On January 7, two events captured the attention of those following the Syrian conflict. The first was a barrel bomb attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma. The second was a United Nations decision to stop updating the Syria death toll.
The barrel bombs were nothing out of the ordinary. The Syrian Air Force has used deadly improvised explosive devices for more than 18 months.
While the bombardment of Douma was not as brutal as the recent onslaught in Aleppo, for example, photos from the town north-east of the Syrian capital went viral, particularly an image of a rescue worker carrying an infant child out of the rubble.
The second piece of news was widely dismissed as yet another example of the UN’s failure to come to the assistance of the Syrian people. Social networking sites were abuzz with commentary about the uselessness of the organisation, which has failed to take concrete action to end the conflict.
The attack on Douma is just one example of why it is crucial that the UN does not abandon its responsibility toward the Syrian people. As Bassam Al Ahmad, spokesperson for the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), put it, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is a credible source, and numbers verified by the UN carry more significance than those released by other organisations.
“These are not just numbers,” Mr Al Ahmad said. “Syrian civilians are being killed, and someone needs to be held accountable for their deaths. He added that if the UN has abandoned the mere task of counting, it is hard to imagine that it will seek justice for those being killed.
The decision to stop tracking the number of deaths in Syria’s conflict is based on a supposed difficulty verifying reports, as the number of independent organisations documenting the death toll has dwindled.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, director of Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), is not convinced by the UN’s reasoning. “This is an excuse you can use when addressing people who don’t understand [how the process works],” he said, adding that the UN has traditionally relied upon the three sources who continue to work today: the SNHR, VDC and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The UN’s last official report, published last June, documented 92,901 deaths, which were verified with help from eight sources, including several of the agencies cited here. The Syrian government is also listed as a source.
Claiming that the situation has become too complicated is no justification either. The UN’s sources not only separate civilian and military deaths, they also classify deaths based on perpetrator: regime, opposition, or another or unknown group.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights last provided the UN with a list of casualties on October 31. At that point, they had verified at least 125,000 deaths, 89 per cent of whom were civilians. Mr Ghany noted that the ratio of civilians to militants would likely differ if they had the means to document casualties among regime forces. According to Mr Ghany, his organisation was told that the UN would publish an updated report at the start of 2014. They were shocked to learn that the UN had deserted that role.
“[This decision] means that the United Nations, as the institution that is promoting peace and human rights, is now neglecting crimes of genocidal proportion,” Rafif Jouejati, the Local Coordination Committees spokesperson, told me. “It is saying that it is going to turn a blind eye to what is going on daily, and that has to be unacceptable.”
Even if the UN does feel limited by its lack of presence in Syria, abdicating its self-proclaimed “responsibility to protect” is reprehensible. Surely the intergovernmental organisation tasked with promoting human rights has the resources to come up with a better documentation mechanism if the current one is as ineffectual as it claims it to be. It could not have hurt the UN to meet the NGOs, who have suffered the death and detainment of their members, to find a better way.
This week, officials have been meeting in Geneva to negotiate a political solution to the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, civilians continue to wake up to the sounds of shells raining down on their homes, die of hunger, and perish in jail, and it may very well be easier for the international community to ignore the ever-mounting death toll.
This post originally appeared in The National.