By Matthew Russell Lee
UNITED NATIONS, September 3, 2012 — On Syria, the UN announces to the media death figures which are derived, Inner City Press has learned, from the media itself.
Then these are circularly sourced to “UN documents” and given more weight than they should be.
UNICEF on August 31 and September 2 offered Syria casualty figures it refused to explain, but which went out all over the world.
After UNICEF’s Patrick McCormick was quoted that “at least 1,600 people were killed in Syria last week” and Reuters said he was “citing a U.N. document,” Inner City Press early on September 2 asked McCormick, which document? And how was the data collected?
McCormick replied to Inner City Press, “call OCHA” — the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
After three separate inquiries with OCHA, and McCormick refusing to respond to follow-up questions, Inner City Press has just been informed by OCHA’s spokesman in Geneva that
“The estimated figure of 1,600 persons was arrived at from UNICEF’s own internal monitoring of different media sources. The figure does not come from OCHA.”
The key phrase here is “media sources” — UNICEF took the number from news reports, despite the adjective “different” and the reference to “internal monitoring OF media sources.” Essentially, UNICEF reads reports on the Internet.
But where do these news reports come from?
Increasingly, Western wire services take their casualty figures from “non-governmental organizations” or, more accurately, “activists.” Sometimes, at least, the sourcing is disclosed as such.
But by laundering the activists figures through the UN system, as UNICEF has done, the figures take on the veneer of objectivity.
Reuters’ report said that McCormick has “citing a UN document.”
Inner City Press repeatedly checked, and fourd on OCHA’s ReliefWeb site a UNICEF report stating that “a record death toll of 1,600 persons was reported.” So it appeared even then that UNICEF’s McCormick was quoting a UNICEF report.
But, tellingly, UNICEF’s spokesman McCormick could or would not explain UNICEF’s own numbers. Why else pass the buck to OCHA?
This seemed strange anyway: in 2009 OCHA refused to release very specific casualty figures — 2,683 — it had collected in Sri Lanka.
At the time, the UN told Inner City Press it is not in the business of counting the dead — Inner City Press thought and thinks the UN should at least do this, where it can. But in a credible and transparent way.
Inner City Press immediately on September 2 did try to contact OCHA. But OCHA’s lead spokesperson is away, as was one of the two referred-to replacements. The other did not initially respond. Nor did McCormick, to follow-ups.
Inner City Press asked OCHA:
Hi, I’m sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but when I asked UNICEF for the source of its figure of 1,600 killed last week in Syria, I was told to “call OCHA.” I checked ReliefWeb and found a UNICEF report where it’s stated “A record death toll of 1,600 persons was reported.”
Press question on deadline, I’m sorry to say, since this figure is going out all over the world: reported by whom? Where do the figures come from? Does the figure cited include military deaths? Deaths among armed groups?
Seems important to answer this, especially since the UN system in other contexts has said it does not have access (in Syria at least since UNSMIS left) and / or does not count the dead (I was told this regarding Sri Lanka in 2009 — I thought and think that UN should at least do this, where it can. But in a credible and transparent way.
Does OCHA has casualty figures beyond the above-quoted (but unsourced) UNICEF report?
The next day, OCHA replied:
Subject: Re: I was told to “call OCHA” about UNICEF’s statement of 1,600 killed in Syria last week: reported by whom? Thanks
From: Jens Laerke [at] un.org
To: Matthew Russell Lee [at] InnerCityPress.com
Date: Mon, Sep 3, 2012 at 4:48 AM
At a media briefing in Geneva last Friday, a UNICEF spokesperson gave an estimated figure for the number of deaths in Syria over the previous week.
The estimated figure of 1,600 persons was arrived at from UNICEF’s own internal monitoring of different media sources.
The figure does not come from OCHA.
Hope this helps, Best regards
Jens Laerke, Spokesperson & Public Information Officer OCHA Geneva
Inner City Press’ initial questioning was picked up by the UK Guardian, as was the above-quoted OCHA response.
Still UNICEF’s number continues to proliferate. Voice of America at 2 pm on September 2 dutifully quoted McCormick on the numbers for UNICEF, headed by Anthony Lake. Click here for Washington Post; UNICEF’s one-week 1600 death count has since been in, among others, Canada’s big newspapers, GlobalPost, IBT, Slate, the Huffington Post, the Daily Beast – and in the UN’s host city, New York Post and New York Daily News.
Since then, the Jamaica Observer, VOA-affiliated Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Detroit Free Press, South China Morning Post, and more.
More doubts should have been raised: in Syria in 2012, the UN’s mission has left after UN Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that even observers in armored cars can’t get around. How would OCHA have collected figures of the type it refused to release in Sri Lanka in 2009, and why would it (well, UNICEF) release them about Syria in 2012?
Despite OCHA’s belated response to Inner City Press after UNICEF’s, in context, deception play, will this be like the Inner City Press exposed but never corrected claim that new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is a “Nobel Peace laureate”? Click here for that.
By Brian Klein, Special to CNN
September 3rd, 2012
Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat. The views expressed are his own.
Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?
The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.
Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.
Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry. The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.
The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.
With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.
This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.
These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.
Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.
Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.
Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.
Brian P. Klein is a freelance writer and macroeconomic/geopolitical strategist.