The U.N. is using a number that suppresses the true extent of the number of people killed in Syria. Do they have an better alternatives -- and would it even matter if they did?
The death count in Syria's ongoing civil war was revised upwards on Tuesday. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, now says that the toll is "probably now approaching 70,000," an increase of 10,000 from the end of November, when a U.N.-commissioned report found 60,000 individual instances in which a name, date and location of death could be determined. The data set from that report suggested that the true number of dead in the Syria conflict was even higher than that, and one of the report's authors told The Atlantic that the figure was "a very conservative under-count." Pillay's 70,000 number has some relationship to two unknown figures: the number of deaths that can be estimated given currently available information, and the actual number of deaths in the conflict, a total which might not be known for several years (if it is ever conclusively known at all). Both of these numbers are higher than 70,000. Perhaps they're even much higher.
Whether intended or not, Pillay's claim masks the actual gravity of the Syria conflict. The widely-cited 60,000 and 70,000 numbers bear some kind of statistical relationship to the true death count; though at present, we have no idea what that relationship is. The numbers are a reflection of what is currently known about the conflict -- and not, in fact, a reflection of the realities of the conflict. Official and popular adherence to such an obviously deflated figure is troubling, given the enormity of the Syria conflict and the still-unfolding debate over how and whether the United States and the international community should intervene there. A misleading number is now woven into a debate of global importance: because Pillay and the news media are using the 60 or 70,000 figure without any meaningful qualification, the conflict's true humanitarian scope is being unintentionally yet insidiously distorted.