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Securing Archives at Risk: Event hosted by Swisspeace

SJAC Executive Director speaking at Swisspeace conference

On October 1, the Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), Mohammad Al Abdallah, delivered a keynote address at a Swisspeace-hosted conference on “securing archives at risk.” The conference, held in Bern, Switzerland, addressed the complexities of securing and protecting records of human rights and international criminal law violations when those records are at risk of loss or destruction. Swisspeace, in collaboration with Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Federal Archives, brought together a wide range of experts and policymakers to discuss and share lessons-learned from around the world. Al Abdallah presented SJAC’s experiences with human rights documentation during the opening keynote address and an afternoon panel discussion on local and national solutions to protecting, securing, and giving access to archives at risk.

During his keynote speech, Al Abdallah explained that in the past, Syrians only documented for advocacy purposes because before 2011, justice seemed off the table. Documenting for the purpose of capturing the historical record and preserving data for future prosecutions are new concepts for the country. Thus, even though observers can watch the conflict “live streamed” through social media, not all the information is being preserved.

Al Abdallah next discussed the challenges and needs for documenting violations in Syria. Interviewing victims and witnesses and smuggling the data outside of the country poses risks for the interviewees, the documenters and their families, and the documentation itself. The rise of extremist groups have only increased the risks. Extremist groups have also caused foreign governments to pressure documenters to share data for intelligence purposes. This not only diminishes the impartiality of the documentation, but also sends the wrong message to Syrians: Western governments are willing to taint potential evidence of the human suffering of Syrians for their own national security interests. The last significant challenge for archiving documentation is a lack of resources. Archives 2.0 is a new breed of archiving — it does not exist on dusty bookshelves or filing cabinets. These archives are digitalized, requiring substantial tech support and Big Data expertise, which are costly investments. Donors have not yet acknowledged the increased expenses.

Despite the additional costs, Al Abdallah also maintained that Archives 2.0 presents a new field of opportunities. Traditionally, a record of the conflict is built years or sometimes decades afterwards. Today, we have the opportunity to build archives while conflict is ongoing. Big Data technologies are allowing SJAC to sort through and make sense out of massive amounts of information. Fortunately, SJAC had the resources and foresight to make these investments from the start. As for opportunities vis-à-vis the use of the data, the international community has reached a consensus that the holistic transitional justice approach is the best way forward in post-conflict contexts. Syria will need this holistic approach given the massive scale of atrocities that have been committed. A truth commission or a handful of prosecutions will be insufficient to heal the country, and policymakers are gradually understanding this. The data can also be used now, for current justice processes as European and North American governments take the initial steps forward for accountability in their own jurisdictions through criminal prosecutions or civil actions. The success of these legal actions will depend on prosecutors’ access to reliable documentation and their cooperation with the growing number of refugees who can provide evidence and testimony for trials against perpetrators of atrocities.

For Syrians to fully take advantage of these opportunities, they need external assistance, primarily in the forms of political and monetary support, a commitment to justice no matter the political outcomes on the ground, and a message that Archives 2.0 will have value and be used in the court of law. Such a message, from the International Criminal Court or prosecutors’ offices could go a long way to boost the confidence of Syrian human rights defenders who are risking their lives every day to document the stories and events of the conflict.

Al Abdallah finished the speech by sharing SJAC’s lessons-learned for creating, securing, and making archives usable. First, in this day and age, both IT capacity and legal capacity are essential. Gone are the days when a spreadsheet was sufficient to catalogue human rights abuses. The sheer amount of information requires more advanced tools. To address these challenges, SJAC has a large IT and Data Analysis team, a uniquely-tailored database based on international legal standards, and partnerships with academic tech institutions. The massive amount of information also means that one organization cannot do it alone. A strong network of local partners of both organizations and individuals using their smartphones is essential to achieving a comprehensive dataset. And finally, there is a need to manage the expectations of Syrians. It will be impossible to collect everything, and what is collected will not lead to immediate justice. The struggles and risks that are undertaken now may not translate into justice for Syrians for years or even decades to come. This is something that the documenter needs to understand and be able to clearly communicate to partners and interviewees. With a long-term vision that does not overpromise what is possible, documenters will be more resilient and hopeful to continue on the long road ahead.