UN Announces Major Benetech Report About Syrian CasualtiesJanuary 3, 2013 by Sally Farhat Kassab
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights just announced the results of a major report by Benetech’s Human Rights Program. The report’s results, featured on the front page of the New York Times and a big piece in The Atlantic, identified 60,000 Syrians killed so far in their civil war. Here is the press release:
United Nations Issues Report on Deaths in Syria
Benetech Human Rights Program Examines Seven Data Bases to Identify Nearly 60,000 Killings
January 2, 2013, Palo Alto, CA — The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) today released a report which provides an analysis of the total number of documented conflict-related killings in Syria between March 2011 and November 2012. The UN report is based on a statistical analysis conducted by the Benetech Human Rights Program.
After analyzing information about fully identified victims from seven databases, Benetech scientists have determined that 59,648 unique killings were documented during this period. Of those documented killings, 76.1% are male victims, 7.5% are female victims, and 16.4% of the records do not indicate the gender of the victim. Entitled, “Preliminary Statistical Analysis of Documentation of Killings in Syria,” the report was written by scientists Megan Price, Jeff Klingner and Patrick Ball of the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG). The UN released a statement today describing the report as an exhaustive analysis.
The report integrates information from six databases compiled by Syrian human rights monitors and one database collected by the Syrian government. This is Benetech’s fourth and final report for OHCHR, with earlier reports analyzing fewer datasets. Although the Syrian conflict makes it difficult to identify an accurate record of events, both governmental and non-governmental monitors continue to gather data about killings through a variety of sources. The report explores the state of this documentation and the quantitative relationship of the data sources to highlight how different data collection methods impact our understanding of this conflict.
“By comparing records across these databases, we are able to identify killings that were recorded by only one source, two sources, three sources, etc. This approach not only tells us about the violence occurring in Syria, but also about the process of observing and recording that violence,” says HRDAG Senior Statistician Megan Price. “With this information we can identify times and locations where undocumented violence is likely occurring, thus helping us to more accurately describe what is happening in Syria.”
The Benetech report examines only killings that are fully indentified by the victim’s name, plus the date and location of the death. Reported killings that are missing any of this information were excluded from the study. The total number of conflict related deaths may also include a small number of undetectable duplicates among the seven databases and an unknown number of killings which have not yet been documented by these projects.
The comparative statistical analysis of all seven databases includes patterns of documented killings over time, geography, sex and age of the victims. The individual data sources each capture distinct aspects of the violence. It is certain that there are more – perhaps substantially more – killings beyond those documented in this report.
The Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group will issue another report in 2013 about conflict-related deaths in Syria that will use statistical modeling to address the question of undocumented killings. The findings of the current report are affected by selection bias, or the difference between the documented deaths and patterns of violence revealed by accounting for unobserved killings. Selection bias is inevitable when certain events are more or less likely to be observed and recorded based on the characteristics of both the event and the organization collecting the data. For example, one data collection group may have better contacts within a certain ethnic group or region, whereas another may have access to government personnel records.
By comparing pairs of databases over time and space, and by considering the density of overlapping information about deaths over time and space, analysts can generate insights about the total magnitude and true patterns of all killings – including those that have not been documented. The statisticians of the Benetech Human Rights Data Analysis Group have pioneered multiple systems estimation in the application of human rights research. The data generated by these comparisons helps individual human rights groups improve the collection of data about deaths in violent conflicts throughout the world.
Patrick Ball notes that this is a first on many levels for the UN, and the fact that we were mentioned at all is a testament to much great work by the team.