Two weeks ago, while Twitter and the international criminal law blogosphere were exploding with news of the removal of Sudan’s Al-Bashir, Assange’s arrest and the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber’s refusal of the Office of the Prosecutor’s request to open an investigation in Afghanistan, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), a small DC-based NGO, released its latest report analyzing patterns of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Syria based on 56 first-hand interviews it conducted with Syrian survivors in Syria and neighbouring countries. Yasmine Chubin explains the report’s significance.
Reports of widespread gross violations of human rights in Syria are nothing new. So, what is significant in SJAC’s report and why does it warrant attention? In short, the report not only identifies clear patterns of SGBV crimes from its analysis of first-hand evidence, its methodology in obtaining this evidence renders it immediately usable by criminal investigators and prosecutors, unlike much of the material collected since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Given the well-known obstacles to accountability in Syria, this accessible bank of direct evidence of crimes should be on the radar of national prosecution authorities planning to bring domestic prosecutions, as well as international organizations and mechanisms seeking to identify patterns of criminal conduct during the Syrian conflict.
Pattern of SGBV crimes
The title of SJAC’s SGBV report, “Do you know what happens here?”, was a question posed to a survivor during an interrogation, before she was taken into a room where a fellow detainee was being sexually assaulted.
The SJAC report identifies and analyses 56 survivor accounts presenting evidence of SGBV crimes occurring in state-controlled detention centers, at private homes subjected to house raids, and at government checkpoints (out of a total 91 statements examined). The report describes SGBV crimes against men, women and children, both boys and girls, that occurred in Syria between 2012 and 2017, including rape, other forms of sexual violence, the threat of rape or sexual violence, sexual harassment, torture of sexual organs, and lack of access to reproductive care in detention.
The vast majority of SJAC’s interviews (42/56) document SGBV crimes against detainees at 30 different government-controlled detention centers. These SGBV incidents were often in the context of arbitrary detentions, where victims were either unaware of the reason for their arrest or the reason provided was allegedly non-violent political activity or suspicion of anti-government sentiment. In 39 of these cases, the violence occurred during interrogation and torture sessions masked as information-gathering. Interviewees described the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence as being a routine part of their interrogators’ attempts to solicit confessions. The detail of these SGBV incidents are horrendous in terms of their brutality and gravity; gang rapes, detainees forced to rape each other, sexual assault with foreign objects and the targeting of sexual organs during torture.
Early in the Syrian conflict, home raids were commonly used by the government to arrest suspected political opponents or conscript men into the military. Although further investigations are required, the evidence SJAC has collected indicates that sexual violence systematically accompanied house raids. Interviewees reported cases in which state security forces raided their homes and raped women and girls, sometimes in front of male family members. An apparent pattern of separating women and girls and raping or gang raping them (sometimes with guns or sharp objects) also emerged. In some cases, the men killed some of the girls and women after raping them. In other cases, they killed the men after having raped the women.
SJAC also obtained evidence of SGBV crimes committed at government checkpoints, including one case in which a group of families were stopped at a checkpoint at gunpoint in Homs. The men were separated from the group and executed. The six women were then detained inside a semi-truck for two days, during the course of which they were each raped, each by multiple perpetrators.
Corroboration of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report
Among the many reports published on this topic, the COI’s report (based on 454 interviews), is the most comprehensive and detailed analysis of the use of SGBV crimes in Syria “as a tool to instil fear, humiliate, and punish.” Through its interviews with survivors, SJAC has been able to independently identify a similar pattern of SGBV crimes. This is particularly significant given that, to SJAC’s knowledge, there exists no overlap between the victims who provided testimonies to SJAC and the COI.
SJAC’s report also contributes to the body of existing information concerning who is committing the crimes in Syria, with the survivors interviewed being able to identify specific security sector divisions and, in some cases, specific branches that were responsible for their detention and abuse. Some were able to provide first names or nicknames of the guards and officers who carried out the abuse.
For abuses committed outside of detention facilities, such as during home raids or at checkpoints, the identification of groups and individuals responsible was more challenging and less reliable, particularly when the perpetrators were not wearing uniforms, as was the common practice. Significantly, however, SJAC identified factors tending to indicate tacit approval if not official sanction of these crimes: abuses over multiple years across numerous locations; abuses committed by a large number of perpetrators including both low-level and high-ranking officials, with coordination between various security sectors (police and military); and abuses committed openly, including at times by groups of perpetrators in front of each other.
Although SJAC’s interviews did not produce signed witness statements nor transcripts based on audio recordings of the interviews, they are pre-interview assessments, meaning that an investigator or prosecutor would assess whether there is generally enough reliable information on the credibility and relevance of evidence about the crimes being investigated which would warrant returning to the survivor.
Significantly, aware of the criticism of investigations carried out by NGOs and human rights groups and best practice methodology, SJAC has implemented a number of documentation practices and policies, including specific SGBV policies. As part of its “Do no harm” policy, SJAC only interviews witnesses who have not previously given a statement about the events. Primarily to avoid re-traumatization, this also avoids duplication of evidence and a multiplicity of prior statements. SJAC has also adopted an “Informed consent policy” meaning that witnesses are aware and consent to the fact that under specific circumstances, SJAC may share the evidence and identity of witnesses with other institutions such as domestic prosecution authorities or the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), created in 2016 by the United Nations to investigate atrocities in Syria in order enable the collection of evidence and building of casefiles. These institutions can use the SJAC report and statements as lead evidence and can access first-hand evidence without the barriers that exist with other civil society human rights organizations.
In the context of an ongoing brutal conflict in a country that has been all but impenetrable to foreign and international investigators, it would be easy to understate the value of the contemporaneous first-hand SGBV evidence that SJAC continues to collect with the view of facilitating future trials.