Google Earth, USB sticks, and social media have helped a group of aspiring attorneys track atrocities in Syria—from a campus in Syracuse
Each image bears witness to atrocity. Snapped on cell phones and other digital devices, they are uploaded from the war-torn corners of Syria each day. There are leveled neighborhoods and butchered bodies. There are the faces of those who have succumbed to torture, hunger, and other deprivation.
“The hardest pictures to look at are the ones taken of children that are victims of warplane shelling,” said Zachary Lucas, a third year student at Syracuse University College of Law. “Those are tough.”
For the last five years, a group of students like Lucas from this rust belt institution have sifted through a torrent of images and first-hand accounts captured by civilians and activists in Syria, much of it posted online or disseminated through social media. Using this material and other sources, they have worked meticulously to create the world’s most comprehensive database of alleged war crimes committed throughout the conflict. The grim compendium topped 12,000 documented incidents at the end of last year.
“It’s absolutely mind boggling,” said David Crane, a law professor at the college and advisor for what’s been dubbed the Syrian Accountability Project. The work of Crane’s students aims to serve as a sweeping trial package, a legal record that may one day assist a tribunal or international court in convicting those who committed war crimes against the Syrian people. Among those defendants might be Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, he said.
Is that even possible?
Crane, a former chief prosecutor for the United Nations, has reason to believe so. He’s accomplished something no other living lawyer has: he successfully indicted a former head of state. In 2003, Crane charged Liberia’s Charles Taylor for his role in the death of thousands during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s. Taylor, a warlord who was once among Africa’s most powerful dictators, was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison, making him the first former head of state convicted since Germany’s Nuremberg trials after World War II.
It was because of Crane’s work in Sierra Leone that the Syrian National Council reached out to him in 2011. The Council, an opposition group formed against the Syrian government, wanted to know what kind of judicial measures could be taken against the Assad regime, whose crackdown against Arab protestors earlier that year had escalated into an armed conflict. Crane, who now teaches international law, decided that his students could investigate and quantify the atrocities being committed on a mass scale. The project was born.
Since then, as many as 50 law students, along with volunteer analysts, have monitored the war around the clock. Much of the work follows the system Crane created to build a case against Taylor and his henchmen, he said. At the center is a crime matrix that contains verifiable incidents in Syria that could be prosecuted under the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, or Syrian Penal Law.
Through December 2015, they had amassed 12,242 documented war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Syrian government as well as those fighting the regime.
With Taylor’s case, Crane had to hunt down witnesses and evidence on the ground in West Africa, years after the crimes took place. His current students on the other hand, working 5,000 miles away from Syria, receive tips and reports in real time from sources on the ground, as well as citizens and activists who publish accounts on websites, Twitter, and Facebook.
Often, thanks to the ubiquity of smart phones and other technology, witnesses can now provide photo or video documentation of a regime barrel bomb ripping through a hospital or the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack. In one of the most stunning cases of criminality to come out of the war, a military photographer smuggled 55,000 photos depicting the systematic torture of more than 10,000 prisoners by the Assad regime using USB sticks that were hidden inside his shoes.
“It’s a digital tsunami,” Crane said. “We have terabytes of information coming out of the Levant region.”
At times, the Syrian Accountability project has leveraged other tech tools to build evidence for an alleged crime. On multiple occasions, it has used Google Earth images to verify the destruction of neighborhoods or the existence of mass graves. Google has also been instrumental in locating the presence of military bases or units implicated in a particular event.
The deluge of digital data presents one of the biggest challenges for the project, students say. Lucas estimates that as much as 95 percent of the tips they’ve received or generated from sources would be inadmissible in a court of law. If they were to authenticate or verify every piece of possible evidence, they would run the risk of an information overload.
But their matrix serves as an important historical record. It is an index of inhumanity leveled against the Syrian people, one the project has already shared with the United Nations, International Criminal Court, and U.S. State Department. The data decisively shows that the Assad regime has committed the lion’s share of atrocities in the conflict: nearly two-thirds of the documented war crimes, from indiscriminate shelling to torture, have been carried out by the Syrian government and its allies.
But the project’s findings also reveal that every armed group in the war has played a part in the bloodshed that, since it began, has left more than 250,000 people dead and displaced millions. In addition to the scores of brutal acts attributed to Islamist militant groups like ISIS and Nusra, rebel factions, including the United States-backed Free Syrian Army, are responsible for hundreds more. Another 2,300 purported war crimes committed by those fighting Assad forces—nearly a fifth of the total—remain unattributable, which underscores the chaotic nature of the conflict.
Through February 2015, the project tallied nearly 42,000 incidents by all parties that involved the use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, civilian shootings, detentions, field executions, kidnappings, mutilations, indiscriminate shelling, violence against women, and torture, according to figures provided to Vocativ.
“It’s important to emphasize that, across the board, these horrific things are happening,” said Peter Levrant, a former Syracuse law student, who served as the executive director for the project. “At this point, it’s really hard to say that any one party is completely innocent.”
