The Violations Documentation Center

Profile of a Casualty Recorders Network member

This article is based on a presentation given by Sarah Asfari at a webinar on casualty recording in Syria, on 21 September 2021. Ms Asfari is a Team Leader at the Violations Documentation Centre, a programme of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. The Violation Documentation Center is a member of the Casualty Recorders Network.

The Violation Documentation Center (VDC) is a project run by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. VDC documents victims that were killed due to the conflict in any part of Syria regardless of the (suspected) actor or the controlling power in the area. This includes deaths caused by shooting, arbitrary execution, torture, deprivation of health care, bombing, use of prohibited weapons, and shelling.

Aims

VDC’s documentation efforts have 3 main aims, all of which relate to supporting a future transitional justice process in Syria. The first objective is to ensure accountability and justice for perpetrators who have committed brutal crimes. By compiling documentation and evidence, VDC aims to uphold the concept that “justice must be achieved” and reaffirm the principle of the rule of law and human rights. In so-doing, VDC hopes to empower Syrian society to achieve sustainable peace.

The second objective is to uphold survivors’ right to truth. Revealing the truth is essential for victims’ families to know what really happened to the people they love. Moreover, it is an essential step toward the recognition of victims and establishing a collective memory of what happened during the conflict.

Finally, VDC’s documentation of fatalities and human rights violations aims to support the right to remedy and reparation. The concept of reparation is broad and includes measures that can be individual or collective (such as property restitution), financial or symbolic compensation, building memory museums, rehabilitation (social and medical care) and guarantees of non-repetition. These measures will not be achieved effectively without casualty recording.

How information is gathered

Gathering and documenting information is done mainly by a team of documentation officers. VDC also uses a network of additional reliable information sources including field hospitals, cemeteries, casualties’ families and a selection of highly reputable media centers. VDC’s documentation of casualties and human rights violations is supported by witness testimonies, photos, and videos. Typically, the team completes documentation of an incident either on the day it happens or within the next few days.

VDC reporters gather information directly through their own networks, as well as through constant monitoring of open sources. Depending on the reporter’s network on the ground, they may collect further details in order to build a context of the event under investigation. At this stage, the documentation is still raw and in need of corroborating elements. VDC uses four main sources for corroboration. In order of priority, these are:

– Stakeholders, i.e. victims/relatives/close acquaintances of the victim;

– Eyewitness testimonies of fact, without added interpretation or analysis;

– Activists. Testimony of at least 3 activists must support the documentation in order to be included;

– Monitoring and documenting through open sources.

If corroborating information is only available from activists and open sources, the record will be flagged as “incomplete” in the VDC database until further confirmation is obtained from eye-witnesses and/or direct stakeholders. The reporter would continue actively following up on the entry to try to acquire this additional verification, or if necessary they would review it with a direct manager to discuss the challenges and possible alternative solutions. Access to information in Syria is limited by many factors including not only the siege conditions imposed in some areas but also the isolation of some Syrian cities and villages, the poor security situation (including for VDC team members), survivors’ fear of repercussions if they speak out, and unreliable electricity and internet connections.

VDC’s team of reporters follows a specific methodology when monitoring and documenting human rights violations. However, armed conflicts do not provide ideal research conditions. Accordingly, the team has alternative working methods adapted to the security or political challenges faced in a particular area. Nevertheless, the collaboration between the reporters and the documenters is designed in an organized manner to protect the integrity of the information that has been gathered. This process also saves time when it comes to auditing and verifying information before the actual documentation is entered in the center’s database. The documentation process does not end once information is entered, however, as database entries always remain open for any important update.

How information is verified

After information on a fatality or human rights violation reaches the documentation officers’ team, it is recorded in the center’s database. Subsequently, any information about the incident contained on other devices is completely destroyed. Entries are continually audited and updated, especially if any main details are missing.

Information is verified through daily, weekly and monthly reviews, when all information is sent to the field documentation officers to ensure that it is free of errors. Missing and/or additional biographical information is also added at this time, as well as additional evidence such as photos and videos. This process of constant review ensures that data has been entered correctly and human error is minimised. However, VDC recognises that despite these efforts our documentation should by no means be considered complete, due to the complexities and obstacles posed by the situation in Syria.

VDC uses a network of multiple actors (both organizations and individuals) across Syria to fact-check and verify the information obtained in the first stages of the documentation process. This network includes not only the in-country reporters, but also volunteers and partners who have their own information networks. However, this process is undertaken with extreme caution.

VDC has carefully designed methodology and secure technical tools to allow it to use open sources to verify information. Both victims and perpetrators use various social media platforms and blogs, including to plan their operations. Even if direct evidence of an illegal plan cannot be found online, it is possible to track a certain violation/event online via specialized tools and international protocols. It is also important to note that, through proper use of archiving activities and data management, evidence extracted from the web can be used against perpetrators in criminal courts. The team of documentation officers relies on a list of credible open sources which is reviewed and re-evaluated periodically to add new sources and eliminate any which are no longer useful.

Outcomes

VDC shares its research publicly, including by posting it on our website and social media platforms and publishing reports.  VDC collaborates with UN Member States, NGOs, CSOs and other partners across Europe and in the US to support justice and accountability processes for Syria. Partners include the International Center for Transitional Justice, Physicians for Human Rights, The Syrian Legal Development Programme, Syrians for Truth and Justice, Access Center for Human Rights, the International Commission on Missing Persons, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Voices Forum for the Syrian Displaced, International Federation for Human Rights, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and many more.