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Documentation: The first draft of history

Is genocide occurring in Syria? Has the regime already used chemical weapons? These and other loaded questions have been a recurrent focus of attention in recent months as violence continues to escalate and over 60,000 people have been killed. But the conflict in Syria, even more than previous events, is being vigorously documented. The fact that some questions are ultimately left up to history underlines the value of documenting the violence and atrocities.

What is happening in Syria today is historic, and the first draft of that history is being written today. It is being written by anyone who records and reflects on what is occurring, who documents and describes what they see around them. Primary sources such as first person accounts, videos, and photos are the raw ingredients of history. And the recording and documentation of violence, rights violations, and atrocities is creating valuable evidence about what is happening and who is doing what. The value of documentation cannot be overstated, and Syrian activists, reporters, amateur bloggers, and political actors alike recognize this.

Far from being forgotten, the violence will come to take on a historic, but also political, value. Different groups will tell particular narratives that could serve political and ideological ends. Stories about the Syrian Revolution will be used to legitimize, delegitimize, and position future political forces. Moreover, it is not uncommon for Syrian human rights groups to have some kind of political agenda, and some are associated, albeit informally, with official political groups. This reality creates conditions conducive for a degree of politicization of human rights documentation. Similarly, many of those who document the violence are emotionally invested in their work and some reports likely suffer from exaggeration and embellishment. All this this is, to some extent, inevitable, a part of the very human process of history-writing. It is also understandable, as activists are caught up in dramatic and violent events. Nonetheless, such distortion is unfortunate because greater accuracy and honesty lends credibility to the documentation. But obscuring facts and revising events is much more difficult when events are well-documented, information is made public, and political processes are transparent.

Documentation will also play an important role in the process of transition. Truth commissions and trials that aim to serve justice will benefit from vast troves of evidence produced by Syrians. Certain facts will be approximately known: which areas the regime bombed, what rebel groups fought where, and who died. But the evidence will likely bring out, among other truths, the complexity of the conflict. Were individuals targeted because of their ethnicity, or because of their allegiances? Were some soldiers forced to fight? Did particular civilians die as “collateral damage” or were they targeted for some sinister strategic purpose? This complexity must not be ignored.

Transition cannot come at the expense of justice when shades of grey are forced into the absolutes of black and white. Truth commissions will no doubt open painful wounds, but this is surely better than leaving them hidden, unexamined, and left to fester. Documentation is critical because it helps to establish facts and corroborate the experiences of victims. And evidence of atrocities, crimes, and inconvenient realities need not hold back transition. Indeed, such recognition is a prerequisite to the other important dimension of transition: conciliation.

Conciliation is not the dodging of facts, but an acceptance of them, with society working together to collectively move forward.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre is currently developing best practices on documentation collection. These will be posted on the SJAC’s website and disseminated with the goal of assisting those documenting violence and rights violations in Syria.