As the Syrian crisis hits its two-year mark, the toll on civilians continues to grow exponentially. Peaceful protests that started in March 2011 were quickly met by government authorities responding with deadly force, leading to systematic and widespread human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity. Followed by the escalation into a full-fledged armed conflict by mid-2012, today, both government and armed opposition forces continue pursuing a military solution to the conflict. Caught in the middle are civilians, paying a horrendous price for this deadly stalemate.
Based on field research conducted over the last weeks, an Amnesty researcher inside Syria uncovered new evidence of the government’s assault on civilians, and its outright disregard for the laws of war. This is most dramatically symbolized by the government’s recent ballistic missile strikes against eastern Aleppo, flattening entire blocks and killing 160 residents; or by the increased use of internationally banned cluster bombs.
In a separate briefing, Amnesty documents the mounting number of war crimes committed by armed opposition groups in Syria. This is most evident in the scores of summary killings of captured members of government and security forces, pro-government shabiha militias and suspected informers or collaborators. Many of those killed by the armed opposition groups were civilians, including journalists working for pro-government media and members of minority communities perceived as loyal to President al-Assad. Other war crimes and serious human rights abuses committed by armed opposition groups include indiscriminate attacks, the use of children in a military capacity, torture, abductions and the holding of hostages.
Similar to the findings by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Amnesty’s findings indicate that the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces. However, the mounting evidence of war crimes on the side of the armed opposition is of grave concern, especially as France and Great Britain are pushing for supplying arms to the opposition. Any state considering supplying arms to armed opposition groups in Syria should first carry out a rigorous human rights risk assessment and establish a robust monitoring process, which would enable all arms transfer proposals to be carefully considered before any approval is granted.
Turning Citizen Video Into Evidence
A couple of month ago, I discussed the question if video could be used as evidence to document possible war crimes in Syria. My answer was a qualified yes – if “embedded in thorough research”. Our new briefings are a good case study for this argument. Citizen video coming out of Syria continues to uncover abuses that would otherwise go unnoticed. A thorough, traditional investigation—including direct access to witnesses or other relevant persons through field research and phone interviews—can turn these videos into strong evidence, which I hope, someday will be used to hold the perpetrators accountable and to provide justice to survivors.
What follows are excerpts of the excellent research done by one of my colleagues, dissecting the circumstances of the infamous video [extremely graphic] showing a kid beheading a captive, which emerged in late November and early December 2012 (full briefing):
Colonel Fou’ad Abd al-Rahmanand Colonel Izz al-Din Badr, for example, were abducted by an armed opposition group on 16 August 2012 in Deir al-Zour where they were involved in a military course required for students at al-Furat University. Both families interviewed by Amnesty International separately said that the abductors introduced themselves as members of an armed opposition group called the ‘Osoud al-Tawhid Battalion’. They called both families between one to three days after the abduction and asked for a ransom. (…)
The negotiations continued sporadically with both families. Then one of the abductors told Colonel Badr’s wife that she should not keep working on her husband’s case because he and Colonel Abd al Rahman had been killed and buried in al-Hamidiyeh Garden in Deir al-Zour. A few days later, video footage of the killing of both captive officers emerged. (…)
Colonel Fou’ad Abd al-Rahman’s widow described that terrible moment [Phone interview conducted by Amnesty International on March 1, 2013]:
It was around 11am. My daughter [aged 21] shouted to me, ‘mum, come and see dad… quick.’ He was on TV… as he was shown being killed, I pushed my daughter away to block her from viewing the scene… but she did see. She had a nervous breakdown… she’s become so volatile, she’s traumatized… it’s not easy to see her father in that way… We now want his body back, and we want those who did this to be held accountable.
(…) Amnesty International asked four Syrian nationals separately to check the dialect of the men heard speaking on the video. All four said the dialect sounded like that spoken in Deir al-Zour or other areas in eastern Syria. A Europe-based human rights organization specializing in Syria told Amnesty International that its source in Deir al-Zour reported that the killings had taken place in al-‘Ommal neighbourhood in Deir al-Zour. Such information is consistent with both families’ claim that the two men were being held in Deir al-Zour.
Colonel Fou’ad Abd al-Rahman, from the village of Qarfess near the city of Jablehin the governorate of Latakia, was the father of two sons and three daughters aged between 13 and 23. Colonel Izz al-Din Badr from the village of Dahr Barakat near Jablehhas three children aged between 10 and 15.
PS: To learn more about the topic of video as evidence, join our panel International Justice and Activism in the Handheld Age, with presenters from Amnesty, Resolve and Witness.