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Presentation of the report on civilian deaths in the Syrian Arab Republic - Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (30 June 2022)

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AT 50th Session of the Human Rights Council

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,

For more than a decade now, Syria’s war has left indelible marks on its men, women and children. The human toll has been devastating, with lives treated as dispensable while the world looks on. The atrocities and human rights violations continue as we speak, and Syria’s civilians are bearing the biggest cost.

On 24 September 2021, I updated this Council on the casualty count of conflict-related deaths in Syria. The report I am presenting today provides a more complete picture of the scale of the conflict and its impact on civilians, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 46/22 and 49/27.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge and extend my deep gratitude to all the individuals and organizations, particularly in Syria, who have courageously documented these casualties amidst the danger and inhumanity of these years of conflict.

Today, for the first time, thanks to their work, my Office is able to provide figures on conflict-related civilian deaths between March 2011 and March 2021, including the total number of documented civilian deaths and estimates of undocumented deaths. Prior figures issued by my Office did not distinguish between civilian or non-civilian status and only focused on documented deaths.

Amongst the 350,209 overall documented deaths resulting directly from the conflict - over the decade in question- 143,350 were civilians. For each of these civilians, we have been able to document the names, dates and locations of death.

In addition, a further 163,537 civilian deaths were estimated to have occurred, bringing the total estimated civilian death toll to the shocking number of 306,887 in this ten-year period, the highest estimate yet of conflict-related civilian deaths in the country.

This means that every single day since the fighting started in March 2011, 83 civilians - comprising 9 women and 18 children - have died.

The massive figures in the report do not include indirect deaths, namely those resulting mainly from loss of access to essential goods and services that was caused or aggravated by the conflict.

The report now also includes information on the locations in which civilians died during the ten-year period. The highest estimated civilian deaths were recorded in Rural Damascus (61,800), Aleppo (51,563), Deir ez-Zor (38,041), Idlib (36,536) and Homs (29,983).

The report also clarifies the cause of death by type of weapon in cases of documented deaths. We now know that the highest number of documented deaths were caused by the use of multiple weapons and occurred during clashes, ambushes, and massacres. Other deaths were caused by heavy explosive weapons, small arms and light weapons, planted explosives, chemical weapons and unexploded remnants of war. And a significant number of individuals died in custody, or as a result of sexual violence, torture, beheading or hanging, among other means.

Additionally, the report provides new information on the actors reportedly causing the documented deaths. A large number were allegedly caused by the Government and its allies, and by non-State armed groups, including anti-government groups, Islamic factions and the so-called Islamic State. A more complete picture of this information is still needed, however, requiring more analysis and further application of estimation techniques.

Excellencies,

To achieve these figures, my Office partnered with external experts to apply well-established statistical estimation techniques, such as imputation and multiple systems estimation. These techniques have been used in other conflict settings, including Kosovo, Guatemala, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia and Sri Lanka.

The rigorous statistical analysis used for the purposes of this report has proved robust and reliable.We hope that such techniques could be applied to other conflict contexts where documenting individual deaths proves very challenging and where we have concerns the casualties reported are significantly below the actual figures. This will require additional resources to strengthen my Office’s capacity in this field, including in estimating indirect deaths, and continuing our partnerships with other experts.

My Office’s work to document deaths in Syria also complements efforts to account for missing people, particularly those who have gone missing in the context of military operations.

I thus also reiterate my earlier call for the creation of an independent mechanism with a strong international mandate to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people, and to provide support to relatives.

Excellencies,

The figures and information I present today from my Office’s report are a staggering reminder of the magnitude and relentlessness of the war in Syria. They show disturbing patterns year by year, and they highlight that this senseless war is far from over.

The vast number of civilian deaths, both documented and estimated, points to the failure of the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law norms on the protection of civilians.

As I have repeatedly stated, the hostilities must end without delay.

Until then, I call on all parties to the conflict to strictly abide by international humanitarian law and human rights obligations and ensure the protection of civilians at risk from their military operations, including by avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

I continue to strongly urge the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, in line with Human Rights Council resolutions S-18/1 and 19/22, to cooperate with the special procedures of the Human Rights Council and with my Office. This includes the request to establish an OHCHR office in Syria with the mandate to protect and promote human rights and to contribute to protecting civilians and understanding the patterns and impact of the conflict.

I also call on the Government to ensure access to remedies and reparations for all victims and survivors of this war, including ensuring effective accountability and transitional justice mechanisms, with meaningful participation of victims.

Finally, I urge all States, with the support of the UN, to use all of their available means and influence to end the conflict now and support an immediate and sustainable transition to peace.

The people of Syria have suffered for far too long. As we portray the magnitude of this crisis with more data, the international community must unite and show more concrete action to end the atrocities and afford justice for victims and survivors.

I thank you.