Leading article: The UN counts the cost in Syria

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The United Nations attracts a mixed press, and it can never be greater than the sum of its parts. But as the largely unforeseen events in North Africa and the Middle East have unfolded this year, it has not acquitted itself badly. It has exerted pressure on doomed regimes, urged restraint on panicked governments, and condemned violence ordered by leaders against their own people. The Security Council authorised the internationally co-ordinated no-fly zone designed to defend civilians in Libya. And last month the Secretary General reported, with admirable clarity, on the conflicts left behind, and the dangers of militia violence spreading.

Now, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, has delivered a report on the violence in Syria, and not pulled her punches. She told the Security Council that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed since the start of the uprising in March, including 300 children; that 14,000 were believed to be under arrest and that almost as many had fled the country. Her conclusion was that the Syrian regime's use of violence against its own people was such as to warrant referral to the International Criminal Court.

Neither the findings nor the conclusion should surprise anyone who has followed Syria's descent into violence. The figures do not seem out of proportion with first-hand reports that have reached the outside world, despite all the attempts by Damascus to seal the country off. If the regime has more authoritative figures, it should produce them – and not just for casualties among its own forces.

What the HRC's report does is quantify the appalling human cost to date of the uprising in Syria. Russia's claim yesterday that the opposition has an interest in provoking a catastrophe in order to secure foreign help is cynical in the extreme, and should be seen in the light of Moscow's own domestic troubles. International military intervention is no option; not only are the risks too great, but the usefulness of intervention in Libya in the longer term remains to be assessed. It may not seem much, against the force applied by the regime, but the threat of referral to the ICC sends a message – one that Bashar al-Assad and his security forces would do well to heed.