Since March 2011, human rights organizations have documented the arrest, disappearance and loss of tens of thousands of people in Syria. The real number is much higher. The families of the victims have been crying out for years, waiting day and night and demanding to know the fate of their loved ones—or any information about them. The Assad regime, meanwhile, insists on depriving these families of their right to know, which is protected in international law.
Leaking videos of government officials committing crimes is a means of reporting government abuses. Therefore, the information provided by whistleblowers or other sources is not private property, and must be made available to the public. Syrian citizens have the right to learn about every crime committed by their government, and free media must ensure this knowledge.
The public has a right to participate in decision-making, and to make informed choices about their lives. Withholding videos documenting a government’s mass atrocities could mislead people and lead them to make wrong decisions, such as in choosing their political representatives.
For example, when refugees want to return to a country under a particular government, they are entitled to know the scope of its possible conduct. Refugees must know and fully understand to what extent their governments go in killing their own citizens, and whether their governments are holding their most criminal officials to account.
On April 27, the online Syrian magazine Al-Jumhuriya and the British newspaper the Guardian published an investigation by Professor Uğur Ümit Üngör and academic Ansar Shahhoud of a massacre committed by Assad regime forces in the al-Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus. The Guardian investigation included a video showing portions of the massacre, with the faces of the victims covered.
Hours later, the full, unedited, six-minute video circulated showing the faces of the victims. Days later, the Siam family recognized their son, Waseem, a Syrian-Palestinian baker from Yarmouk camp. He was the first victim of the Tadamon massacre to be identified.
“When I lost hope in the search, I said time will tell and, God willing, the Lord will help us,” Waseem’s mother said in a video message published by The New Arab. In the video, she recalled the last time she saw him, “how he looked when he stopped at the door of the house. I opened it for him, he came in and went out in front of me. I can still see it. I won’t forget it until I die.” His father said, “The people of the camp know that their children left and didn’t come back. Nobody got out.” He added, “I want justice for the kids.”
We owe it to the victims to find out their conditions. We owe it to the men, women and children who were brutally killed, including under torture, to at least know what they suffered in the final minutes of their lives. We must be witnesses to these crimes.
Everyone has the choice not to click on the link of a video to watch it. But if the families choose to watch, this is their absolute right. They should not be deprived of their inherent right to know the truth, to know all the details of the last minutes of their loved ones’ lives. And after the families identify their loved ones, it is their right to request that their images be withheld, if they wish.
When a video exists of identifiable victims, the following steps must be taken, at a minimum. Syrian and international organizations and experts, as well as Syrian media, can discuss and develop these steps to follow as a method for dealing with the emergence of any new video or image showing the perpetrators and victims of crimes and executions, or videos and images showing detainees or possibly missing people that have previously been kept by documentation centers, human rights bodies or individuals. They must also be taken with the 26 unpublished videos from the Tadamon massacre:
- Verify the video’s authenticity.
- Determine the location and time of the video, if possible.
- Identify the possible place and time of the victims’ arrest or detention. Determine where the victims may be from and the possible location of their detention.
- If the video’s publication is found to pose a serious threat to its legal value as evidence, the necessary alternative is to extract screenshots of the victims showing their face, body, clothes and any marks that may help identify them. Here, a serious threat should not be used for vague or general reasons. It must be established that the risk exceeds the importance and benefit of families identifying their loved ones. In this rare case, the risks of the impact on legal value must be assessed by legal experts. It is neither logical nor acceptable to withhold videos, or at least screenshots from them, under the pretext of using the videos in possible future trials. There must be an active trial to justify restricting a video or image, provided that the restriction is for a defined and limited period of time.
- These videos, or at least images from them, must be published, or their existence should be made public if there are sufficient, confirmed written details about the victims. Videos or pictures should be circulated on a dedicated website, or in cooperation with Syrian victims’ associations and human rights groups, which have experience identifying victims and communicating with their families in the most appropriate way to protect their dignity and feelings.
- Families have the right to view videos that could show their loved ones, in full. It is the duty of the group or individuals who have the video to fulfill these families’ requests.
- No one has the right to withhold videos or images of atrocities in Syria from the victims’ families, public, press, decision-makers, Syrian and international human rights organizations, academics or researchers. These videos are not private property. Withholding them without clear justifications from specialists can be considered complicity in concealing the crime and prolonging the suffering of the families.
- These principles apply to videos or images that may show detainees, the missing and those disappeared by the Syrian regime, ISIS and all parties to the conflict in Syria.
This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.