Rule of Law and Accountability

Panel Convened on Technology, Syria, and Human Rights

Technology, Syria, and Human Rights: How a Tech - "Connected" Civil Society Might Hold Governments Accountable

While the war in Syria has dragged on without resolution, one thing remains clear: there is ample documentation of human rights abuses and potential war crimes collected by civil society actors. Organizing this voluminous and unstructured body of information and extracting data and evidence useful for a criminal justice process presents interesting questions for how information technology could assist the pursuit of accountability. The Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University, in collaboration with Benetech, a nonprofit that empowers communities with software for social good, convened a panel of experts engaged in current war crimes accountability efforts to address the opportunities and challenges of using technology to facilitate accountability in Syria. 

The panel, “Technology, Syria, and Human Rights: How a Tech – ‘Connected’ Civil Society Might Hold Governments Accountable,” was convened on February 13, 2018 at Stanford University. The event was moderated by Keith Hiatt, Vice President of Human Rights at Benetech and Research Fellow at the Handa Center, and included three panelists:   Shabnam Mojtahedi, Legal and Strategy Analyst for the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC); Beth Van Schaack, Handa Center Faculty Fellow and former Deputy to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice of the U.S. Department of State; and Hadi Al Khatib, founder of the Syrian Archive (via video link).

The most documented conflict in human history

The Syrian war is the most documented conflict in history. Mobile devices, such as iPhones and computers, have enabled civilians and others to capture human rights violations on all sides of the Syrian conflict. Civil society is providing the majority of documentation; often videos are being streamed online within minutes after crises happen. This is providing access to information that would otherwise be challenging to retrieve, as journalists and human rights defenders confront limited access to witnessing atrocities. While there is no shortage of documentation capturing Syria’s conflict, who is capturing this diverse information, how it is being collected, and its potential use for war crimes accountability are all challenges the international community must respond to.

According to Mojtahedi, SJAC, a nonprofit that works to ensure human rights violations in Syria are comprehensively documented and preserved for use in transitional justice and peace-building, has collected 1.8 million pieces of data to date. Al Khatib stated that the Syrian Archive, a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations, also has over 1 million units of digital content collected to date. Hence the challenge is not only documentation of human rights violations, but how to securely and legitimately store, process, analyze, verify, and use it. 

Technology solutions for war crimes accountability

The critical application of technology solutions for war crimes accountability is of utmost importance. Both SJAC and the Syrian Archive created their own databases, yet challenges related to big data remain, including but not limited to issues of content removal, scale, trust, and security.  Mojtahedi stated her two big tech challenges were scale and security: “How do we keep our people, our data, the people we engage with, safe?” Further, Al Khatib brought up the issue of documentation being scattered across different platforms, and the challenge of information being removed from these platforms - and possibly being lost forever. He stated that it, “disappears from the hands of the Syrian people to the servers it’s published on.” We need to make this work accessible, he argued, especially because governments and international non-governmental organization are not in Syria to serve as witness to the atrocities being committed.

Hiatt reiterated that data decentralization is both a challenge and an opportunity: the data that exists belongs to civil society, so if more formal institutions of criminal accountability fail or are not effective, there are other avenues to share and use this information. According to Hiatt, “There’s promise here that’s never been tried before.”

International criminal justice

While panelists discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by such large, decentralized volumes of data, Van Schaack reiterated the importance of connecting these pieces of information for accountability and international criminal justice. She also stated the importance of credibility for war crimes prosecutions, noting that SJAC and other organizations are creating protocols to verify and authenticate this vast amount of documentation. “People are putting their lives on the line, let’s make it worth it,” she stated honestly.  

Frustration with past international criminal proceedings has raised awareness about civil society’s documentation of human rights violations to inform broader transitional justice initiatives  “those that exist now and/or in the future,” stated Mojtahedi. 

“Turning raw data into structured data into evidence is a challenge that needs to be tackled,” stated Hiatt. As he summarized many of the tech challenges specific to this critical work  scale, verification, content removal, centralized data, chain of custody, database management, and connecting civil society – he looked to the audience and asked them directly, “How can the community here help?” 

While all agreed the ultimate goal was accountability and justice for the Syrian people, the Handa Center and Benetech aimed to identify opportunities for Stanford and Silicon Valley to support such an initiative as they collaborate to help connect civil society to advance human rights and bolster the rule of law.

For more information or to support this collaboration please contact Jessie Brunner, Program Manager at the Handa Center (jbrunner [at] (jbrunner[at]stanford[dot]edu)) or Stephanie Seale, Strategic Partnerships Manager at Benetech (stephanies [at] (stephanies[at]benetech[dot]org)).


Note: This panel was planned in coordination with the Handa Center’s Annual Lecture on International Justice: The IIIM’s Role in Promoting Accountability for the Most Serious Crimes Committed in Syria Since March 2011 Featuring Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of IIIM, held on February 12, 2018. This lecture can be viewed online here

Read the original event description.