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“On the Basis of Evidence”

The United Nations published yesterday its official “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus.” The report owes its existence to a series of events culminating in the Syrian government granting UN investigators permission to visit the site of alleged chemical attacks east of Damascus. In return for permission and access, the UN agreed not to assign culpability for the use of chemical weapons as part of its investigation. Many saw this stipulation as unacceptable, calling on the UN to do more. But such critics should not forsake the report’s profound importance. The detailed, transparent process of methodical investigation make the report one of the most powerful examples of credible, evidenced-based documentation that establish hard-to-refute facts about what has happened, critical for future transitional justice efforts.

At first glance, the UN’s report seems anything but dramatic, especially as it comes more than two weeks after the alleged attacks. Glancing through it, we see several tables, simple diagrams of a small rocket, and a handful of photos—one of an inflamed eye, another of what appears to be rocket remains— though nothing appearing to convey the urgency or immediacy of the highly graphic YouTube videos and photos that documenters have made publicly available online.

But it’s fitting that the majority of the report, about 80%, is documentation of findings and description and justification of methods. Indeed, for an undertaking that was, from the beginning, a work of documentation, the UN report has achieved perhaps the single most important quality: credibility. The second page is devoted solely to explaining methodological considerations and most of the report is actually appendices; one appendix presents “Methodology Used in the Investigation and Securing Evidences,” and another describes “Bio-Medical Fact Finding Activities.” It is these methods and the transparency of the documentation that contribute to the internationally credible weight of the UN report. Add to that political neutrality, and it is clear why the report can serve as an invaluable resource establishing facts about what happened in Ghouta. While some contend the report doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t level explicit accusations, the documentation it contains has formed the basis for several other groups to make public assertions of responsibility, including Human Rights Watch and the New York Times.

Importantly, credible documentation like the UN’s report will be instrumental in providing information about events for transitional justices purposes. While memorialization, for example, could be politically contentious, sources that are recognized as highly credible can inform the process of identifying victims and stakeholders relevant to the undertaking. Credible documentation can also aid institutional reform after the end of the conflict by providing context for a program of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and by contributing important background for security sector reform.

It is telling that the report’s conclusion starts with the phrase, “On the basis of evidence obtained during our investigation…” Such deliberate attention to the primacy of evidence is paramount. The value of this report lies in its commitment to establishing facts on the basis of credible documentation, which can be a significant resource for Syrians. That’s why documentation is the central mission of the SJAC. As we train documenters on best practices and provide them with resources to help them in their work, we are confident that evidence and information are vital to future transitional justice and processes of reconciliation in Syria.

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