How Syrian Archive use open source investigation to support accountability in Syria
Using Check Syrian Archive collaborates with UC Berkeley to analyze, verify and archive video documentation of chemical weapons strikes
Written by: Wafaa Heikal
Edited by: Tom Trewinnard
On 18 January 2018, the Berkeley Human Rights Investigation Lab and Syrian Archive published findings of an open-source investigation regarding two attacks on al-Lataminah in March 2017 involving the use of chemical weapons. In this interview we talk to two of the Syrian Archive team — founder Hadi al-Khatib and lead researcher Jeff Deutch — about their journey thus far, the future of accountability in Syria, and how Check supports their collaborative approach to open source investigation.
How did the Syrian Archive start, and how does it work?
Hadi: We started working in Gaziantep in Turkey, where I was working for No Peace Without Justice on capacity building for lawyers and human rights defenders. During this time I met with lawyers, human rights activists and photographers who explained how they were losing important content captured on their cameras and phones on a daily basis.
The idea was to address this issue by implementing a simple storage place where they can send the material for secure preservation. After 2014 the idea developed, because there was so much online content that we want to preserve in addition to offline material.
In 2015 after I moved to Berlin I learned about Bellingcat’s work, which fascinated me. How they use this material to do open source investigations was a very practical way to make use of this content directly in publishing investigations. This was the beginning, and by that time we were also learning about the possibility of using this material to support legal cases against perpetrators of war crimes in Syria.
It seems more straightforward to use eyewitness media for human rights advocacy and reporting than for legal accountability, given the many years such processes take and the lack of shared standards around citizen video, for example. How do you deal with this challenge?
Jeff: We are not expecting justice overnight. The important part for now that this material is being preserved, so at some point when people are ready to open legal cases that material will be there to support it. We have different mechanisms to try to set up things especially for that, even if there’s no actual legal case now, by collecting and verifying evidences will contribute to bring more cases. In addition to that, there are individual cases, and even if 100–500 people get charged and found guilty this isn’t necessarily going to bring long term justice and accountability in the country. So one of the things we are looking to do is to have these videos ready to be used in and contribute to transitional justice processes.
How many legal cases are the Syrian Archive working on?
Hadi: We are currently working on one legal case around an incident that happened in the countryside of Damascus in 2013, meaning that we are preparing the video database and open source analysis. We are not lawyers, we are not going to the court. We are preparing these materials to give to a lawyer.
Why this is possible here in Germany?
Hadi: Germany has a legal concept of universal jurisdiction, which allows international organizations to open any legal case without the perpetrators or victims being physically in Germany ( VStGB).
Jeff: There’s a couple of other countries that have also worked on cases against war crimes in Syria, like Sweden and Norway.
What makes an open source investigation become a legal case, and what’s the difference between what happened in al-Lataminah and Ghouta?
Hadi: Both of them have a strong potential for legal cases to be brought. It’s not a matter of priority, it really depends on legal circumstances. For example: I think that al-Lataminah could be a stronger legal case than Ghouta. As the HRC report shows, one of the strikes in Al-Lataminah was an airstrike (i.e. by a fighter plane), so there’s a clear chain of command.It’s not immediately clear to us, but only certain actors have access to an air force? It’s either the Syrian Air Force or Russian Air Forces.
In Ghouta, the attack was carried out by shelling (from surface to surface). Many actors have access to such munitions, so anyone can shell in Syria.
Also, in Al-Lataminah, It was an opposition controlled area. Ghouta is under siege. The level documentation that happened in Latmini was so much better in term of quality than Ghouta, There’s lots of samples that was analyzed, there’s so many videos that we can work on. there’s a lot of physical evidence that was transferred to Turkey and Europe. We couldn’t have that in Ghouta because of the siege.
What are legal organizations looking for to accept a case?
Hadi: They will need to see: Verified video documentation, clear dates of upload times and incidents, clear geolocation, symptoms of injured people, if a video can show air forces in the first moments of attack.
They also look if there’s witnesses about this case in specific countries, like here in Germany we have lots of Syrian witness from Ghouta.
They want to make sure that there’s a level of success that can happen with this case, this depends on quality of videos but also other physical evidence, example: do we have any leaked documents of the order of attack, or any official statements.
How did the collaboration with the UC Berkeley Human Rights Center start?
Jeff & Hadi: One of our first partners was the Amnesty Digital Verification Corps, and they were working with UC Berkeley. The work on the al-Lataminah report took three months, from October to December 2017.
The attack happened in March, how you describe the time from March to October?
Hadi: Between March to October we were working on different investigations, focusing on attacks on medical facilities that we published in the Idlib report. We also noticed that Khan Sheikhoun was reported globally and attracted huge attention, but Al-Lataminah was under reported. No one ever noticed that there were other chemical strikes very close by only a few days earlier! That was when we decided this is a very good case that we can work with Law students in Berkeley, because they have great sources and skills to do a legal analysis.
Jeff: The whole legal team in Berkeley provided a very interesting legal analysis, and add a lot of value to our work. They can look if an evidence could be justified as a legal aspect or not according to international human rights law. Again, we are not lawyers but they are. It was a perfect match.
How do you see the future of open source investigation and international legal accountability? What do we need to improve this collaboration?
Jeff: We are seeing more documentation for human right violations than ever in history. There’s more hours of documentation of the conflict than hours of war itself. So this is new for the world, but I think future conflicts will be documented in similar ways. Obviously we have issues of access, internet connectivity, which may limit some areas to be documented. I think we are going to see more and more in open source investigation to deal with this massive amount of content. There are some challenges that come with this: we don’t have international legal standards to deal with video content and social media content. That’s something a lot of groups working on right now from a legal and academic perspective to set up standards.
Hadi: We barely see legal organizations using open source information, and there’s a lot of work to do how this material can be valuable in courts. Because lawyers are still not sure how they can use this information,here’s a need for more groups to work on verifying eyewitness media, so lawyers can see the potential of it and bring it to courts.
I don’t see legal groups talking enough with open source investigation groups, and we need more collaboration between the two sectors. For legal people everything has to be very concrete, and open source investigation is still not one of the essential things for a legal court case, but we don’t think this will be the case in future. As more perpetrators know that this material will be used against them, so they might limit the publishing of this information. Censorship is our biggest enemy.
Jeff: A lot of what we are saying right now is from a European perspective. In the US open source information is used legally in courts.
How has social media platforms deleting eyewitness media affected your work?
Hadi: A lot of eyewitness media that we are running open source investigation on has been removed, and if we hadn’t preserved it it’d be lost forever. This is really affecting not just our work but any work that’s related to justice and accountability.
Jeff: it’s always happened, that’s why we started Syrian Archive. But now the scale and scope of social media networks deleting content is huge. Before you had targeted flagging or reporting media item, now machine learning is speeding up the process much more than the human factor.
What can be the solution for this?
Jeff & Hadi: We have been talking with YouTube a lot. Working on the medical facilities report more than 30 channels with partner organizations were deleted. This meant more than 250,000 were taking down and we helped get them back with a partner organization. This is a potential evidence of a war crime. For Youtube there’s a lot of articles that shed light on their policies, but for Facebook and Twitter there’s not enough awareness that they are deleting content.
How did Check help you work on Al-Lataminah report?
Hadi: For Al-Latminah we had a small numbers of videos, precisely 10 videos and we wanted to do a more deep analysis with HRC. Check allows for a collaborative analysis, and using Check allowed us to add specific questions, tasks and geographic locations, that really structured our investigation and helped us to produce a report easily. The workflow was smooth, transparent and very collaborative.
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