Civilian homes in Killi (Idlib province) destroyed by indiscriminate attacks. © Amnesty International

Can Video Document Possible War Crimes In Syria?

Posted on January 8, 2013 by WITNESS

Amid a rising tide of citizen videos worldwide, there’s a torrent of Syrian citizen journalism. Christoph Koettl, Emergency Response Manager at Amnesty International USA, discusses the potential–and the potential pitfalls. What power does a Syrian cell phone video have, for justice and deception?

By Christoph Koettl, Amnesty International USA.

Barely a few hours into 2013, a video emerged that shocked even seasoned monitors of the Syrian conflict: an armed group— purportedly a pro-Assad shabiha militia—slowly stabbed and stoned two captives. The video was uploaded by an armed opposition group, which claimed it acquired the video from a captured pro-Assad militia fighter.

Citizen reporting in conflict situations has been on the rise, as seen in places like Libya. The torrent of videos from citizens and soldiers exposing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, however, is truly unique to the Syrian conflict. Having worked on several armed conflict situations, I have never before witnessed such volume of new video on a daily basis. WITNESS’s Human Rights Channel adds daily updates to ‘Watching Syria,’ a collection of verified citizen video, and recently published a playlist on potential Syrian war crimes.

Civilian homes in Killi (Idlib province) destroyed by indiscriminate attacks. © Amnesty International

Civilian homes in Killi (Idlib province) destroyed by indiscriminate attacks. © Amnesty International

Case in point: the current conflict in northern Mali. Though entirely controlled by armed groups, the region has seen hardly any citizen videos. Such instances lack both direct access for researchers and citizen reporting. I regularly resort to satellite imagery to gain “access” and to document potential violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), also known as the laws of war.

Video of violations, such as torture or executions, can offer documentation that satellite images cannot provide. It can establish a level of detail that other evidence does not. Even still, the inevitable fog of war poses challenges unique to videos from citizens and soldiers and broaches new territory in the use of such documentation in the pursuit of accountability and justice.

A war crime in progress?

Video is highly useful for identifying abuses related to the two core issues of the laws of war: (1) the treatment of non-combatants (civilians or prisoners of war); and (2) the prohibition of indiscriminate or direct attacks against civilians. Let me highlight two recent examples.

In October 2012, a highly unusual video came across my desk: Syrian soldiers in a helicopter, dropping a bomb over a city near Homs. Comparison with satellite imagery allowed me to confirm the attacked town as al-Dabaa. It illustrates what I believe is an indiscriminate attack, i.e., the attackers do not distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets. The video itself shows that the weapon used, in this case a sort of “barrel bomb” pushed manually from the rear of the aircraft, can hardly be used to hit a specific military target. Instead, it appears that the attackers treated the whole town as one, single target.

A few days later, a series of videos emerged documenting the capture of an army checkpoint near Idlib. The final video appears to show government soldiers being executed, even though an earlier video confirmed that they were captured alive and disarmed. Amnesty International and the United Nations issued strong condemnations of this possible war crime.

Value in human rights research and advocacy

Thanks to video, human rights organizations can cross-reference other evidence in reconstructing specific incidents, and swiftly condemn violations. This has become increasingly important: armed groups in Syria do appear to lack any basic training in international humanitarian law, and a strong public outcry could influence their behavior.

Most importantly, citizen video―embedded in thorough research and advocacy―can help secure justice. It contributes to impartial, independent investigations, which are often the first step in providing accountability through domestic or international trials. The most recent report by the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria references video evidence over a dozen times.

However, the stabbing video I initially mentioned is emblematic of the current challenges we face: the video remains unverified. The crime was committed in a confined space without any geographic references, and no other footage documenting the same incident has yet surfaced. It presents a possible war crime, but is almost impossible to use in research or advocacy without further evidence. Caution is justified, as video can easily be put in the wrong context or purposefully manipulated (see the infamous “buried alive video”). Thankfully, a lot has been written about validation of citizen video from war zones and elsewhere, including on this blog.

Future monitoring of active conflicts will rely heavily on video provided by citizens. The importance of this sort of documentation is highlighted by the lack thereof in situations such as northern Mali: while an escalation and internationalization of the conflict in 2013 seems certain, it will largely miss the perspective of the people bearing the brunt of the conflict.

Christoph Koettl is Emergency Response Manager at Amnesty International USA. He can be reached on Twitter @ckoettl.

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