An Archive of Atrocities

Simone Fattal, I Love Damascus, 2018, Ink on paper, Courtesy of Hubert Winter Gallery, Vienna


An Archive of Atrocities

Jeff Deutch on Forensic Truth.

Simone Fattal’s artworks pursue timelessness and specificity, like any living archive. Born in Damascus, Syria, and socialized in Lebanon, the artist brings together the contemporary, the archaic, and the mythic in her sculptures, drawings and collages. These are also documents of the politics surrounding a physical relation to memory, through archeological studies or politics of displacement. Fattal combines Middle Eastern references with European aesthetic formalities, to replicate the losses of time while revealing recurrences of socio-political interests of the global society. On top of that, Fattal’s poesies softly emerges in the unfinished, in the amalgam of stories of ancient and everyday subjects.

Jeff Deutch on Forensic Truth

How can digital technologies play a positive role in this war, for example through documenting and tracking war crimes?

Conflicts have been documented since the invention of photography, the first major use-case being the US Civil War, but journalists oftentimes faced restrictions in terms of what they were able to document. During the Vietnam War, journalists were offered widespread and unrestricted access to photograph and film, taking and distributing these images to the world and sharing the horrors of conflict that previously had not widely been observed. The 1972's photograph “The Terror of War”, also known as “Napalm girl” was instrumental in showing the impact of the Vietnam War on civilian populations, resulting in widespread negativity and a lack of support for the war effort among  Western countries. That same year, US’ involvement in the Vietnam War ended, and subsequently, restrictions were imposed on journalists looking to cover conflicts the United States was involved in.

In recent years, new tools and technologies have been introduced to overcome some of these barriers and allow for the democratization of conflict documentation. Whereas in the past, when journalists, NGOs, and governments were the main sources of conflict information and narrative construction, now technological advances, increased smartphone take-up, and inexpensive data packages have allowed user-generated open-source content, largely posted on social media platforms, to become an increasingly dominant way of understanding conflicts. Such content has the potential to offer counter-narratives to the misinformation and propaganda published by actors on all sides of conflicts. When media outlets, citizen journalists, or perpetrators upload verifiable documentation to social media platforms or elsewhere, that documentation might disprove the discourse published by state and non-state actors, who often play down or refute events. We are seeing this regularly in the conflict in Ukraine.

Simone Fattal, La Terra Trema, 2020, Collage, Courtesy of Hubert Winter Gallery, Vienna

Can these methods help to find those responsible for massacres in Ukraine like the one in Bucha?

There is a wealth of documentation regarding the crimes committed in Ukraine, like the striking images that we are seeing come out of Bucha over the last few days. Unlike in Syria, the International Criminal Court already opened investigations into alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine, an institution with a history of using open-source investigative methods to pursue accountability. In 2017, for example, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for a Libyan national Mahmoud al-Warfalli using audio-visual published originally to Facebook that showed brutal killings similar to those we are seeing the aftermath of in Bucha.

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Khan Shaykhun massacre in Syria in which sarin gas was used to indiscriminately target and kill hundreds of civilians. In the absence of international accountability bodies having access to the ground, open-source content became the primary way of understanding what happened, where, and how. We used this content to file a criminal complaint to prosecutors in Germany, France, and Sweden, and today our organization joined partners to present additional evidence on this and one additional chemical attack. We worked with groups like Security Force Monitor to transform archived content to command structures, identifying not just what happened and where, but also who was responsible.

Syrian Archive project has an estimated 40 years of content, documenting violations and crimes: if we pressed play on the entire archive, we would be watching, nonstop, until 2062.

While both Russia and Ukraine have pushed for restrictions into publicly publishing troop movements or actions, there are nonetheless mass amounts of documentation coming out, including in Bucha, and similar investigative methods will no doubt be used to pursue various types of advocacy and accountability. In fact, we are already seeing several open-source initiatives publishing information concerning crimes committed and as the war continues, the use of open-source investigative methods will likely continue to rise.

What is your experience from the war in Syria?

We began our work with Syrian Archive in 2014 as a rapid response project working in close collaboration with Syrian reporters and documentation groups to preserve and systematize digital information of the Syrian conflict being published largely on social media platforms. Mnemonic grew out of the recognition that Syrian Archive's workflows could be adapted to other locations where human rights violations must be documented and preserved. To date, our Syrian Archive project has preserved an estimated 40 years of open-source audio-visual content claiming to document human rights violations and other crimes in Syria: if we pressed play on the entire archive, we would be watching, nonstop, until 2062. This is one of the reasons we have been working with VFRAME to develop a computer vision system to identify objects of interest within materials we have archived. If we can reduce the number of archived records a researcher needs to search though from three million to three thousand, it becomes much more manageable.

Simone Fattal, Flower, 2020, Collage, Courtesy of Hubert Winter Gallery, Vienna

We believe that if properly secured and assessed for its relevance and its reliability, digital content being produced in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere may be usable as evidence to prove up many different types of information, in many different types of accountability forums, such as universal jurisdiction. We work on an archival scale to both preserve and advance this potential that substantial amounts of readily available open-source documentation can be and are used as evidence.

