In recognition of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, SJAC is sharing some best practices for ensuring that survivors of torture, in Syria and around the globe, can participate in documentation efforts without putting their mental health at risk. When ethically conducted, documentation can be an empowering opportunity for survivors to participate in justice processes, but the principle of “do no harm” must be the standard practice guiding documentation efforts.
The first job of a documenter should be to research the background of who they are interviewing to better understand what types of questions and psychosocial support will be necessary. A Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS will have vastly different information and psychological needs than a Syrian jailed by the government. When it comes to interviewing a survivor of torture, the documenter must evaluate if the survivor is mentally prepared to discuss their experiences. Consent to provide an interview should not be the only consideration. Documenters have the moral obligation to ensure the survivor has healed sufficiently from their experience or has been cleared by a mental health professional. This is not only to protect the survivor, but also ensures they can present a clear and accurate narrative of their experiences.
SJAC suggests conducting one or more screening interviews prior to asking a survivor to discuss traumatic experiences. Screening interviews build trust and rapport between the documenter and survivor, but also gives the documenter the chance to determine if the survivor needs more PSS before conducting a full interview session. If during this process the documenter learns that the interviewee has experienced trauma similar to their own, or that they hold ideological beliefs that could put them at odds with the survivor, they should decline to conduct the interview and refer it to a colleague.
Documenters should also ensure that this is the first time a survivor is being interviewed regarding a specific incident. Re-interviewing a survivor repeatedly can cause unnecessary stress. Additionally, survivor accounts often change slightly over the course of multiple interviews; this does not mean their experiences are falsified, but simply that memories can reemerge or shift over time. In a legal setting, two slightly different interviews from the same individual could call their experience into question, invalidating them as a witness entirely.
Prior to the start of an interview, documenters should provide a defined set of questions to the survivor, which will help them emotionally prepare for their session. The documenter should also obtain the survivor’s informed consent which entails giving the survivor clear and honest information about the organization and stating the purpose of the documentation and how it will be used. Only after providing this information, should documenters ask for consent.
During the interview, the documenter should set the tone for the session. Although the session should stay as positive as possible, the documenter should set expectations that the information they are collecting might not lead to the outcomes for which the survivor is hoping. It is also important to allow the interviewee to freely narrate their experiences, only asking questions when the survivor has finished speaking, or when important clarifications need to be made. Throughout the interview, the survivor should be encouraged to take regular breaks, and the documenter should end the session early if they feel the survivor is at risk of re-traumatization.
Prior to ending an interview, the documenter should bring the survivor back to the present by reminding them that their ordeal has ended, they survived, and they are not defined by the trauma they experienced. Lastly, the documenter should make sure they have the survivor’s contact information and consent for continued communication in case it is necessary to ask clarifications or connect them with a judicial mechanism.
When possible, documentation organizations should have a network of psychosocial support (PSS) professionals to whom they can refer survivors, at no cost to the survivor. Such a referral can be made before an interview, if support is needed before a survivor is prepared to provide documentation, or afterwards, for ongoing assistance. SJAC has created a dual referral program, which not only allows our documenters to refer survivors for PSS, but also for our PSS partners to refer survivors for interviews. This not only increases SJAC’s access to survivors, but also allows PSS professionals to refer survivors who they believe would benefit from sharing their story for justice purposes.
Psychosocial support should not be for interviewees only. Documenters should also engage in regular PSS, even if they believe they won’t be impacted by graphic recounting of traumatic experiences. Not only can these interviews be detrimental for a documenter’s personal mental health, but appropriate psychological support can also help a documenter learn to manage their emotional reactions during interviews, ensuring a more supportive environment for survivors.
Advocating for Yourself as a Survivor of Torture
As an interviewee, you have the right to ensure your interview is conducted ethically and that your data is being stored securely. The above information for documenters should be your guide to determine if you are being treated fairly throughout the interview process. When you are approached by a documenter, they should be able to show proof of which organization they are affiliated with and clearly explain why they are requesting an interview. You have the right to decline to provide an interview for any reason, including if you feel you need more time to heal or you believe that the documenter is not reputable or cannot guarantee your anonymity and safety.
If you agree to provide an interview, you should be given the option to select the time and location of where the session will take place, even if that means it will be conducted electronically or through written communication. You should not be pressured to meet in areas where you feel uncomfortable, or that you cannot easily access. If necessary, for your own mental and physical wellbeing, you should involve a trusted third party, either to accompany you, or be in the immediate vicinity during the session.
Lastly, you are always able to end a session and remove your consent to have your information shared. You are under no obligation to complete an interview, even if you have already provided several sessions. If you decide your information could put your safety at risk, or you develop concerns regarding your documenter or their organization, you should cancel additional sessions and ask that your interview not be preserved. Unfortunately, documenters are not obligated to erase your data, but an ethically run organization should comply with your request.
Documenters, the organizations they represent, and survivors of atrocities all have varying responsibilities when it comes to preserving documentation of serious crimes. The burden of responsibility is on the documenter to ensure they collect information in a way that does not endanger the survivor. When conducted ethically, documentation processes can be part of a larger process to help survivors of torture and other serious crimes to reclaim their narratives and pursue justice.
If you are a documenter looking to learn more about ethical documentation processes, you can visit SJAC’s online training website at: https://syriaaccountability.org/documentation-practices/