An Eye Toward Syria: A Case Study in Geolocation

by Hannah Hartt, Yara Akiki, Ibrahim Khan, Michael Elsanadi, and A.J. Schumann

As the Syrian conflict approaches its tenth year — with more than 380,000 dead and 13 million displaced — activists continue to document the violence with hopes of future legal accountability for human rights violations. Crimes perpetrated against Syrians take many forms, but among the most egregious are attacks on medical facilities, which are in direct violation of international law. A team of students at the Human Rights Center’s Investigations Lab partnered with the Syrian Archive to verify numerous attacks on medical facilities, including a July 9, 2017, airstrike on a medical facility in Houla, Syria. This interactive StoryMap examines our process of determining one of the most essential details: the location of this medical facility.

(Click HERE for fullscreen version)

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, when a grassroots democracy movement demanded the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian civilians have found themselves caught in the crossfire of fighting between numerous foreign governments, militias, and domestic forces. As casualties mount in cities and rural areas alike, only a handful of medical facilities continue operations for those most in need of medical attention.

Unfortunately, not even medical facilities are safe from violence. According to Physicians for Human Rights, there have been 595 attacks on Syrian medical facilities between March 2011 and February 2020. Notably, 536 of these attacks have been allegedly committed by Syrian government forces and allied pro-government forces. Though perpetrators repeatedly deny allegations, many incidents have been well documented by major newspapers like the New York Times and local news outlets such as SMART News Agency. The incidents have also attracted a response from international legal mechanisms such as the United Nations Board of Inquiry, which published a report last September requesting the review of seven major attacks on medical facilities.

The sheer volume and precision of these attacks indicate a pattern of intent. Perpetrators often intentionally strike medical facilities in order to decimate medical networks and break the will of those living in opposition-controlled areas. Intent can be discerned in the case of “double-tap” attacks, in which perpetrators strike the same medical facility twice in quick succession in order to kill rescue workers who rush to the aid of wounded civilians. In general, attacks may take two forms: air strikes involving munitions dropped from aircraft or ground attacks using artillery to shell opposition targets. Regardless of the mechanism, an intentional attack on a medical facility violates Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Legal action is difficult to facilitate in an ongoing conflict, but evidence preservation and advocacy efforts play an important role in future litigation. Open source investigation methods — following the draft Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations — could be critical in advancing the prosecution of perpetrators. The Syrian Archive, a leading organization in documenting the crisis, has verified over 5,000 incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, violations of children’s rights, and other human rights violations. In partnership with the Syrian Archive, we worked to add information to a database documenting attacks on medical facilities. Using open source information such as YouTube videos, social media posts, and satellite imagery, we verified key aspects of each incident including location, distance from the frontline, and weaponry used.

The attack detailed in the StoryMap is just one of some 370 that will be documented in this database. Though any number of incidents could have been selected, this incident illustrates an effective methodology for geolocation: the identification of the location in which a piece of visual content was captured. Geolocation is not the only component of these investigations, yet it is fundamental to a thorough and complete open source investigation. The above StoryMap does not depict every step in the process. However, it does show our process of geolocating one attack, in one city, on one day of a decade-long conflict.

Finally, we recognize that we witness this conflict in a very different way than those in Syria. While Syrian civilians have seen their country transform under this unspeakable violence, we view this conflict through a computer screen, peering through the lens of satellite imagery and user-generated images and videos. We want to do everything possible to prevent the detachment from the harsh reality of conflict that can come so easily in this type of remote advocacy. Importantly, our work would not be possible without Syrians on the ground risking their lives to capture this content. We hope that, with the guidance of organizations like the Syrian Archive, we may continue to conduct open source human rights investigations while acknowledging the privilege and position we hold.

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The Human Rights Center’s medium covers research, investigations, and action related to human rights and technology, health, law, journalism, business, social science, and more.

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