Opportunities and Challenges: Preparing for Accountability in Syria

The electronic collection of evidence in real-time, which is on the rise thanks to accessible platforms such as mobile phones and YouTube, has allowed the advocacy community to bring accounts of widespread suffering into homes across the globe in unprecedented and often deeply personal ways. Activists, victims, and survivors have used the ever-growing volume of information to increase public awareness of violence and, as a result, mobilize important response and prevention efforts. These activists might thus argue that for the sake of advocacy efforts, the more information and documentation available, the better.

Yet as widespread citizen journalism and contemporary documentation platforms converge, the international justice community is grappling with challenges posed by unconventional tools for electronic human rights documentation. Like many situations of armed conflict, reporting on violations in Syria is uneven and unsystematic. Informal grassroots and digital documentation activities are often unable to cover all crimes equally (especially SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence]) and verification is often times impossible. The chain of custody and origin of evidence can be unclear during conflict, only to be blurred further as a result of the rapid exchange of digital information. Meanwhile, the exaggeration of crimes such as SGBV for political advantage is made easier by the real time pace of communications technology and the anonymity provided by online platforms, potentially eroding confidence in emerging electronic information.

Although electronic crowd sourcing and anecdotal accounts of sexual violence in Syria are pervasive online, they remain difficult to verify without a clear link to the original crime. Thus, in spite of widespread electronic, activist, and anecdotal reporting, quantifying the scope of crimes in Syria, especially potentially systematic incidences of SGBV, remains exceedingly difficult. Ongoing violence also affects the collection and preservation of more traditional forms of evidence relevant to SGBV crimes, such as testimonials and records that reveal individual or command responsibility. As a result, our ability as the international community to marshal appropriate resources toward survivors and lay a foundation for accountability can at times be limited.

In the interest of long term justice, a digital library of unverified and informal documentation may not be easily put to use. Activities such as pattern analysis, establishing linkage, reconstructing a narrative of the violence, and building criminal cases based on strong evidence, while critical to a future transitional justice agenda, all rely on accurate and credible evidence. For the purposes of criminal accountability, the emerging information climate in Syria, despite being replete with data and electronic documentation, may fall short in meeting standards of admissibility for prosecutions of conflict-related crimes.

Nonetheless, there is broad agreement within the international community that those responsible for violations of international law in Syria must be held accountable. Sexual violence should be no exception. It is thus worth considering which activities could help translate this attitude into a concrete reality, such as through increased trainings and outreach efforts for investigators, judges and medical professionals aimed at continuously augmenting the quality of information collection. Earnest work has been undertaken in this regard, but expanding professionalization of Syrian investigators and judges, especially women in these roles, is critical to building a foundation for justice and rule of law.

Ongoing activities aimed at coordinating and centralizing the documentation that exists should be expanded, well-resourced and linked to internal groups investigating violence across the country. Engaging neutral medical professionals in the proper documentation and storage of medical records is a critical need in any armed conflict, particularly in preserving records of torture or sexual violence victims. In all, such efforts may provide Syrians with meaningful tools to advance eventual justice processes, especially if this documentation can be paired with reliable forms of information, such as satellite imagery, that can overcome verification barriers by corroborating video and testimonial accounts.

The situation in Syria indicates that international efforts aimed at standardizing a protocol for documenting sexual violence in conflict could not be more timely, but it will take time for such guidelines to be mainstreamed into practice. The Syria experience should provide an incentive among actors in the international community to redouble such efforts. At the same time as we seek to enhance documentation, survivors of violence, including SGBV, need access to continued services and support. Efforts to pair the documentation of survivor experiences with appropriate psychosocial and medical treatment are critical. After all, symbolic healing provided through justice must come hand-in-hand with the physical and psychological healing and recovery that comes through care.

In sum, as the international community continues to seek ways to support the Syrian people, the surge of informal citizen reporting and evidence collection in Syria should be heralded as a positive development. It has changed the landscape of advocacy, activism and the collective experience of conflict on a global scale. Despite the challenges new technology might pose to accountability, we should greet innovation in the human rights documentation community as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle, to meaningfully inform humanitarian, policy and justice interventions that support the needs of victims today and lay a foundation for a secure, just and stable Syria tomorrow.


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