How do you actually work – particularly in the context of the war in Ukraine?

When we started working eight years ago, there was little in the ways of technical infrastructure, workflows, or methodologies to archive or analyze content documenting human rights violations at scale. Now there exists an entire ecosystem of groups, tools, and techniques to address on these issues. Many groups, including us at Mnemonic, are now working together to share best practices and provide support to documenting human rights violations in the Ukrainian context. Ukrainian civil society groups have also been working to document human rights violations since before the war started in 2014, out of the Euromaiden protests. A highly established, technically savvy civil society sector, as well as advances in technology over the past eight years, made this much easier than when we began working in the context of Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.

Our research provided key contributions to the first ever criminal complaint against the Syrian government for chemical weapons use.

Is there forensic truth?

At a time when people are more concerned than ever about the collection, aggregation, and selling of their personal information by states and technology companies alike, civil society and media outlets are producing and sharing their own narratives highlighting human rights abuses, offering a counter-narrative to state or corporate realities recognizing historically underrepresented voices and experiences. We see this through the mass amount of human rights documentation being produced in Ukraine. Yet with more data than ever we are simultaneously living in an age of data collapse as the public faces an increasingly difficult task of knowing which data to trust. This has resulted in some arguing that we have entered a 'post-factual' or 'post-truth' era, leading to perceptions of distrust and highlighting the need for information verification and transparency.

To achieve transparency, methods utilized by Mnemonic are provided in a free and accessible format, verified content is published online and available to access, and software developed by Mnemonic is released in free and open-source formats. This is done to ensure trust is built and maintained with our partners and collaborators. It also helps to ensure that software can be reused and customized by other groups outside of our own. Technical integration with existing open-source investigative tools, such as VFRAME, ensures that work is not duplicated.

Simone Fattal, The Museum is not enough, 2020, Collage, Courtesy of Hubert Winter Gallery, Vienna

What is the role of manipulation?

Worldwide, users of social media platforms where much of this content is being published often face difficulties in knowing who and what to trust, or why and how to trust it. Bots and fake profiles are used widely on social media platforms to steal information or to promote misinformation, propaganda or conspiracy theories. So-called 'fake news' is being used to influence elections, promote war and genocide, recruit terrorists and enable harassment. And an industry has risen whereby state and non-state actors alike hire commercial third parties to carry out their technological dirty work, as evidenced by the hiring of Israeli spyware company NSO group and others by various repressive states to target human rights defenders and journalists.

All of this highlights the needs for groups like ours and others in the open-source investigative community to provide the primary content along with journalistic analysis. By including both the source material and the analysis material and methodology, we provide readers with the knowledge and the power to make their own informed conclusions as well as to disagree.

For a variety of reasons, many within the human rights sector have very little documentation on sexual or gender-based violence.

Is what you research, your evidence, relevant and admissible in court?

We believe it is. We are one of a handful of civil society organizations substantially advancing the accountability agenda for Syria and Yemen and have always placed accountability squarely at the center of our mission. At the moment, there are a number of active Syrian war crime accountability legal cases and multilateral initiatives that Mnemonic is either a party to or actively feeding into. We have made significant strides in enabling concrete actions, including the universal jurisdiction cases being brought in European countries against the Syrian government and its operatives. Additionally, we have played a significant role in delivering compelling evidence for ongoing United Nations investigations and censure reviews, particularly regarding Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria and the destruction of critical infrastructure in Yemen.

Our research provided key contributions to the first ever criminal complaint against the Syrian government for chemical weapons use, filed in 2020. On the basis of universal jurisdiction, Mnemonic and its partners – the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression and Open Society Justice Initiative – have filed three such complaints: one each in Germany, France, and Sweden. We have also shared documentation with international accountability mechanisms, including the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM), and with our Yemeni Archive project, the United Nations Security Council and the now-dormant Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen (GEE).

Simone Fattal, Were You Crowned With Laurel, Or With Fire, Oh, Damascus, 2018, Ink on paper, Courtesy of Hubert Winter Gallery, Vienna

Relatedly, the probative value of the evidence collected on chemical weapons has been further proved by investigations into the Syrian chemical supply chain which resulted in the conviction of three Belgian firms who violated European Union export law, an internal audit of the Belgian customs system, parliamentary inquiries in multiple countries, and the opening of additional investigations in Germany and the Netherlands related to the shipments of chemicals directly or indirectly to Syria. Open-source documentation, particularly that made up of user-generated content, is only one piece of the puzzle and will likely not replace more traditional forms of evidence gathering such as the collection of witness testimony, and the collection of physical documentation. Rather, it will supplement these more traditional forms of evidence gathering, particularly when used in a legal context.

It is worth noting that certain types of human rights violations are more visible than others, and as a result, are more likely to have visual documentation. These include, for example, film footage documenting the use of illegal munitions, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, or the targeting of specifically protected persons and objects, such as hospitals. But for a variety of reasons, many within the human rights sector have very little documentation on sexual or gender-based violence, very little documenting torture aside from what has been made public with leaks, and virtually nothing on displacement of forcible eviction.

Jeff Deutch is Research Director at Mnemonic and co-founder of Syrian Archive.

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