Since its formation in 2012, SJAC has worked toward a Syria defined by justice, respect for human rights, and rule of law – where all Syrians live in peace. SJAC pursues this goal by focusing on three areas of work: documentation, analysis, and advocacy. In 2019, SJAC increased its documentation collection, grew its analysis team, provided data in support of criminal cases, and published reports that continue to drive human rights discourse. The below are just a few highlights of SJAC’s work over the last year.
SJAC has team members on the ground in Syria and neighboring countries documenting human rights violations and gathering interviews with witnesses and victims. This documentation informs SJAC’s public reporting and serves as a valuable source of reliable evidence for both current and future justice processes. This year, SJAC collected 19,551 pieces of documentation.
SJAC prioritizes the collection of interviews with former detainees as well as witnesses and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Interviews collected this year include men and women, and survivors of both government and ISIS crimes. SJAC’s documentation also captures a wide variety of other serious human rights violations. This year, SJAC acquired a collection of ISIS documents which provide an important window into the organization’s operations, continued to monitor property violations by both government and non-state actors, and collected an interview with a doctor who treated patients in the aftermath of a chemical attack.
In order to increase the quality of documentation being collected by both SJAC staff and partner organizations, SJAC offers courses in human rights and documentation collection to human rights defenders across the MENA region.
These trainings are conducted both through live video calls with SJAC’s Legal and Human Rights Adviser, and through SJAC’s online learning management system. This year, training topics included interview skills, universal jurisdiction, documentation of sexual and gender-based violence, documenting violations related to detention, and trainings on safety and security. Through this work, SJAC aims to train Syrians on the ground to properly document violations, ensuring that documentation is high quality and will be usable for a variety of justice purposes, from criminal accountability to memorialization.
In 2019, SJAC’s data analysis team, made up of Syrian refugees working remotely from across the world, labeled 87,741 videos and 230 documents according to the human rights violations indicated.
Since its creation, SJAC has devoted a significant portion of its resources to building a database of documentation collected online and on the ground. Videos in SJAC’s database have already been used to respond to requests from criminal prosecutors and UN investigations, with reliable evidence that is directly relevant to incidents under investigation. The database’s utility increases yearly as more documentation is added and more links are created between documentation from different sources.
SJAC published two reports this year, highlighting crimes committed by the Syrian government and the need for reforms. The first, “Do You Know What Happens Here?”, analyzes survivor accounts of sexual and gender-based violence at the hands of the Syrian government, presenting evidence of SGBV at approximately 30 state-controlled detention facilities, at government checkpoints, and in private homes.
The second, Walls Have Ears, is an analysis of 5,000 pages of government documents that expose serious human rights violations, including the arbitrary arrest of women and children, the surveillance of journalists, and the repression of Kurdish communities.
Additionally, SJAC’s research team published weekly articles on its website, providing documentation of ongoing violations and an analysis of the peace process and justice efforts. Topics included an analysis of documents showing how the Syrian government controls and diverts humanitarian aid, an explanation of the debate surrounding the arrest and impending trial of a Syrian government defector in Germany, and the role sanctions play in the Syrian conflict.
SJAC’s reporting is most valuable when it is put in the hands of policymakers, to ensure that ongoing human rights abuses are understood at the highest level and can inform the political process as well as the design of justice mechanisms. To this end, SJAC participated in a variety of events this year, including the UN General Assembly and the Brussels III Conference, ensuring that the importance of justice and accountability is understood by those in a position to effect meaningful change.
The principal of universal jurisdiction is based on the notion that “certain crimes are so grave, they affect the international community as a whole.” Based on this principle, certain European states have passed legislation allowing their courts to prosecute serious crimes committed outside their borders, opening an important avenue for Syrians to seek justice. Many of these states have created special units for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes with which SJAC has actively sought partnerships.
This year, SJAC provided valuable evidence in response to requests from the Dutch Special War Crimes Unit and the French Office for Combatting Crimes against Humanity, Genocide and War Crimes (OCLCH) as well as the UK’s Counter Terrorism Command (SO15). Adding to its well-established partnership with the IIIM, SJAC also signed Memoranda of Understanding with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Europol’s Analysis Project for Core International Crimes in preparation for evidence sharing.
SJAC also engaged Syrian refugee communities by creating universal jurisdiction guides for six European countries in both Arabic and English to help them to understand their rights and recourse to criminal justice mechanisms. The guides help to bridge the gap between criminal prosecutors and refugee communities with access to relevant evidence of violations.