On My Mind: Syria’s body count

Assad’s defiance guarantees that the war his regime initiated will go on and the recorded death toll will rapidly rise beyond the 60,000 figure.

Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370 (photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370
(photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
Navi Pillay must have shuddered as President Bashar Assad, in an hour-long speech broadcast on Syrian TV, demonstrated yet again the sharp disconnect between his view of the conflict raging in his country and the actuality on the ground of death and destruction.
Pillay, the outspoken UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has been a rare voice of reason regarding the Syria crisis. She has consistently called attention to the Assad regime’s human rights abuses since March 2011, when he launched a crackdown that has struck all of Syria with escalating brutality.
In Sunday’s televised address, the typically truculent Assad continued to promote his view that Syrians still support him in a momentous battle against foreign terrorists and their supporters. He called for “a total national mobilization to save the country from the clutches of a crisis which has no precedent in this region.”
However, what is actually unprecedented is Assad’s unwillingness to grasp that the uprising, beginning nearly two years ago, emanated from his own citizens, inspired by successful, largely peaceful, protests in Egypt and Tunisia, to bring about political reform.
Assad is determined not to follow the paths of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gadaffi.
Only a year ago Pillay reported that the death toll in Syria had reached 5,000. The rate quickly rose during 2012, as the Assad regime pulled out more lethal weaponry, including air force bombings and Scud missiles, and used it more indiscriminately.
Pillay was skeptical of the widely reported death figures, estimated at 40,000 in recent months. To ascertain more precise numbers her office commissioned a US-based non-profit organization, Benetech, to do a fuller assessment of the data compiled by a number of organizations monitoring human rights in Syria that have tried to track the killings.
THE RESULT, announced last week, was a stunning 60,000 dead.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking,” said Pillay, who warned that the actual figure is probably much higher.
“Only the killings that are fully identified by the name of the victim, as well as the location and date of the death” are included, states the Benetech report.
“Significantly, there is an unknown number of killings which have not been documented.”
Calling out governments for their human rights violations is a primary mission of Pillay’s office. Indeed, safeguarding human rights worldwide was a founding principle of the United Nations. That is precisely why Jacob Blaustein, former president of the American Jewish Committee, first proposed, in 1963, the creation of the High Commissioner post. It was established in 1994.
The High Commissioner strives to spark concerted, meaningful responses from the international community. That requires cooperation by UN member governments.
On Syria, Pillay has bemoaned the inaction of world leaders.
“The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the bloodletting, shames us all,” she said.
More than a year ago, she urged the Security Council to refer Assad to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The Hague-based ICC has issued war crimes indictments against other Arab despots, notably Sudan’s Omar Bashir and, before his death, Libya’s Gaddafi. But thanks to vetoes by Russia and China, the council has been silent on Syria.
Assad’s defiance guarantees that the war his regime initiated will go on and the recorded death toll will rapidly rise beyond the 60,000 figure. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has warned that it could reach 100,000 dead in 2013.
With Syria’s security forces dedicated to his regime’s survival and the help of such international allies as Russia, China and Iran, Assad is confidently sticking to the narrative in his Sunday speech, that the US State Department said is “detached from reality.”
As Pillay so aptly observed, the international community has “fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.”
Indeed, the lineup of Assad supporters effectively blocks the efforts of Pillay and her team. And the Syria experience also raises profound questions about what will transpire the next time citizens of a country seek freedom from a desperate regime.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.