Students have also managed to conduct more granular analyses through their research. For example, Levrant and others published an 88-page white paper in March that examined alleged incidents of rape against women during the conflict. The study found that out of 142 reported incidents, the Assad regime and its affiliates were responsible for nearly 90 percent of them. More than a third of these incidents happened while the victim was detained or imprisoned. Others occurred during home raids and kidnappings.
Despite the ongoing effort to hold Syria’s various armed groups accountable, there is no guarantee that the project’s findings will be used in future criminal cases. But Crane is hopeful, believing that ultimately a path to justice will be found.
“Whether this happens next year or 10 years from now it will still be valid,” he said. “When politicians decide to do something, we’ll be ready. We’ll hand it to them, all 20,000 pages.”
(This article was originally published on Vocative and can be found here.)
A Detailed Account of Five months, the Syrian and Russian Regimes are Responsible for 71% of all Violations
The statistics in this report, which is published by SNHR, are based on the Network’s monthly reports. These reports draw upon a daily and cumulative documentation of daily incidents throughout the period of time between the commencement of the Cessation of Hostilities statement on 27 February 2016 and 27 July 2016 where the report records that 71% of all the violations in the five-month period since the commencement of the Cessation of Hostilities statement were perpetrated by the Russian and Syrian regimes.
The report notes that the Russian authorities announced that Russian forces would withdraw from Syria.
The withdrawal, however, was only words on paper as Russian forces are still bombing the various Syrian governorates using a wide range of weapons including internationally-prohibited weapons such as cluster munition. As it is well known, Russian forces are fighting side by side with the Syrian regime and, therefore, it is a main party in the conflict and have been involved in tens of war crimes. At the same time, the Russian regime was a party to the statement of Cessation of Hostilities and a party in the political process as well which is one of the most major paradoxes in the Syrian tragedy according to the report.
The report anticipates, based on the data it includes, that the American-Russian agreement to coordinate against Al Nussra Front, Al Qaeda branch in Syria, and ISIS will fail as well because the agreement repeats the same mistakes that were made in the Cessation of Hostilities statement. Russian forces will keep targeting civilians and armed opposition factions and claims that they were Al Nussra Front. Nonetheless, the terrorist sectarian militias that are loyal to the Syrian regime aren’t targeted amid an utter lack of any monitoring or accountability mechanisms.
Fadel Abdul Ghani, chairman of SNHR, adds:
“The Syrian people can’t picture that there is an ongoing political process and at the same times barrel bombs are being dropped over them in addition to the arrest, siege, and displacement. There has to be a complete ceasefire and only then the political process will have solid grounds. We hope that this happens before the beginning of the upcoming elections in the US. Otherwise, there will be long months of killing and displacement awaiting the lone Syrian people”
The report documents the killing of 5188 civilians including 1016 children and 694 women during the period of time covered in the report. Government forces killed 3055 civilians including 483 children and 359 women while Russian forces killed 417 civilians including 113 children and 63 women. Additionally, 552 civilians were killed by ISIS including 98 children and 78 women whereas Al Nussra Front killed 17 civilians including two children and one woman. Also, the number of victims killed at the hands of the international coalition forces is 305 civilians including 130 children and 53 women whereas Self-management forces killed 184 civilians including 17 children and eight women. Furthermore, 392 civilians including 102 children and 92 women were killed by the various armed opposition factions.
Moreover, the report records that 3631 individuals were arrested including 113 children and 135 women. Government forces arrested 2517 individuals including 83 children and 114 women while ISIS arrested 585 individuals including four children and five women. Also, Al Nussra Front arrested 97 individuals including one child whereas Self-management forces arrested 168 individuals including 19 children and 12 women. Also, 264 individuals including four women and six children were arrested by armed opposition factions.
According to the report, 152 massacres were perpetrated in the period of time covered in this report where government forces perpetrated 102 massacres, Russian forces perpetrated 19 massacres, ISIS perpetrated 12 massacres, the international coalition forces perpetrated seven massacres, and six massacres were perpetrated by armed opposition factions in addition to six massacre that were perpetrated by unidentified groups.
The report highlights the attacks against vital civil facilities which amounted to 440 incidents of attacks including 275 by government forces and 100 by Russian forces. Additionally, 25 attacks against vital civil facilities were carried out by armed opposition factions, 19 by ISIS, six by international coalition forces, and one by Self-management forces in addition to 14 incidents of attacks that were carried out by unidentified groups.
The report calls on the government of Russia and the USA to investigate the incidents included, to deal with violations seriously, and to map out the locations of Al Nussra Front and ISIS rather than targeting all areas and neighborhoods under the pretext of combating terrorism.
Furthermore, the report demands that double-standard policies must end as the terrorist groups that are fighting side by side with the Syrian regime, which are mostly of a Shiite and sectarian nature, must be fought in addition to the extremist Islamic groups.
