The first Freedom Across Borders conference was held in London on 6 July 2019. Read more.
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September 2019 updates

We have posted two transcripts from our July 2019 conference. Both are from the accountability strand, and more are on the way.

We have also posted the video of our Mr Gay Syria screening Q&A with Mahmoud Hassino, chaired by Brian Whitaker.

Mr Gay Syria screening, Manchester, Tuesday 1st October 2019 at 6.30pm
There will be another chance to see the film Mr Gay Syria, and to hear Mahmoud Hassino, in Manchester on 1st October. The Manchester screening is organised by a group of Manchester-based Syrians, in collaboration with Superbia and Rainbow Noir. See Superbia’s website for full details.

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Accountability challenges for humanitarian aid
Participants: Kholoud Mansour, Lund University; Rouba Mhaissen, Sawa for Development and Aid; Salama Mohammed Mubarak, humanitarian practitioner from Yemen; Ruairi Nolan, The Syria Campaign.

Read the full transcript.

Military accountability
Participants: Dmytro Chupryna, Airwars; Jennifer Dathan, Action on Armed Violence; Dearbhla Minogue, Global Legal Action Network.

Read the full transcript.

Mr Gay Syria Q&A

Q&A with Mahmoud Hassino, chaired by Brian Whitaker, at the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

The film Mr. Gay Syria follows two gay Syrian refugees who are trying to rebuild their lives. Husein is a barber in Istanbul living a double life between his conservative family and his gay identity. Mahmoud a Syrian LGBTI activist and is a refugee in Berlin. What brings them together is a dream: to participate in an international contest as an escape from their trapped lives and as a response to their invisibility.

Directed by Ayse Toprak, Mr Gay Syria won the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival 2017, the Human Rights Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival 2017, Best European Documentary at Tirana Film Festival 2017, Best Documentary at Amsterdam LGBTQ Film Festival Roze Filmdagen 2018, the 4th OCAÑA Award to Freedom at the Festival de Sevilla, in Spain, and Grand Prix at the Paris Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Mr Gay Syria is distributed in the UK by Taskovski Films.

Mahmoud Hassino is a journalist and blogger. He started Syria’s first LGBT magazine, Mawaleh. He is a refugee working with LGBTI refugees in Berlin.

Brian Whitaker is a journalist, former Middle East editor of the Guardian, and author of Unspeakable Love, Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.

Why do we need legal accountability? What can we do in the UK?

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Accountability strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Aisha Dennis, Women Now for Development; Hanan Albarmawi, Families For Freedom; Ibrahim Olabi, Guernica 37, Syrian Legal Development Programme.

Facilitated by Kellie Strom. Transcript by Zoë Ranson. Interpretation by Bayan Abughaida.

Image: Families For Freedom in Geneva, February 2017.

Kellie Strom:
Thank you everyone for being here. I think we’ll start. For this first session, which is on why we need legal accountability, and what we can do in the UK. We have Hanan from Families For Freedom, we have Aisha from Women Now for Development, and we have Ibrahim, who we just heard speak downstairs, from the Syrian Legal Development Programme, and Guernica 37.

So, this first topic is called, why do we need legal accountability? What can we do here, in the UK? And it was Ibrahim who said to me, when we were developing this, that we need to put this question ‘why’ right at the start. And to many of us, the ‘why’ would seem obvious: with these crimes, these mass atrocities, there is a moral imperative that demands justice. But as Ibrahim pointed out to me, legal accountability is not the same as justice. Legal accountability can’t possibly deliver justice to balance the scale of these crimes. So, this brings up something that we’ll be looking at in the last session. When the moral imperative for legal accountability seems less certain, if it can’t deliver justice, then, there’s a temptation of a so-called realist argument, that maybe we can give up legal accountability for something more useful, more practical, realist, and, we may argue that we should give up legal accountability for peace or for stability—forget the crimes, let the dead bury the dead, for the sake of peace and stability.

For this, I came across—I’ve been reading Niccolò Machiavelli recently, who was writing in 16th century Italy. And he wrote as a political realist. He was a diplomat, who when the government he was working for fell became a political prisoner, he was a victim of torture. He understood power. And he wrote about why a state needs legal accountability. Not from a moral point of view, but because a state needs legal accountability for stability. If people in a state can’t get legal redress, they have to go outside of the law. If they can’t get legal redress, within the state, they will go to outside forces, they will go to foreign forces.

So we can see in Syria, the reason why everything has happened in Syria, the reason why there was a revolution, the reason why there was a war, the reason why outside forces are now occupying different parts of Syria, is because there was not legal accountability to begin with. So, to have stability in Syria, we need legal accountability.

We also need legal accountability here in the UK for our own stability. And as part of that need for legal accountability, we need that people in the UK who are victims of crimes in Syria, have some means of legal redress.

So, we’re going to begin with Hanan, from Families For Freedom, to say a little bit about the organisation, how it began, what it does.

Hanan Albarmawi:
Hello, I’m sorry that I’m going to be using Arabic, and that I’m going to be using the help of an interpreter, but I wanted my message to be clear, and more accurate. My name’s Hanan Albarmawi, I’m a Syrian refugee. I arrived to the UK five years ago. I’m currently with the Families For Freedom movement. I’m going to be talking—I have other activities—but I’m going to explicitly talking about this movement, today. So, this Families For Freedom movement, is based on Syrian women, women who have lost family members, husbands, fathers, any other family members, due to arbitrary detention and disappearance.

The idea was very important that it was based on just women, in this movement. It was very important that we as Syrian women have this message to deliver, as a role of the Syrian women in the Syrian revolution.

Second, that the person who has the right is stronger and more efficient in delivering their message. That’s why the Syrian woman is more capable of delivering her struggles, because of losing her family members due to enforced disappearance.

Families For Freedom movement started with five families, and reached eleven families. Currently, it has hundreds of voices from families from Syria. Our movement started in February 2017. We definitely have goals, aims, messages and demands, and we definitely have a message that we want to deliver to the UK people as women, most of living in the UK, and we can discuss later on our demands and calls.

Kellie Strom:
And Aisha now, from Women Now for Development, you’ve also done work in specific—you do a broad range of work, but you’ve done specifically work on detainees with Dawlaty. So could you tell us a little bit about Women Now, and also about some of the work you’ve done specifically on detention.

Aisha Dennis:
So, Women Now is an NGO that was set up in 2012 by Samar Yazbek, who is a Syrian journalist, who is living in exile in France. Women Now works inside Syria and in Lebanon. And basically in 2016, Women Now and another Syrian CSO called Dawlaty, started to conduct interviews with female relatives of the detained and the disappeared, to build a Syrian oral history archive. And so this kind of relates back to some of the conversation earlier about preserving memory, and resetting the narrative, so that was all part that effort. And today, we’ve interviewed over 200 women in different parts of Syria and also Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

At the time, there were no family groups campaigning for the disappeared. As women were talking about their experiences, and all their trauma and emotional pain was coming out, there was this energy as well, at the same time, and this feeling that women wanted to do something, about the issues that they were facing, and call attention to the situation. And by the way, through this process, we integrated psychosocial support into the interview process, that they were conducted by social workers.

So then we wanted to support women in setting up Families For Freedom. This is the campaign that they wanted to set up, so we supported that process. So Women Now, Dawalty, and The Syria Campaign formed a coalition to support the Families For Freedom campaign. And we do that through access to stakeholders, whether that’s the UN Human Rights Council, or the Commission of Inquiry, or the ICRC. And also on media appearances, we support that, and also through community mobilisation, so now there are local chapters of Families for Freedom in different countries, and in different communities. Women Now also provide a social support network, and have a particular interest in connecting Families For Freedom, with other women-led campaigns. So for example we organised a trip to Bosnia, so that women who are part of Families for Freedom could also meet Mothers of Srebrenica, campaigning for the disappeared as well.

More recently, Dawlaty and Women Now have published a report together called Shadows of the Disappeared, which contains fifty semi-structured interviews with women whose relatives are missing.

Kellie Strom:
So, Ibrahim, when you’re coming to this from a legal accountability angle, and material has been collected, which is to do with understanding the problem, reporting on the problem, on advocacy, and there’s also psychosocial, all of that. And you come into it with a legal accountability view, how does that fit in?

Ibrahim Olabi:
I think, in the context of Syria, and perhaps in many other contexts, we have over-promised when it comes to international justice and law. While I was in Gaizantep, or even in Syria, where the majority of the trainings happened, and a lot of our organisations rushed in to talk about traditional justice, and tribunals, and the Yugoslavian tribunals and the Rwanda tribunals and the International Criminal Court, and universal jurisdiction, everything seemed like, it sounds like this amazing system that exists to hold perpetrators to account. Unfortunately, they left the bit out that says, law does not operate in a vacuum, especially international law. There is a political context to it.

And so the difficulty that we had when we came in with the kind of legal style of things, I would say the most difficult was managing expectations. Because if they would go through this process of giving you a witness statement, going into the amount of depth and detail, horrifying detail, that they would need to go to, to kind of satisfy the evidential threshold of any sort of prosecution, they’d expect something to come out of it. I’ve collected many witness statements, where myself and the witness, both broke down into tears. And towards the end, she would tell me, so, what’s going to happen now? And I don’t have an answer for that. I can tell you what I will be able to do. I will be able to tell you how far I can push, but, because law operates in a political sphere, here in the UK there is a public interest argument that needs to be met in order for a prosecution to go forward. There needs to be approval from the Director of Public Prosecutions. I can not control that narrative. I cannot guarantee for certain what would happen.

And so you have two types of people. First, people who have given up, ‘what’s the point of this,’ you know, ‘no-one’s going to hold them to account, the world is complicit, if they wanted to take them down, they would have,’ all sorts of that kind of approach, and so ‘no I will not meet with you, no, I will not discuss anything with you, there’s absolutely no point, all of you are there’—in a worst case scenario—‘to make money on our behalf, you’re all paid legal fees, and you’re funded by these fancy governments and charities,’ and whatnot. Or that ‘you’re kind of cute for trying, but nothing’s going to come out of it.’

So, you’ve got that on one side. And then you’ve got the other side, who have huge expectations for the legal process. And actually, I would know, because I was delivering a training to Families for Freedom and a lot of victim groups and survivor groups, and I tried to make criminal accountability, criminal litigation to really narrow the scope, as one tool of something that could be done. Because I think a lot of lawyers, myself included, would fall into the trap of saying it’s all about the law, and the court room, and the wigs and gowns, and you know, I do enjoy wearing my wig and gown, I’m not going to lie, but not in this context.

Because, I think, when I was being taught criminology at university, even criminology, the social science of it, has not advanced to deal with the kind of crimes that we’re talking about now. As, one quote goes, and I’m not going to attribute it to someone, because everyone has taken credit for it, you kill a person, you murder a person, you might end up with the death penalty, or life imprisonment, but you kill 400,000, and you’re invited to a peace conference in Geneva. So, how should you deal with the criminality of this? Even from a social science point of view, I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we are working towards it.

So, my point would be that yes, legal accountability is important, because it’s a strategic tool, that would help us achieve certain things. Get something on record, get something from a judge from a respectable country. Just to give you an example, in Germany, when the arrest warrants started coming up against generals of the Assad regime, at the same time the World Cup was taking place, and a lot of Assad war crime apologists are fans of Germany in football. And when Germany started doing these arrest warrants, they could not say anything, because Germany does not have a colonial past, they couldn’t say, look at Iraq, Afghanistan, which is all the kind of nonsense they use in our case, and so it’s helped us to say well, look, it’s not imperialist Britain that’s issuing a case, it’s Germany, the football team that you’re supporting, in that sense.

So it has some strategic added value, that we could use that court, but, by no means should it be the only one. And I think as NGOs, as human rights activists, we have the duty to make sure that when we’re talking about litigation, criminal litigation, to add the word strategic to that, and not just approach it from a very narrow point of view.

Kellie Strom:
Thank you. Thank you Bayan, for your translation. Hanan, I think that then brings us back to you, for Families for Freedom, what your calls are, what your demands are, your aims. How does accountability fit into that, and how do you go beyond that, what do you look for other than accountability?

Hanan Albarmawi:
Definitely, as a movement we have our demands, and our main message. So, our main message is to keep this file of the forcibly disappeared and detained in Syria in the discussions, all international discussions, and it is very important not to leave it behind in any of these discussions.

So, it is clear, that each one of us would see it in their own point of view, which is a normal thing, for any one of us. So, for example Ibrahim, might see it in the legal point of view, if we want to talk about the enforced disappeared, or detainees. As a person in the psychology field, I focus on the psychology part of it. Specifically, as working in Syrian relief inside Syria for three years, I personally saw this, with my direct contact with the families, women and children who have lost someone. So our aim is not just to end the war, our aim is to have a healthy Syria, an inclusive, comprehensive community in Syria. And because of me noticing this effect on people who have lost someone who are forcibly disappeared or detained, I’ve seen this effect on the community, starting from the individual, to the family, to the community.

One of the personal situations as an example, there was a doctor who was a close friend of mine. I used to depend on him in following medical cases in the centre I used to work at. He was arrested at his clinic in Damascus four years ago. He has children, a girl and a boy. Until now, his fate is unknown, and until now, it is the most difficult thing to look at the eyes of his children not knowing what to do.

So, this demand for accountability, for accountability for Syrian detainees is not just legal, it is humanitarian, it is psychological, it’s social, it’s moral. It’s in all these important levels. One of our goals is to have as Syrians the right to know the fate of our family members. It is the most basic right, that you need to know where your family members are. Okay, we understand he’s detained. Yes, okay, but where is he detained? And why are they detained?

The most basic right for them is to have a fair trial. The most basic right is to have access to medication and food. We have the right for the humanitarian organisations to be able to go into these prisons, or places of detention, for legal monitoringin the prisons and detentions, to monitor so that they would decrease that level of torture that the prisoners and detainees are suffering from. So we are calling for the disclosure of the fate of all the detainees from all parties, without differentiation between them, without exceptions, it is a right of every Syrian.

We are calling for the expanding of judicial authority. Ibrahim has mentioned an example in what happened in Germany. This is a very important factor. So, the accountability in my point of view and in the point of view of the movement is a very important element. And we can say it’s a pillar. It’s a very important base to be able to go back and build a healthy Syria, a democratic, healthy Syria.

Kellie Strom:
Thank you very much. Aisha, we’ve been focusing on detentions, forced disappearances and with that, torture. But it’s part of a larger picture of, basically, organised crime. I wonder could you sketch in for us a bit of that larger context, and the reasons for it, the impact of it?

Aisha Dennis:
So, we’re talking about indiscriminate bombing campaigns, targeting civilian populations, attacks on civilian objects, whether it’s hospitals, or schools many other residential areas. Chemical attacks, siege and starvation, dispossession, and systematic sexual and gender-based violence. And all of these things tie together to form a strategy of forced displacement and demographic engineering.

So, if we look at the targeting of civilians and the impact that that has on civilian movement within the country, for example, last year in Idlib, in the first six months of last year 100,000 people moved into Idlib, and this is a governorate that already had 900,000 IDPs, mostly living in IDP camps, with very limited access to humanitarian aid. And then later on in September, there was the expectation that there would be a large scale assault in the same way that we saw in Ghouta earlier in that year. And just with the expectation that that would happen, there were 33,000 people that were internally displaced within three weeks. And a huge, huge humanitarian need at the same time.

This also has impacts on women. There is a rise in the number of women who are the heads of their households, they’re more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. We are talking about one in three schools that are fully operational, and half of the hospitals having been destroyed. We had a colleague who died a couple of weeks ago because she gave birth at home. There are women giving birth through c-section without anaesthetic.

We are talking about multiple chemical attacks, with hundreds of casualties. We’re talking about a policy of siege that was implemented in multiple governorates in the country until very recently and that led to starvation amongst the civilian population. So, a lack of medicine and food being allowed into areas, for example Eastern Ghouta. People were living under siege for over four years, and trying to eat bread made out of sawdust. One of my colleagues, country manager for Syria, Loubna, when she was living in Ghouta, she now lives in Turkey as a refugee there, but she ran a local campaign to try to make sure that women had sanitary pads, things that are so taken for granted and clearly cannot be used for any military use, were just not available.

Kellie Strom:
So, to be clear, they were being deliberately blocked?

Aisha Dennis:
Yes. And the whole economy in the area was completely distorted. Unemployment in some besieged areas reached 100%. And then for example, if we’re still talking about Eastern Ghouta, when it was bombarded—throughout that four years, it was suffering bombardment and artillery fire—but when there was a very, very extreme level of sustained attack in February to April last year, then we saw huge, huge numbers of people being displaced with nowhere really to go. Most people went to Idlib and some to other areas, areas that were already overwhelmed with IDPs, as I already gave Idlib as an example, where there were already 900,000 IDPs living there already.

Then we’re talking about the systematic use of sexual violence, whether that was in detention, or at checkpoints, or during ground offences. Both of women and girls, and of men and boys. This also leading to huge stigma within their community, people being rejected from their families, and the psychological toll that that takes, as well. And different forms of sexual violence, as well, so rape, use of electrocution on genitalia, searches that are basically sexual assaults, very severe sexual assaults. People being humiliated, by being forced to walk in front of tanks naked, for hours in some cases.

And then also sexual violence by armed groups, including marriage and enforced marriage, within communities that are suffering high levels of poverty, so that there’s an incentive, and people are trying to survive so there’s an incentive to marry off their daughters in that situation. So that’s it. Obviously, there’s a lot more to it.

Kellie Strom:
So Ibrahim, it’s a very full load. And you were talking about how in what you do, the word ‘strategic’ has to be at the centre of all of that, because you have something that is so overwhelming. You’re running one small organisation, trying to tackle this, for the last few years, and now you’re working in one chambers, but it’s an epic task, and it’s hard to even comprehend it, never mind get to the point of saying where do you begin, what are your priorities with your limited capacities?

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, I want to begin with a quote from the infamous Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria, in 2011 or 2012, when he said, when the observers from the Arab League were coming to look at what was happening in Syria, he said, ‘We will drown them, with the details.’ I think we’ve moved to an interesting era, Kellie. An era, where the perpetrators are no longer hiding their crimes, but over-burdening the system. Commit all sorts of crimes, against a wide variety of people, tick every single crime possible, overload the internet, so that people become confused, don’t know what to do, and then they can get away with it. Ironically, at a time where we have more access of information. So, instead of trying to hide the information, they’re overflowing the system. Which is a phenomenon that I think we need to be able to grasp and deal with.

Now, there are a few thoughts that I would like to make on that point. I mean, growing up, I always hated the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. And by analogy, I have a similar question now: who comes first, the lawyer or the politician? And in my opinion, from what I’ve seen, the politician makes the decisions, and then tries to get the lawyer to justify it, or work within the remits of the law. Then you have lawyers resigning, that happened with the war in Iraq, you had Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy chief legal adviser at the Foreign Office said, no, this is illegal.
And so I really think our work needs to be with the policy makers, because laws change, laws evolve, according to the will of the society, the community, people who are lobbying for change. And, ironically, yes, you know automation is taking a lot of jobs away, but politicians are still people. There is no computer that you are dealing with on Syria, luckily, yet. Which means people can be lobbied. People can be pushed. They have weak points, they have strong points, they have interests. And that’s why I’m really excited to be amongst this group today, because this is where we can push to trigger that interest, and not let them off the hook.

And, it’s interesting that again we’re living in an era, where some terms are being put forward, some concepts, that are also undermining our ability to do any sort of accountability work, or certainly any sort of legal accountability work. Such as neutrality. All parties to the conflict have committed crimes. Wrong. Yes, all parties have committed crimes, but at a completely different scale of range of crimes, diversity of crimes, severity of crimes. That does not mean for a second that I would condone the crime of any party, but you ask me about a question of strategy and scant resources, and instead of saying, oh no, it’s too complicated now, I need to be able to allocate my energy towards a party, a perpetrator, that ticks the majority of my policy considerations when I’m choosing this case. Do they have the highest responsibility? Was this organised? Is it systematic? Does it serve the victims? Am I able to get more evidence out of it? There are a lot of things that we take into account before choosing a case, or choosing a topic. But, then you get an attack of, why are you focusing just on Assad?

