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Mapping Accountability Efforts in Syria

Panel at “Mapping Accountability Efforts in Syria” event.

“The conflict in Syria is considered one of the most well-documented conflicts ever- if not the best documented conflict ever,” said Meghan Stewart, Vice President of PILPG. But despite extensive documentation efforts, huge gaps remain. Who, exactly, is doing the documentation? What kinds of violations are being documented? What aren’t? What forms of documentation are being produced? These were just a few questions answered at Wednesday’s “Mapping Accountability Efforts in Syria” event.

The discussion centered on the “Mapping Accountability Efforts in Syria” report compiled by PILPG and the SJAC. Stewart presented the key findings of the report, which maps and assesses efforts to document information on violations of international criminal, humanitarian, and human rights law in the Syrian conflict. The report also seeks to identify potential partners working toward accountability, as well as address current challenges that could affect future accountability measures. In addition to the report, SJAC Data Analyst Husam Alkatlaby presented the findings of his recent research in the region providing updated information on newly emerging documentation groups. The discussion was moderated by SJAC Executive Director Mohammad Al Abdallah.

The current state of documentation in Syria is diverse, but uneven and in flux. “There are literally dozens upon dozens upon dozens of actors and organizations that are working in Syria, along Syrian borders, and around the world to try to collect information,” said Stewart. Some individuals work alone while others function as part of larger organizations. Current efforts range from raw data collection, to the compiling of lists and database building, to occasional analysis. Some groups have emerged focusing geographically on particular neighborhoods or regions while others specialize thematically on categories of violations such as sexual- and gender-based violence or deliberate damage to infrastructure. Technology has also played a useful role in easing documentation and the ability to share information.

But despite their achievements, accountability efforts in Syria have a long way to go. The deteriorating security situation, lack of coordinated efforts among groups, and an absence of any consistent verification standards are just some of the obstacles. The purpose of documentation has changed over time as well, most of which is now carried out with an eye toward producing media in support of a particular group, not with consideration for any international legal approach. Alkatlaby noted that the catalyst for most documentation efforts was the intensification of regime violence last year, meaning that few individuals have previous experience in evidence gathering and related activities. Distrust among groups, reluctance to share information, and the vulnerability of databases and individuals themselves further complicate accountability efforts.

As the violence continues and conditions grow worse, groups are losing trust that documenting human rights violations is going to change Syria’s future. Alkatlaby emphasized the need for helping to renew that trust in documentation efforts—and transitional justice mechanisms in general—inside Syria. Efforts to strengthen accountability work can begin by building upon current strengths while aiming to fill the gaps in documentation. The report’s comprehensive overview of the documentation environment is a valuable tool in this respect. Such knowledge will allow actors at all levels to more effectively contribute, whether through greater specialization and coordination, building public awareness, or providing funding, training, and capacity-building. Informed by the mapping report and the useful framework it provides, the SJAC looks forward to expanding its partnerships and coordination efforts in order to more effectively promote justice and accountability in Syria.

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