The report emphasizes that the Russian government must immediately withdraw from Syria and not side with the Syrian regime.
Finally, the report calls on for the Syrian case to be referred to the International Criminal Court and for all involved to be held accountable, Also, peace and security must be instilled in Syria and the norm of “Responsibility to Protect” must be implemented in order to save the lives, history, and arts of the Syrian people from being destroyed, stolen, or ruined.
(The full report can be viewed here.)
Although the Syria peace talks have stalled in recent months, closed-door discussions continue between the United States and Russia to resolve the current impasse. As these discussions go on, it has become increasingly clear that criminal justice is not a priority for either the UN Special Envoy or the international brokers. Even though amnesties have not been discussed publicly, there is a high likelihood that they will be included if a final deal is ever reached. In fact, as the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) wrote last year, amnesties are a common component of peace agreements, taking many different forms, ranging from conditional amnesties (as in South Africa) to wholesale blanket amnesties (as in Lebanon). Broad, unconditional amnesties, however, have increasingly been rejected by both international and national courts, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has gone so far to assert that the prohibition on blanket amnesties for those most responsible for gross violations of human rights constitutes customary international law and must be adhered to by all states.
In reality, however, these court decisions and expert opinions have not seemed to have much influence on peace negotiations, particularly those in the Middle East. Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides, for example, received blanket amnesties in a deal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the international community. Similarly in Syria, it seems as though President Bashar al-Assad will receive some sort of amnesty based on how the negotiations have prioritized peace over justice to date. So what does international practice say about the peace vs. justice dichotomy and what can Syrians who seek justice for their grievances expect from a future peace agreement negotiated under the current framework?
Traditionally, justice has been seen as an impediment to peace, but there is a growing recognition that peace agreements that do not address grievances often lead to renewed conflict. Studies have shown that countries which utilize a combination of amnesties and prosecutions are more likely to have lasting peace than countries which only utilize one mechanism. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is the foundation of the modern notion that justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide must not be sacrificed for any reason, and the Inter-American Court as well as national courts in Argentina and, most recently, El Salvador, have struck down amnesty laws that shielded those most responsible for war crimes from accountability.
In reality, there must be a balance of peace and justice. The question is how to leverage amnesties to get important concessions while still ensuring that those most responsible are tried. In prolonged and massive conflicts like Syria, it is quite difficult to hold all perpetrators accountable due to the scale of violations. According to Daniel Serwer, SJAC’s newest Board member and Director of the Conflict Management Program at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, “It is impossible to prosecute everyone in a situation as fraught and violent as Syria. It should be up to Syrians to decide whom they want to prosecute, based on the evidence available, the capacity of whatever judicial system is used and the nature administrative measures like vetting and lustration that are less taxing on the judiciary, which is bound to be weakened after a ferocious war.” The trick is to create the conditions for peace within the political agreement while also ensuring society and victims feel as though their grievances have been acknowledged and will be addressed.
Even if justice mechanisms are included in a final peace agreement, the timeline will likely disappoint most Syrians. According to Serwer, “Justice is always slower than people like. Only rough justice can be done quickly, but that can lead to revenge, autocracy, and renewal of conflict.” Examples from other post-conflict or post-authoritarian countries demonstrate that it can often take years, if not decades, for perpetrators to see the inside of a courtroom. Blanket amnesties can further delay the already lengthy justice process. It takes time for national courts in post-conflict countries to rebuild and gain sufficient capacity, legitimacy, and independence to review and overturn blanket amnesty laws. In Chile, the 1978 amnesty law passed by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet was in place for 20 years before the Supreme Court struck it down, opening the opportunity for prosecutions. Since then, 1,000 cases have been opened, and by 2014, 75 of Pinochet’s secret police were sentenced to prison time. Similar examples can be found in Argentina, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Uruguay, and Peru. Outside of Latin America, Uganda’s Supreme Court recently ruled on its 2000 amnesty law, which granted immunity to fighters and commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The court found that the law exempted grave international crimes, allowing LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo to be prosecuted for violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. While these instances represent a promising trend, their global impact has so far been limited and will likely not influence the outcome of the Syrian conflict.
Amnesties, specifically conditional amnesties, will never be completely dispensable, particularly in large-scale conflicts with numerous perpetrators. Stability requires a peace agreement that the parties to the conflict consent to sign and implement. In turn, transitional justice requires a measure of stability to be possible. Thus, transitional justice and peace are really two sides of the same coin. Transitional justice relies on peace, and long-term peace relies on the type of reconciliation that only a holistic transitional justice process can provide. For Syria, it will be important for the UN and international mediators to promote a balance of justice and amnesties within a final peace agreement. It will require sacrifices and tough choices, but ignoring justice completely, as in Yemen, is not a feasible option.
For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at email@example.com.
(This article was originally featured on the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre’s website and can be found here.)