The struggle against the toxic politics of casualty numbers in Syria

Hana Salama writes: The way that death toll figures are often presented in press and media reports might lead one to think that we don’t (and can’t) know very much about the deadly violence in Syria. Many reports of casualty figures either carry the disclaimer “unverified” or cite widely differing numbers for individual incidents, an example being 23 to 100 for the killings in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir.

This contributes to an overall perception that deaths in the Syrian conflict are essentially unverifiable – a perception reinforced by the UN, which stated that it had stopped reporting Syrian casualty figures after December 2011 on the grounds that they were becoming “too difficult to verify”.

But is this perception well grounded? We at the campaign Every Casualty think not.

Despite the chaotic escalation of violence, civil society groups operating both within and outside Syria have continued to systematically record deaths on a daily basis. Although the work of these groups is often questioned on the grounds that they are part of the political opposition to the Assad regime, the data they produce should be judged by the data collection and verification methods they adopt and by how transparent they are about their methods and the nature of their sources.

Take verification first. One of the Syrian groups, Insan, has been recording violent deaths in Syria since 2006, using what it calls a multiple-source verification process. Other groups such as Syria Tracker, Syrian Network for Human Rights, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Violation Documentation Centre, have been collecting and compiling casualty information in different parts of the country, resolutely compiling the information they receive from local activists and local co-ordination committees as the security situation worsens. This includes names of the dead, often accompanied by videos of their funerals and pictures.

Despite limited access to crisis areas in Syria and the very significant security risks, whenever possible this casualty information is fed back to the affected local population for corroboration and correction. Moreover, these organisations are aware of each other’s work and often compare their casualty records. [Continue reading…]

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