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On UNICEF's Syria Death Count, UN Says It's Not on Ground, Cites Ban in GA

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, September 5 -- UNICEF on August 31 and September 2 offered Syria casualty figures -- 1600 killed in a week -- that it refused to explain, but which went out all over the world.

  The figures were in fact derived, Inner City Press persisted and on September 3 learned, from the media itself.

 At UN headquarters on September 5, Inner City Press asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Martin Nesirky about it:

Inner City Press: on Friday, UNICEF said there had been 1,600 people killed in the previous week, the highest week so far; and then when asked, UNICEF said, about the basis of the figures, they said, 'ask OCHA.' So I did ask OCHA, and they said it’s based on UNICEF’s monitoring of media reports. The numbers are high, definitely. But the UN’s numbers, are they based on media reports, or are they based on the Syrian Observatory?  What’s the UN standard for putting in a UNICEF report that’s on ReliefWeb, which was announced in Geneva as a solid number?  Is it really just the UN reporting to the media what the media already reported?

Spokesperson Nesirky:  Well, I think you need to ask UNICEF precisely on their sourcing.  Let me simply say that it’s obvious that the United Nations does not have the kind of presence on the ground that would be needed if it would be possible at all to establish accurate figures.  I think that’s obvious to everybody.  It’s also obvious that there are many people who are monitoring what’s happening inside Syria and are providing figures which obviously need to be treated with appropriate caution.  I think you are absolutely right that the figures are high. We heard the Secretary-General and Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi say this in the General Assembly just yesterday.  The tragedy is that those numbers continue to climb, and yet it’s almost got to the point where it does not create the waves in the media that it should do, because it has become almost grotesquely commonplace.  And that’s what the focus should be on.  That’s where we need to focus our efforts to try to stem the bloodshed and move things onto a political track.

  To some, even inside UNICEF, it also seems important that the numbers announced by the UN be credible, or at least that their sourcing be disclosed as the same time they are announced. The worst is the mis-direction in which UNICEF engaged, saying "call OCHA" when they weren't OCHA's numbers at all.

  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.

  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.

  In this case, 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. And watch this site.

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