For the first time in months the United Nations issued an estimate of how many people have been killed in the midst of Syria’s civil war, placing the number at a staggering 191,369.
The number covers from the beginning of the civil war in March 2011 until April of this year. At the outset of the conflict, Syrian protesters marched peacefully on the streets demanding President Bashar al-Assad accede to free elections and other democratic reforms. Since then, the crisis has spiraled ever deeper, with Syria now seen as a breeding ground for extremism and the Assad government more stubbornly dug in than ever.
Navy Pillay, who is finishing her final weeks as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced the new estimate on Friday in a statement from her offices in Geneva. “With additional killings reported from earlier periods, in addition to the new killings that have taken place, the total is more than double the number documented a year ago,” Pillay said. Fourteen months ago, the U.N. provided number of those killed was the much lower — though still extremely high — 93,000.
But the number may actually be far higher than the total the U.N. has now provided. An independent NGO that deals with statistics started with a list of 318,910 reported killings, taken from five sources, including the Syrian government and local NGOS, before whittling it down to only those that have been confirmed. Only those that included a full name of a victim, the date of death, and where it took place made their way into the final version. “After duplicates were merged, the combined dataset was reduced to 191,369 unique records of conflict-related deaths as of 30 April 2014,” the U.N. explained.
The number also does not appear to reflect the number in Syria who have died through causes indirectly related to the war, such as those who died of starvation or lack of medical care due to Syrian government blockades of emergency aid on areas that rebels controlled. Nor does it include those missing or the Syrian government has “disappeared” and taken to the secret prisons documented in photographs a defector who goes by the pseudonym “Caesar” has smuggled out of the country. It does, however, likely include those killed in last year’s chemical weapons attack that nearly resulted in American airstrikes on Syria.
At this point, the number can’t easily be broken down as combatants and non-combatants, though about 85 percent of the documented victims are male. And though various parts of the United Nations system have been devoted to recording human rights abuses undertaken on both sides of the conflict for years now, including the killing and torture of children, the exact number affected can’t be determined from this latest update “The killing of 8,803 minors, including 2,165 children under ten years old, have been documented so far and the real total is likely higher, given that in 83.8 percent of cases, the victims ages have not so far been recorded,” the U.N. explained.
Pillay didn’t mince words over the tragedy that has unfolded in Syria, having spent yesterday berating the U.N. Security Council for its inaction in Syria and other crises. “It is scandalous that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained, and the relatives of all those who have been killed or are missing is no longer attracting much attention, despite the enormity of their suffering,” Pillay said. “It is a real indictment of the age we live in that not only has this been allowed to continue so long, with no end in sight, but it is also now impacting horrendously on hundreds of thousands of other people across the border in northern Iraq, and the violence has also spilled over into Lebanon.”
That violence across the border in Iraq can be directly linked to the crisis in Syria. Though the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was born out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, it metastasized in Syria, where it gained most of its experience and training fighting not against Assad’s government but against other rebel and jihadi groups. It’s only in recent weeks, as the militants have secured more and more territory in both countries and Assad has sought to position himself as a potential valuable asset to the West in fighting against terrorism, that the government has ramped up attacks on ISIS.
The update is a much needed official number that journalists and observers can cite. Earlier this year, the U.N. had announced that it wasn’t going to provide an updated estimate of the death toll in Syria due to an inability to reveive accurate numbers from on the ground. “”It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate,” a U.N. spokesman said at the time, when the last guess had been just over 100,000. “And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we’re not updating those figures.” Friday’s estimate comes not as a new analysis but an update to the number provided in January, though it is unclear what has changed in the intervening period to allow the U.N. to feel more comfortable with this figure.