40 years’ Worth of Footage from Syria Alone: Global Documentation Requires Commensurate Global Justice

40 years’ Worth of Footage from Syria Alone: Global Documentation Requires Commensurate Global Justice

[Jeff Deutch, PhD, is Research Director at Mnemonic and co-founder of Syrian Archive.

Libby McAvoy, Esq., is a legal fellow with Mnemonic and the Video as Evidence program at WITNESS.]

Photo credit: Syrian Archive.

Whether in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Hong Kong, Myanmar, the United States, Nigeria, Brasil, or elsewhere, over the last ten years civil society actors have produced and shared more content documenting human rights violations than ever before in human history. Encouraged by domestic courts and international accountability mechanisms, the ask to activists and human rights defenders is clear: keep recording. And yet, the international community on the whole has not treated documenters as key justice actors or fully leveraged the highly probative content they create and share. Worse, not only are there mountains of unused evidence documenting dangerous actors and their environments, states in some cases are nevertheless naming them ‘safe.’

Consider the conflict in Syria. To date, our Syrian Archive project has preserved an estimated 40 years of open source video claiming to document human rights violations and other serious crimes in Syria: if today we pressed play on the entire archive, we would be watching, nonstop, until 2061. And as documenters continue to post new content online, we continue to actively archive it.

This breadth of footage speaks to substantially more than the minute details required for individual incident reporting or investigation. Content-analysers and the systems in which we work prioritise a narrow, targeted focus when examining open source footage. One-off investigations of specific, activity-focused incidents almost certainly miss core dimensions to the experience of living under widespread, indiscriminate, disproportionate, and violent harms. They neglect or fail to capture the full scope of issues that have been laid out in public, for a decade, in massive amounts of open source content from documenters who often undertook great personal risk to create and share it.

In contrast, a proactive, data driven approach utilising data activism communication practices that more fully encompass the scope and range of harms that have been documented would not only take advantage of this content’s full potential but also better respect the content and the work of its creators.

At Mnemonic, our issue-oriented databases of verified video are designed to encompass the full breadth of available, open source documentation on the highlighted topic by utilising an ontology that tags content for what it says in its original context and within its archival context. These archive-wide investigations enable us to capture the scope of the recurring issue, examine each incident in context, and track across time and space legally significant or otherwise meaningful facets of these crimes and violations. In short, we can establish in the aggregate what individual videos, testimonies, and investigations cannot. 

Indicators of ‘less visible’ Elements of Crimes

Syrian Archive has, for example, publicised a set of ‘data tags’ designed for identifying and mapping indicators of an attacker’s apparent intent across visual investigations and databases. This injects into the verification process a method to analyse the substantial documentation available on open source platforms for central — yet ‘less visible’ or ‘less concrete’ — elements of the incidents under examination. This outcome is meaningful for bigger picture transitional justice goals, including mapping apparent perpetrator strategies and creating leads for next steps like case selection. 

To do this for our latest database on attacks against medical facilities for the Syrian Archive project, we meticulously defined observable indicators of intent, informed by law and practice, and then examined the verifiable facts for these indicators on an incident-by-incident basis. Over 90% of documented attacks against medical facilities in Syria show at least one indicator of an intentional attack.

Intent indicators can also be applied to other issues of suspected, deliberate attacks on people and objects meant to be protected under the international laws of armed conflict, like refugee camps or civilian journalists. And, video in particular lends itself to intent-focused work: it shows action and decisions in motion which, over time, can illustrate consistent behaviors and tactics. 

Indicators of Legal Characteristics of Attacks

Another way to consider expanding the scope of content analysis beyond basic verification of ‘who, what, and when’ is by considering what other aspects of documented incidents are commonly observable and potentially indicative of legally salient information, even if not the base crime or ‘what happened.’ 

Key to analysing the legality of attacks in armed conflict includes determining whether an attack harmed civilians to a degree that is clearly disproportionate to any legitimate military advantage and whether the attacker properly identified and took precautionsto avoid harming civilians and civilian objects. Similar to intent indicators, there are solid indicators — observable in video — that can point to the disproportionate or even indiscriminate nature of a documented attack.

Even for states that are not party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, use of cluster munitions, for example, is almost certainly unlawful as an indiscriminate attack resulting in disproportionate harm to civilians. Cluster munitions are imprecise by nature and cause immediate, wide-ranging destruction. They are known to have high dud rates, making their unexploded submunitions exceedingly dangerous and — in effect — de facto landmines. Documented use of this type of munition combined with geolocated points of impact in densely populated areas could constitute a strong circumstantial basis for finding that an attack was disproportionate and indiscriminate.

Indicators of ‘less visible’ Harms

Certain acts like sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) or gendered impacts of harms, more generally, are — for a variety of reasons — uncommonly filmed or difficult to capture. These and other ‘less visible’ harms are nevertheless extensively documented in open source footage. Again: observable, circumstantial indicators — as identified in collaboration with both local partners with direct experience in context and issue experts with experience in proving the ‘less visible’ illegal acts in court — mapped over time and space can serve the essential function of establishing that an environment existed in which such crimes and violations are highly likely to have taken place. This could critically support direct witness or survivor testimony about otherwise ‘unseen’ harms. 

Forthcoming guidance from WITNESS on using video to document SGBV includes a compiled list of indicators, named by experts in the field as “situations or activities [that] are essentially ‘red flags,’ known to indicate that SGBV is occurring.” These include the presence of unauthorized civilian women and children in military camps, police stations or barracks, or peacekeeping bases. In the Ntaganda case before the International Criminal Court (ICC), footage like this showing the defendant accompanied by an escort including young women at a military training camp served to bolster the Trial Chamber’s determination that a key witness was credible. On 30 March 2021, the Appeals Chamber for the ICC confirmed the defendant’s guilty verdict, including for the crime of sexual enslavement and rape of civilians.

Long-term Impacts on Civilians

Incidents under investigation often create long-lasting, compounding impacts on civilians. This is challenging to capture when examining issues on a case-by-case basis. What happens when medical facilities are steadily attacked over a ten-year period? What about when key infrastructure like bridges are systematically destroyed, thereby impeding the delivery of food, humanitarian aid, and medical supplies? Again, larger scale, archive-wide investigations can better encompass the full scope, impact, and experience of such documented harms.

The current global justice reality simply is not adequate to meet the demands implicit in the extensive quantity — and quality — of content that documenters continue to share open source, from a variety of places and contexts. In today’s justice dynamic, civil society has already stepped up in unprecedented ways, from documentation to content analysis to coalition-building for advocacy and accountability. For many places, like Syria, it is well past time for international institutions to step up, too. But in the meantime, we should keep asking: how we, people from and working around the world to take the necessary steps to protect future possibilities for justice, can work now to structure a more complete discussion — driven by those most directly impacted — to inextricably embed this priority in future systems-level responses. 

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Asia-Pacific, Courts & Tribunals, General, International Criminal Law, International Humanitarian Law, Middle East
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