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‘Disturbing Signs’ of Armed Clashes in Syria Suggest Death Toll Will Grow

December 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In an effort to stop Syria's rising death toll and human rights abuses, the U.S., European Union, Arab League and Turkey have tightened sanctions on the country and its president, Bashar al-Assad. Margaret Warner discusses the growing violence with Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic.
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MARGARET WARNER: And late today, Russia offered a draft U.N. resolution calling on all parties to end the violence.

For more on the situation in Syria and the casualties, we turn to Ivan Simonovic, assistant secretary-general for human rights.

Mr. Simonovic, thank you for being with us.

It was on Monday that your boss put the death toll at 5,000. What can you tell us about who the victims are and how they are killed?

IVAN SIMONOVIC, assistant United Nations secretary-general for human rights: Well, there are various categories of victims.

Most of them are civilians killed while protesting. We even have over 300 children that have been killed. However, some killed are soldiers of the Syrian security forces, as well as some defectors. The very disturbing news also come from Syrian detention center, where there are proofs of torture, as well as some killings.

MARGARET WARNER: And, yes. And you said there were some 14,000 in prison.

Now, your number of — your death toll — your office put the death toll at 4,000 just at the beginning of December. How did the number jump so far so fast in such a short time?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Well, it is true that number of victims is increasing. And it takes us some time to verify.

We do not report on additional numbers until we have a couple of sources confirming deaths. So we can — we cannot immediately after first information that somebody is killed confirm that killing has taken place. There are some estimates from the field from civil society that the number of victims is considerably higher than 5,000.

However our estimates are conservative because of methods we use for verifying the number of deaths. Of course, we cannot count bodies because we are not present on the ground. But we are checking all information before releasing numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: So who are your sources of information?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Various sources of information.

We had two missions that were contacting Syrians who were fleeing from Syria. And first commission contacted some 150 people. The Human Rights Council-mandated commission of inquiry has contacted 232 persons. Those persons, some of them are victims themselves, some of them are eyewitnesses, and some of them are defectors.

MARGARET WARNER: And now the Assad government is saying 1,100 of their own soldiers, its own soldiers have been killed. Are you able to confirm that? Do you try to confirm that?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Well, it’s possible.

We would really be willing to verify that. However, in order to do so, we would have to be admitted to go to Syria. However, until now, although there were impartial international commissions of inquiry and panels, they were not allowed to enter Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, looking ahead in the coming weeks, what are you most worried about? Is there the possibility that this jump in the death toll could accelerate even more rapidly?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Well, there are some disturbing signs. We have more killings that are a result of armed clashes.

So the level of organization of resistance, military organization has increased. What we are mostly afraid is that it leads to some sort of conflicts along religious and ethnic lines. That would be a disaster.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in other words, Sunni vs. Alawites, the Shiites, who make up the majority of the army?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Of course, this is a major concern.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, today, Russia did offer a draft resolution. Your bosses called on the Security Council to refer this whole matter to the International Criminal Court.

How do you assess the prospects of either — either the Security Council moving on your office’s suggestion or moving towards some sort of sanctions or something with teeth?

IVAN SIMONOVIC: Those issues are not mutually exclusive.

I think that first priority is that they there are monitors on the ground, because their presence is preventing future killings. So we welcome very much the plan of Arab League and their willingness to dispatch monitors. And Office of Human Rights would be perfectly willing to support them and to offer them technical assistance in training for monitoring.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that accountability is not important. And in that respect, it is important also to admit commission of inquiry to enter Syria. But let us keep these things separate. One is monitoring and reporting with the primary purpose of prevention, and the other one is commission of inquiry, which has to establish accountability.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, and the former still — still denied by the Syrian government.

Well, thank you, Mr. Simonovic, assistant secretary-general for human rights. Thanks for being with us.