Responding effectively to human rights violations and humanitarian crises resulting from armed conflict requires accurate and credible factual information and analysis. Thorough and impartial monitoring, reporting, and fact-finding (MRF) is essential to achieving this.
Challenges inherent to investigations of alleged violations of international law in non-conflict situations are multiplied when investigating possible war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the context of armed conflicts – be they international or non-international.
Some of the challenges may be situation-specific, others recurring in several different conflict situations. Access to relevant areas during the conduct of hostilities may be restricted or outright impossible, and often extremely dangerous when possible. Evidence may be rapidly removed, destroyed, or contaminated – whether intentionally or not. “Bad” evidence can be worse than no evidence, as it can lead to wrong assumptions or conclusions. In Syria I found unexploded cluster sub-munitions in places where no cluster bomb strikes were known to have been carried out. Though moving unexploded cluster sub-munitions is very dangerous, as even a light touch can cause them to explode, Syrian fighters frequently gather them from the sites of government strikes and transport them to other locations, sometimes a considerable distance away, in order to harvest explosive and other material for re-use.1 The practice has since become more widely known, but at the time of the first cluster bomb strikes, two years ago, it led to wrong assumptions about the locations of such strikes.
Especially in the initial stages of armed conflicts, civilians are confronted with wholly unfamiliar realities – armed clashes, artillery strikes, aerial bombardments, and other military activities and situations they have never experienced before – which can make it very difficult for them to accurately describe specific incidents. In Gaza, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and other places I interviewed civilians who described what they thought were artillery or bomb strikes being launched by far away government forces and striking near their homes – whereas in reality the loud bangs and tremors were caused by mortars or rockets being launched by opposition fighters from their positions nearby. For the untrained ear it is virtually impossible to distinguish between incoming and outgoing fire, and all the more so for those who find themselves close to the frontlines. The difference means little to panicked civilians often forced out of their homes by fear, but is vastly important to investigators.
Conflict situations create highly politicized and polarized environments, which may affect even individuals and organizations with a proven track record of credible and objective work. Players and interested parties go to extraordinary lengths to manipulate or manufacture “evidence” for both internal and external consumption. A recent, though by no means the only, example is provided by the Syrian conflict in what is often referred to as the “YouTube war,” with a myriad techniques employed to manipulate video footage of incidents which occurred at other times in other places – including in other countries – and present them as “proof” of atrocities committed by one or the other parties to the conflict in Syria. At times the same video clips have even been distributed by partisans of opposing factions, each ascribing the atrocities to their opponents.
Even if they disregard it, investigators must be alert to the fact that disinformation and misinformation can contribute to shaping the perception of events, the narrative surrounding the events, and the behaviour of people who take it in good faith and internalize it, including victims, witnesses, and others potential sources. In the early stages of the conflict in Libya, misinformation spread about vast numbers of African mercenaries committing atrocities on behalf of government forces and mass rape of women as a weapon of war. The allegations, initially believed and relayed by some investigators, have never been substantiated by subsequent investigations, but during the conflict they deeply affected the perception of events in parts of the country. Black African migrant workers and asylum-seekers and black Libyans (notably from Tawergha and from the south of the country) were killed, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forcibly displaced.
Fear can lead victims and witnesses to withhold evidence or give deliberately erroneous accounts of incidents. In Gaza, I received partial or inaccurate information by relatives of civilians accidentally killed in accidental explosions or by rockets launched by Palestinian armed groups towards Israel that had malfunctioned and of civilians killed by Israeli strikes on nearby Palestinian armed groups’ positions. When confronted with other evidence obtained separately, some said they feared reprisals by the armed groups. In Syria, families of children shot dead by government forces in or near peaceful demonstrations told me they had been forced to sign statements that their children had been killed by “terrorists.”
Those mentioned above are only some of the many challenges of MRF in conflict situations. Much has changed in the way MRF is conducted in the 100 years since what is considered one of the first formal MRF initiatives.2 The tools available today are infinitely greater: international law defining violations, expert bodies to interpret it, trained experts in disciplines crucial for effective investigations, mapping and data-management software, and much more. While investigation systems, methodologies, and mechanisms for MRF continue to evolve and improve, some things remain unchanged – in particular the need for rigour and impartiality.
About the author
Donatella Rovera has been leading Amnesty International's field investigations into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by state and non-state actors in many situations of internal and international armed conflicts for the past 20 years (examples include: in the past year Syria, Somalia, Sudan-South Sudan; earlier examples include Libya, Israel-Occupied Palestinian Territories, Ivory Coast, Israel-Lebanon, Algeria), and produced research and advocacy reports and other material on these and other issues.
1 Unaware civilians also often pick up unexploded cluster sub-munitions, and several have been killed or injured when these exploded as they handled or carried them. See for example Amnesty International (14 March 2013), Syria: Government Bombs Rain on Civilians, AI Index MDE 24/009/2013.
2 The International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars was set up in 1913 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.