The Dangers and Difficulties of Counting Victims in Syria | Syri...

Organizations should ensure that when they report publicly on documentation they
are honest about the limitations of their data, and do not claim to be able to offer a
comprehensive picture of the conflict. To this end, groups should publish their
methodology, and rely on an estimated range of numbers instead of claiming to
provide exact figures. A good example of this standard can be seen in the Amnesty
International report ‘It breaks the human: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s
prisons,’ which estimates the number of detainees killed in custody between 2011 and
2015 at 17,723. This estimate was provided by the Human Rights Data Analyst Group
(HRDAG), and was published alongside an in depth analysis of how the number was
reached, including an open discussion of the possible margin of error. While this level
of analysis may not be possible for smaller organizations, any organization that
publishes numbers must be able to provide a basic methodology. The responsibility to
maintain this level of openness in data collection falls not only to groups that report on
such data, but journalists and diplomats, who regularly insist on numbers even when
such information is impossible to obtain, and disseminate such findings with little
consideration for the methodology or accuracy of the source. Ultimately, the pressure
for numbers of detainees should be placed on the Syrian government and rebel
groups, not on civil society organizations.
Aside from methodological challenges, it is also important to consider the value of
focusing on these figures. While such numbers certainly play a role in understanding
the conflict and advocating for justice, those reporting on these issues should consider
more nuanced approaches. Patrick Ball of HRDAG has explained the importance of
going beyond death tolls in seeking justice in Syria, writing, “The total number of
violent deaths tells only a small part of the story. Beyond the magnitude of the horrors
that have befallen Syrian civilians, it is even more important to understand the
patterns of violence: Where in Syria is the violence worse? Are deaths decreasing over
time or increasing? Does violence mostly affect urban elites or people in rural areas?”
In addition to understanding these patterns from a macro level, public discussions
should also strive to tell the individual stories of victims and their families, stories that
can often be lost in statistics. Additionally, providing numbers, which always include
some level of inaccuracy, can open organizations up to critiques which often serve to
undermine the rest of their valuable reporting, analysis, and advocacy. For these
reasons, SJAC has chosen not to publish statistics from its database, rather utilizing its
documentation to inform broader reports on violations in Syria.
In a post-conflict Syria, it may become possible to more accurately quantify the
conflict, calculating the total number of dead and missing, as well as those who

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9/28/18, 2:13 PM

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