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. However, attempts are being made by civil society groups to replace unsubstantiated rhetoric with reliable records. Hana Salama, Coordinator of the ORG-facilitated International Practitioner Network (IPN) of casualty recording organisations, explores how these organisations do their work, and how their work should be assessed. The article was first published on guardian.co.uk's Comment is Free on 14 July 2012.
The Struggle Against the Toxic Politics of Casualty Numbers in Syria
The count of the death toll is imperfect, but attempts are being made to replace unsubstantiated rhetoric with reliable records
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.
Transparency is a leading priority. Some of these organisations make their information on casualties publicly available on the web (Syria Network for Human Rights, Syria Tracker and Syria Observatory for Human Rights), publishing a disaggregated record of each victim and incident. This means that the date and location of death are published along with the victim's name, videos, pictures and other supporting material, including (where available) further identifying information such as their age, gender, family status and occupation.
Because this information is freely accessible, journalists and other interested parties may easily cross-check and compare the different casualty and incident lists. Additionally, if the death toll of a particular incident is in dispute, such data provides a detailed starting point for further third-party investigations as and when circumstances permit.
So when press reports reflexively describe death tolls in Syria as "unverified" without further explanation of what, precisely, they mean by this, they do the wider public a disservice, perpetuating the notion that deaths in armed conflict are impossible to document reliably.
But when casualty recorders (as in Syria) don't just publish numbers but provide details of who was killed, when they were killed, where they were killed and how they were killed, they submit sufficient supporting evidence for their claims to be verified (or, for that matter, found to be false). The onus is then on others to examine it with the seriousness it deserves, rather than dismissing that possibility out of hand.
But if casualty-recording organisations are doing such a good job, a critic might ask why different organisations come up with very different death tolls.
The variation in the death toll reported to and by the media can be due to several factors. Sometimes there may be a simple lack of awareness on the part of journalists and editors about the inclusion criteria of the respective casualty recorders – whose deaths they include and whose they don't.
Syrian casualty-recording organisations do not claim that their figures capture all of the casualties, or that their methods yield error-free data. Some have gone on public record about the limitations of their methods and of the circumstances in Syria that result in underreporting and sometimes double-counting, leading to necessarily imperfect counts – at least for now.
As Syria Tracker explains: "In the long run, we don't feel that the specific counts are as important as the individual names, dates and places, which can be updated, edited and revised over time."
All over the world people continue to be killed in armed conflict, with claims and counter-claims about victims often creating a toxic politics of numbers, which fuels further violence.
But in many of these conflicts, organisations with similar aims to the Syrian casualty recorders are doing their best to replace unsubstantiated rhetoric with reliable casualty records, often in the face of very considerable challenges and, increasingly, sharing knowledge and best practices with each other.