Updated on April 6th, 2018
Read this in Arabic.
For anyone following the Syrian uprising, March is a bittersweet month. It is the month, in 2011, that a group of schoolboys first scrawled “the people want an end to the regime”—the call to revolution echoing across the Arab world—onto a grain silo in Dara’a, southwestern Syria. When they were arrested, thousands more joined their call in Aleppo, Damascus and across the country, demanding an end to the regime and its brutal policies of arbitrary arrest and detentions for anyone daring to speak out.
Seven years later, the outlook for the original demands of the uprising is bleak. Since protesters took to the streets then, demanding the release of friends and family members, more than 13,000 have been executed inside of Assad’s prisons. Fighting has killed more than 465,000 and displaced another 12 million. At times, the Syrian opposition has controlled major cities and areas across the country, but have recently lost ground.
The regime has retaliated, ruthlessly recapturing cities and villages, massacring civilians and leaving others fleeing for their lives. Over the past month, more than 400,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta have been the most recent victims of one of the Syrian government’s notorious bombardments, killing more than one thousand and violently recapturing half of the Damascus suburb.
However, Syrians—whether in Syria, Turkey, Germany, Sweden or the United States—refuse to give up fighting for justice. No matter how many bombings they have seen—and survived—activists and field researchers are still rushing to the sight of each atrocity, filming and photographing the evidence, and recording the name of every person who is killed or injured. They continue to utilize tools and methods from open source investigations and WITNESS’ Video as Evidence Field Guide to enhance their evidentiary filming skills and help ensure that their content can be trusted and authenticated.
Our partners at Syrian Institute for Justice are taking this footage, and using it to build case files about massacres, and other human rights violations, to later present to bodies like the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Justice in Syria (IIIM), a body set up by the United Nations to analyze evidence of war crimes in Syria.
“We have activists across Syria, and communicate with them every day,” Saeed Saeed, who works with the Syrian Institute for Justice, tells WITNESS. “Over the years, we have built case files against the Aleppo river massacre in 2013 and field executions of women and gender-based violence.” Nearly 150 bodies were recovered in the city’s river. Human rights groups concluded that the victims had most likely been executed in government-controlled areas.
In addition to documenting war crimes, other organizations, like the Free Syrian Lawyers’ Association, are organizing legal clinics, and arbitrating dispute resolution programs in liberated areas to counter the ad-hoc “justice” systems put in place by armed groups. Recently, they allied the Center for Rule of Law and Good Governance to bring more than 100 different lawyers and civil society actors to Istanbul to discuss solutions to the legal challenges facing justice in Syria.
“We have many challenges working inside of Syria, it’s still very risky and our centers in Atareb and Aleppo have been destroyed-twice!” shares Deyaa Al-Rwishdi, one of the original founders of the Free Syrian Lawyers’ Association.
“On the international level, there is unnecessary bureaucracy,” he continues. “Changes in the political environment can really affect the legal work—we believe in the IIIM, but hope it will be less bureaucratic than the United Nations, as this puts strain on civil society actors.”
Syrians in the diaspora have not stopped working either. Our partners at Syrian Archive are tirelessly verifying and archiving video footage from activists on the ground, organizing and preserving essential evidence of war crimes. Since last summer, they have had to dedicate their time and energy to crisis resolution as YouTube deleted dozens of videos documenting war crimes form their servers, removing one of the largest online archives of war crimes and richest sources of information on the Arab Spring in existence. Over the past months, Syrian Archive has worked to restore some of these archives, and most importantly, create a secure backup of these videos to ensure that they are available when the Syrian regime finally sees their day in court. Abdulraham Jaloud of the Syrian Archive told us:
“A lot of us just had to suddenly learn about how we could use these photos and videos, because of what happened in Syria. But now we are building legal cases, and trying to bring them to courts in Europe. In spite of everything, this brings me a lot of hope.”
Our partners’ courageous and tireless work in Syria has been essential to informing our Video as Evidence guide, now available for download in both English and Arabic. It also inspired our research on the legal landscape of video as evidence across the MENA region, resulting in a comprehensive report, available for download in Arabic and English, here. WITNESS shares Abdulrahman’s and our partners’ hope for justice, and we believe that Syria’s learnings can be shared to inspire activists beyond Syria and MENA. To date, we have given Video as Evidence trainings in over 17 countries and our guidance has been translated into five additional languages with over 35,000 downloads across the world.
Update: Shortly after the publication of this post on April 3rd, the IIIM along with the Syrian Archive, Syrian Institute for Justice, and 26 other civil society organizations from Syria signed a protocol to ensure that human rights evidence can be properly archived and analyzed. This historic agreement—which fosters further collaboration—will help ensure justice and accountability for crimes perpetrated in Syria.
About the author: Anna Lekas Miller is WITNESS’ MENA Communications Consultant based in London. She has reported from the Middle East on the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and other issues for a variety of publications, including The Intercept, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, and VICE.