In the Syrian conflict, loss means means different things to different people. For many, it means the loss of loved ones. For those displaced or forced to flee the country, it also means the loss of their homes, properties, jobs and communities. For most, it means the loss of predictability, welfare and security.
And yet, Syrians remain active and resilient —even after seven years of horrific violence. Despite being deprived of their basic human rights, many are fighting to protect their dignity, their voices and their memories.
Amid these devastating conditions, Syrian activists have relentlessly documented the suffering and crimes on the ground, and their tragic impact on the civilian population. Often with little means to support their work, and at the risk of their own lives, they have created an immense archive of information that has made the Syrian conflict one of the most documented in history.
For civil society groups, the primary motivation for documentation, especially in the early stages of the conflict, was to gather evidence for future criminal prosecution trials. Not all methods used on the ground, however, were able to collect forensic evidence that would meet the high standards required for a trial. What's more, without concrete plans for future trials, many civil society activists have begun to doubt the usefulness of documentation efforts.
But there is still hope. These innovative documentation strategies can be helpful in ways beyond criminal prosecution.
Documentation can protect victims' rights.
A land title is no longer just a piece of paper but a powerful tool to reunite and stabilize a family torn apart by violence. A YouTube video, if properly documented, can serve as hard evidence in a trial to prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes. If the recording process is given the necessary attention and respect, personal accounts can help victims protect their dignity.
The issue of sovereignty has incapacitated the international community's efforts to help Syrians get justice. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been unable to act due to votes by Russia and China in the UN Security Council. Efforts toward ad-hoc hybrid tribunals, with varying degrees of involvement from international or domestic courts, have also been unsuccessful.
Representatives from the International Center for Transitional Justice — Photo: Official Facebook page
The legal principle of universal jurisdiction has brought small victories. Swedish courts found two members from non-state armed groups guilty of a "terror crime" and found one Syrian Army soldier guilty of a war crime. German courts sentenced one member of Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and are currently prosecuting a member of the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian civil society organizations played an essential role in the success of these cases, highlighting the importance of strengthening relationships between national and international actors working toward accountability.
The creation of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) sought to consolidate the processes of preserving evidence related to human rights violations and to prepare files for future criminal prosecution cases on the regional, national and international level. Initially, due to lack of clarity on how the mechanism would function and frustrations with the international community, Syrian organizations were reluctant to partner with this UN body. These relationships have since improved and if they continue to strengthen, the IIIM could become a key actor in the long path of bringing justice to Syrian victims.
Documents and declarations
Despite legal limitations, documentation can protect victims' rights by memorializing, acknowledging and building accountability for suffering.
For future reparation and restitution efforts, it is essential to have land titles to return properties to their rightful owners without the interference of third-party actors who could easily take advantage of the vulnerable situation. Civil documentation can also assist with guaranteeing other civil rights like the processes for refugee returns.
The fates of those still missing or forcibly disappeared have long been a source of pain and confusion for families. Documentation efforts may become crucial for loved ones to find the truth, if families, communities and international actors improve the way information is protected, centralized, analyzed, coordinated and exchanged.
Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor.
Acknowledging the pain of victims is the first step toward justice and is important for the process of recovery from traumatic events. Listening to personal accounts enables organizations to better adapt to the needs of communities. In addition, this could generate a deeper understanding of the situation among the general public, garner more support from the international community and, eventually — hopefully — lead to change.
Documentation for these purposes, however, is not without its own challenges. The conflict has increased distrust and polarization between communities. That, in turn, impedes information sharing. Different goals result in strained relationships between organizations, which can shift focus from protecting victims' rights.
Victims too are increasingly feeling discouraged from contributing their stories to a seemingly fruitless endeavor. It then becomes a challenge for organizations to incorporate these voices in their projects.
Despite these setbacks and challenges, helping Syrians use their own voices to become empowered is a worthwhile effort and can bring results. Over a year ago, the International Center for Transitional Justice began an unprecedented collaboration with 10 Syrian human rights organizations to document the destruction of schools and its long-term impact. Next week, the Save Syrian Schools project will host a public hearing-style discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, where some of the victims of these crimes will share their stories in front of high-profile justice advocates serving on a "Panel of Conscience."
Whether it be gathering quantitative and qualitative data, recording personal stories, documenting missing people and property rights or sharing personal videos and images through social media, even the smallest detail has the potential to help impacted individuals and communities on their long journey toward recovery and justice.
*Fernando Travesí, an international lawyer, was recently named executive director of the New York City-based International Center for Transitional Justice.