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In Syrian Conflict, Real-Time Evidence Of Violations

Posted: February 4, 2013

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There are growing calls for Syria's leaders to face war crimes charges for the assaults against rebel targets and civilian areas. If that happens, veterans of past war crimes prosecutions say, Syrians will have one big advantage: the widespread gathering of evidence across the country.

Syrians look for survivors amid the rubble of a building targeted by a missile in the al-Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo on Jan. 7.

Syrians look for survivors amid the rubble of a building targeted by a missile in the al-Mashhad neighborhood of Aleppo on Jan. 7. AFP

Syrian citizens bury those who were found dead next to a river last week, many of them with their hands bound behind their backs, in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 31.

Syrian citizens bury those who were found dead next to a river last week, many of them with their hands bound behind their backs, in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 31. Abdullah al-Yassin

There are growing calls for Syria's leaders to face war crimes charges for the fierce assaults against rebel targets and civilian areas. If that happens, veterans of past war crimes prosecutions say, Syrians will have one big advantage: The widespread gathering of evidence across the country is happening often in real time.

After visiting a Syrian refugee camp in southeastern Turkey recently, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, reacted sharply to a question that suggested Washington, D.C., has kept quiet about the Syrian regime's attacks.

"We have vigorously condemned the bombing of bakeries and the bombing of breadlines and the bombing of hospitals," Ford said.

Thus far, the Obama administration hasn't joined the calls for war crimes prosecutions but has said it actively supports efforts to document potential atrocities by all sides in the conflict.

At times, human rights professionals have been able to get into Syria or speak with Syrians who have fled the country. In a video from last summer, Human Rights Watch researcher Ole Solvang lays out some of the group's methodology.

"Using information from more than 200 interviews, we've been able to establish the exact location of many of the worst detention facilities," Solvang says. "What we have found is that torture in these detention facilities has been systematic and widespread."

Experts from previous war crimes prosecutions met with Syrian opposition activists recently in Istanbul, Turkey. There was much discussion about the difficulties in obtaining solid evidence in wartime, but the experts said in one respect the Syrian conflict may be breaking new ground.

"Unlike all of the other situations where we've worked in the past, there is near real-time documentation of the violations ... that's new," says Megan Price with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group.

Price has worked on legal cases examining atrocities in Colombia and Guatemala, and recently was lead author of a U.N. report documenting deaths in Syria. She says modern technology has put the means of evidence-gathering into the hands of ordinary Syrians.

"In most crises [and] in most conflicts, we go in after and ask people to remember, 'Five years ago, what was it that happened to your brother?' " Price says. "That's not the case now."

Now, videos of the protests and funerals, for instance, are being captured in real time, Price says; that type of storytelling is changing the landscape.

This is not to say, however, that all amateur videos could serve as evidence of violations. In one recent Syrian video, a narrator appears to survey the destruction inside a building, but it offers no date, no location and no information that a prosecutor might use to assess whether a war crime occurred.

War crimes data analyst Glyn Morgan says the best videos are the ones with the most information. If the allegation is crimes against children, include the date of birth of the child. If building a sectarian or racial case, identify the victim's religion or ethnicity. Nonetheless, Morgan adds, technology has not surmounted one of the major hurdles in these prosecutions: linking the violations to those higher up the chain of command.

"The crime base information, as we call it, which relates to the actual attacks — the dead, the wounded and so on — in a way that is the easiest to gather," Morgan says, "the big challenge comes from linking that crime base to the higher-level commanders. To do that, you need you need inside information."

One aspect of the issue that has received relatively little attention is the question of violations by rebel fighters. There is a small but growing pile of evidence pointing in that direction, and human rights advocates say it cannot be ignored.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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