomfortable echoes of the deliberate de-humanising processes which facilitate genocides and other mass killings.

Of course, in situations where large numbers of casualties have been recorded it is possible to conduct statistical analyses of the databases. However, this data crunching is a by-product of the recording process and its limitations must be clearly recognised. Casualty recorders should not be attacked for providing incomplete figures. Although they strive to be as comprehensive as possible they are also acutely aware of the limitations of the information available to them. Using casualty records to provide fatality numbers in an ongoing conflict is, therefore, like asking someone how many people live in their city, based only on those they can personally name. It is asking ‘how many’ from a source designed to tell ‘who’.

The value of casualty recording is qualitative, not quantitative. The careful documentation of the specific details of a particular individual, their life, and the circumstances of their death, can provide great solace to those left behind. Every well documented death can help surviving family members to access a war pension, claim an inheritance, seek a criminal prosecution, obtain compensation, or simply ensure a dignified acknowledgement of their loved one’s fate. When these effects are replicated at a community or nationwide level the impact on transitional justice, reconciliation and memorialisation efforts are significant. The alternative – failing to account for the deceased individually – is the intellectual equivalent of consigning them to a mass grave, with the same long-term political and social consequences.

Every Casualty Counts and the state-led Core Group on Casualty Recording are working to promote a better understanding of casualty recording at the Human Rights Council and beyond. Over the past two years, the importance of casualty recording has been recognised and endorsed in several Council resolutions. More than fifty states have signed a joint statement recognising the role of casualty recording in upholding various fundamental human rights. We aim to continue building this support to ensure that casualty recording is properly recognised and resourced in all relevant contexts.

Casualty recording cannot bring the dead back to life. But when adequately resourced, conducted to recognised standards, and used appropriately, it can restore the dignity of the deceased and the rights of survivors. At the final count the numbers don’t matter, but the people do.

A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria, on June 3, 2014. (Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue)