It was back in 2011 that the uprising in Syria began. One of those covering the following events firsthand was war correspondent Marie Colvin. She was killed shortly after broadcasting live on CNN from the besieged city of Homs. Earlier in 2019 an American court found the Syrian government liable for her death. Alexandra (“Sasha”) Filippova was one of plaintiffs’ counsel in the case and she explains why this judgment means so much.
February 22 marked seven years since Marie Colvin, who is credited as the greatest war correspondent of her generation, was assassinated in the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, Syria. In those early days of the war, Baba Amr had become a focal point of the popular uprising against the repressive regime of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. Colvin braved a harrowing journey into the besieged enclave to report on the regime’s violent crackdown, undertaken under the guise of fighting terrorists. In her last broadcast from a makeshift media center operated by local media activists, Colvin, in her characteristically victim-centred style, confirmed the fallacy of Assad’s propaganda, reporting that “[i]t’s a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. . . . The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
Seven years later, the Syrian war still rages on, albeit more tepidly – but only because the Assad regime has been gaining ground. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died without accountability or justice – no accurate count exists even as those numbers continue to grow. And millions of Syrian civilians have been displaced or forced to flee abroad.
In the face of this continuing human tragedy, it may be tempting to dismiss the recent ruling by Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Colvin v. Syrian Arab Republic, No. CV 16-1423 (ABJ) (D.D.C. Feb. 1, 2019) – a lawsuit brought by the family of Marie Colvin against the Assad regime under a federal statute governing the immunities of foreign states – as merely symbolic. Certainly, the decision will not end the war; the Assad regime has already dismissed it (curiously relying on anti-immigrant policies surging in the United States itself). Nor does the judgment directly address the regime’s crimes against its own people; indeed, the provision relied on by the court is explicitly limited to U.S. victims or plaintiffs.
A Small Measure of Justice
But the judgment is important. It is important first because it brings at least a small measure of justice to Marie Colvin’s family and loved ones by recognizing her death as a deliberate and outrageous crime perpetrated against an extraordinary woman “whose courageous work [the Court held] was not only important but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally.” It has to matter that at least one of the Assad regime’s atrocities has been formally adjudicated as a crime.
The judgment is also important in a broader sense: because, as Marie Colvin herself did so many times in some of the world’s most forgotten conflicts, the decision serves to formally and publicly bear witness to the still-unfolding tragedy in Syria and to the brutal tactics employed by the Assad regime to maintain its hold on power; because it offers hope of (and even some tools for achieving) justice and accountability for the Syrian people themselves; and because it recognizes – and imposes a high penalty for – the Assad regime’s tactic of targeting journalists (both Syrian and foreign) as a means of avoiding such accountability.
First, the Court expressly held that the Assad regime deliberately targeted civilians. Although the Court’s ruling is specific to the attack on the media center where Marie Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012, the opinion discusses the regime’s motivations, tactics, and methods (at least during this time period) more broadly, and thus holds to be false the Assad regime’s narrative that it fights only armed terrorists. There is power in a formal judicial finding that the Assad regime’s justification for its atrocities is false.
Second, the judgment endorses the “comprehensive” evidence submitted by the Colvin plaintiffs, which, apart from their legal briefing, consisted of “almost 1000 pages of attached exhibits, declarations, and expert reports.” Among the materials highlighted by the Court, which it viewed as sufficient to establish the liability of the Assad regime for Marie Colvin’s extrajudicial killing, were “three well-supported reports from qualified experts on Syrian politics, policies, and military structures and strategies.” These include a report by Ewan Brown, which sets out the structure of the Syrian regime and describes its tactics in cracking down on the 2011 uprising and resulting war. Included with Mr Brown’s report were almost 200 exhibits, most of them Syrian government documents smuggled out of Syria by government defectors.
Historical Narrative for Accountability
The plaintiffs also presented declarations of Syrian defectors with personal knowledge of Syrian government operations, as well as of Syrian media activists who risked their lives to share with the world videos and images of the conflict. Together, this evidence reveals, among other things, the main actors in the otherwise opaque Assad regime, their intent, and their modus operandi, and demonstrates that the regime deliberately targeted civilians to destroy political opposition, as well as media workers in order to do so with impunity. Such evidence not only develops an accurate historical narrative of the events in Syria but will be helpful to others seeking accountability for the regime’s conduct.
Third, the judgment demonstrates that cases against the Assad regime can succeed, and may, therefore, embolden further claims by Syrians and others the regime has harmed before tribunals around the globe. Several such cases are currently pending in Germany, France, and, most recently, in Sweden.
Finally, the judgment is significant because it recognizes and condemns as “outrageous” the Assad regime’s tactic of targeting media workers in order to hide or misrepresent the nature of its conduct. The Court found that “Syria[ had a] long-standing policy of violence towards media activists,” and that “[m]edia personnel were often targets and labelled enemies of the state and terrorists.” The Court further credited testimony that “[s]enior government officials openly announced, in diplomatic discussions, their intention to target the Baba Amr Media Center because it hosted foreign journalists” and “authorized joint military-security campaigns against those who ‘tarnish[ed] the image of Syria in the foreign media and international organizations.’” Indeed, one of the witnesses relied on by the Colvin plaintiffs, who had been part of the Arab League observer mission to Syria during this period, described a statement by the Syrian Deputy Defense Minister that “he would have been able to destroy Baba Amr in 10 minutes if there were not any video cameras.”
Reporting has become increasingly dangerous throughout the world because targeting reporters in order to hide the crime is a tactic that is not unique to Syria. It is often not the reality of a conflict zone, but a willingness to reveal government misconduct or corruption that most threatens a journalist’s life. The Colvin opinion judges such conduct to be so outrageous as to merit a doubling of punitive damages generally awarded in cases adjudicated under the same provision. The relevant passage is worth quoting extensively:
The Court must also consider the fact that Marie Colvin was a journalist who was killed by the Syrian government while reporting on the atrocities occurring during the civil war. She was specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country. The Court agrees with plaintiffs that the murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide. . . . As the court observed in Anderson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, targeted attacks on journalists “inhibit the gathering and reporting of news” in warzones and warrant punitive damages in order “to vindicate the interest of society-at-large in the collection and dissemination of complete and accurate information about world conflicts.”
By perpetrating a directed attack against the Media Center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent. A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous, and therefore a punitive damages award that multiplies the impact on the responsible state is warranted. This is particularly true given that Syria itself carried out the attack.
This element of the judgment serves as an important precedent for protecting media workers in a world where governments are increasingly willing to label journalists as the enemy and to target them with violence when they wish to avoid the inconvenience of truth. It may serve as a deterrent to such governments as well.
For all of these reasons, the Colvin judgment should be celebrated, even as it hopefully inspires and supports further efforts at peacemaking and accountability.