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Every Casualty Programme Comments on New UN Syria Study on The Guardian

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Oxford Research Group
3 January 2013

Middle East Live blog. Source: The Guardian Middle East Live blog. Source: The Guardian

(This piece was originally published on The Guardian's Middle East Live blog on Thursday, 3 January 2013.)


The UN human rights commission has given more details of a "shocking" new study it commissioned which found that 60,000 people had been killed in the Syrian conflict. The study said the 60,000 figure is likely to underestimate of the actual number of deaths, given that reports containing insufficient information were excluded from the investigation.

The methodology used in the UN-commissioned study into Syria's mounting death toll has been endorsed by Hamit Dardagan, Co-Director of the Every Casualty programme at the Oxford Research Group and Co-Founder of the respected Iraq Body Count.

On 2 January, immediately after the UN announced that 60,000 people had been killed in the conflict, Dardagan called for greater transparency over how the figures were compiled.

Since then, the UN's human rights body has released a preliminary analysis explaining the methodology used by Benetech, the consultancy which conducted the study.

Dardagan explains:

The UN figure was produced by the independent US-based research organisation Benetech. Their number represents not an estimate based on extrapolation but rather the integration of seven casualty databases, including from the Syrian government and activists. Only the individually named dead, with date and location, were included in the integration in order to prevent duplication.

In an email to the Guardian he said this was the best method available given the circumstances:

This integrative approach is entirely justifiable in my view as it makes no sense to look only at a single documentary source when several exist, especially when these sources themselves are at pains to point out that they are incomplete. Integrating multiple (mostly media) sources is the very foundation of the work produced by Iraq Body Count (IBC), which assumes that no single news source or agency provides full coverage – and sure enough, in nearly 10 years, even the most comprehensive have never exceeded 60% of the coverage that IBC's integrative approach has allowed.

There are always wrinkles to this kind of work – for instance, the information being brought together needs to be correct in the first instance, and sources should ideally be independent of and not simply quoting each other – but that remains true whatever the origins of the casualty data, be it media, government, or on-the-ground networks. The UN has acted prudently in allowing none of this vital information to languish in various scattered databases and commissioning its integration into what is (unsurprisingly) a greater whole.

But questions remain about the independence of the study, according to the UN blogger Matthew Lee at Inner City Press, who points out that Benetech has received funding from the US government.

In a statement Benetech insisted that its donors were unaware of the study and that it was fairly selected for the work.


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