Twice as many people have allegedly been killed in Syria - since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began six months ago - than the current UN estimate, and three times the regime's official tally, according to new statistics from human rights researchers and opposition activists in Syria.
The report by Avaaz, the global campaign group and its partner Insan, a leading Syrian human rights organization, said over 5,300 people have been killed.
A team of 60 human rights researchers verified the names of 3,004 people killed in over 127 locations across Syria from 18 March to 9 September, while an additional 2,356 people were registered as dead, but have not yet been verified, the report said.
Each of the 3,004 recorded killings was triple-sourced in line with international protocols for recording casualties of conflict, by at least one family member and two other contacts, such as friends, community leaders, clerks or imams of mosques.
The other 2,356 names have been recorded as killed but Insan researchers have not yet been able to triple-source each case, as the deaths were either reported in the Syrian state media or the bodies were taken away following injury or death and later not acknowledged by the authorities.
The total figure of 5,360 people killed is roughly double the current figure of 2,600 given on 12 September by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, while Amnesty International has documented the deaths of 2,121 people, not including members of the security forces.
The government acknowledges only 1,400 casualties.
“We knew the official numbers were way below,” Avaaz’s Henrietta McMicking said. “The 3,004 names have been verified, while we know that the 2,356 additional people are definitely dead, but we have not been able to verify their names under our stringent criteria.”
The as yet unverified figure includes 308 names of people reported killed in Syrian state-run media, 674 names of military personnel the authorities have reported killed, and 1,374 names of people who have been reported dead, but whose bodies have never been found.
Recording civilian deaths
The new statistics on Syria were released as 37 humanitarian and human rights groups launched the Charter for the Recognition of Every Casualty of Armed Violence on 15 September, which demands casualties of armed conflict are promptly recorded, correctly identified and publicly acknowledged by states.
Though the recording of casualties is binding on states and parties to a conflict under international humanitarian and human rights law, in practice few, if any, do so.
“It remains incomprehensible that even a century after international humanitarian law was born, states fail to register many of those whose suffering prompted the creation of international humanitarian law,” said Sandra Orlovic, deputy executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Serbia, speaking at the launch of the Charter in London on 15 September.
|It is difficult to second guess the motivation for torturing and killing children in custody…It may be that the Syrian security forces hope to terrify people off the streets with the threat of what could happen to their children.|
Hamit Dardagan, co-founder of Iraq Body Count and co-director of the Every Casualty programme at Oxford Research Group, said that accurately recording casualties could play a role in post-conflict reconciliation.
“It is important that the truth is recognized by all sides. We do not just record the deaths, but also the circumstances,” said Dardagan. “This often points to the perpetrator.”
“Shoot to kill”
The breakdown of the statistics in the new report points to a targeted campaign by security forces of shooting to kill protesters. Of the verified civilian deaths, 60 percent were recorded as shot in the upper part of their bodies; the chest, neck or head.
This correlates with accounts given to Human Rights Watch (HRW) from five defected soldiers and members of security agencies that they had received explicit orders to shoot at protesters.
In May, Amnesty International (AI) released a selection of footage of Syrian civilians shot in the head, which the organization said pointed to a “shoot to kill” policy being used by the security forces to quell anti-Assad protests.
Torture of children
According to Avaaz, 148 children were killed, the majority by gunshots to the upper body. The report found 16 of the children had suffered severe torture in detention before their deaths.
“It is difficult to second guess the motivation for torturing and killing children in custody,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International's Syria researcher. “It may be that the Syrian security forces hope to terrify people off the streets with the threat of what could happen to their children.”
Amnesty has documented 10 cases of children dying in custody since the beginning of the uprising, some of them mutilated either before or after death.
Of the 2,404 male civilians verified as killed since mid-March, the Avaaz report states 159 were tortured to death. It also documents the deaths of 278 soldiers, all of them male conscripts from regular divisions of the Syrian army.
Over 100 of the soldiers died from gunshots to the upper body, three were strangled to death, and 94 of the bodies showed marks of severe torture, the report said.