No-one would condone any crimes, as Hanan said, we’re talking about enforced disappearances by all parties. But again, I have a limited amount of hours a day. I have limited sources of funding. And we cannot go after everybody. So, who do we go after? And whatever your answer is to that question, as long as it’s justified, and you have a proper rationale for it, I don’t mind. But, what I do mind is taking a step back and saying, you know, ‘all parties, too complex, not going to touch this, too complicated.’

I always say, I do not mind in Syria, for anyone in this room, or anywhere else, to say, I do not know who to support. I myself do not know who to support, politically. But, I know who to oppose from a human rights perspective.

I do not know the ins and outs of Sudan. But I care about those who were killed on the sit in. I do not know the tribal dynamics. I do not know whether it’s as they say, communist, socialist, Islamist, I do not know. But my measurement is a human rights standard. So, if we’re muddying the waters and making things so blurry—because what has happened now is if you’re opposing the crimes committed by one party, automatically people are seeing you as supporting the other. Myth. Untrue. A lie that they’ve put together in order for us to constantly be on the defence and say, no, I do not support that, I do not support that, I don’t do that.

The other problem is the issue of the narrative of the conflict. Because the narrative of the conflict makes it very difficult to trigger any sort of public interest argument that allows us to push thepolicy makers. We see the envoy of the UN, and the majority of the states talking about the solution for Syria as a constitutional committee, as if four hundred thousand people have died, and the horrendous crimes that you’ve heard from Hanan, and from Aisha, here today, happened because I happened to disagree about Article 52 of the constitution. Syria is not a political problem. Brexit is a political problem. This is not a matter between Conservatives and Labour, Republican and Democrats. That’s not why people are being tortured. We’re talking about pure human rights. If the narrative is being distorted, we will not be able to move one step forward, towards any sort of accountability, legal, or otherwise.

Kellie Strom:
I was watching my clock, because I’m aware that we haven’t had other people in. So, I want to see if anyone wants to come in with any questions, or comments? Jonathan.

Jonathan Brown:
Jonathan Brown. I chair the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria. I used to live in Syria between 2004-2007. So, I lobby for policy changes within the party. Probably the most common barrier to getting support amongst the general public, or political activists in this country, is the feeling that it’s just so awful that the best thing is for it to be over,as quickly as possible, no matter how that happens. So, you often hear people saying, we just want the war to be over, it’s better for people to live under oppression than for war to continue. That doesn’t appear to be an option for Syrians, even if they wanted to take it, but you must obviously get that question too. What’s your response to that?

Kellie Strom:
Aisha, this is probably also a question you’ve heard before.

Aisha Dennis:
Okay, so we’re talking about whether it’s best to try to stop things happening immediately. I think the thing is that if the violence in terms of bombing stops, that doesn’t mean that the violence has stopped. People are still disappeared, they’re still detained, we don’t know if they’re dead, we don’t know if they’re alive, we don’t know if they’re being tortured.

The economic situation has been completely turned upside down, and that isn’t solved by pumping money into regime controlled areas, that have always been supportive of the regime, for reconstruction. It’s a matter of how that happened. You have to look into the details of what we’re talking about. The question is erroneous, that would be my feeling.

Hi there, my name’s Tony I’m a lawyer as well. And what I haven’t got a sense of from anybody in this room is what is the roadmap from your perspective? It’s a long journey that everybody’s taking, but are you promoting any particular process?

Kellie Strom:
Ibrahim, did you want to answer?

Ibrahim Olabi:
Yes, can I tackle the first one very, very briefly. I don’t mind any war to be quickly over, but we’re not talking again about a war where two parties are fighting, citizens are collateral damage, and that’s it. I share an office with a Libyan organisation, you can imagine the depressing working environment that we have. But for them, the battle for Tripoli is a political issue where there’s two parties fighting. Up until recently, up until a few days ago, there weren’t so many war crimes that were committed, and people over there were saying, we want this to be over as quick as we can. We need to distinguish that from a war where there is deliberate torture and enforced disappearance. These are completely two different types of wars that would need to end differently.

And, as Aisha rightly said, even when war is over—because people link that to return of refugees, right? Look at Jordan. Daraa, in the south of Syria, that has been taken by the Syrian army, and refugees are not returning. Lebanon, people are not returning. The World Bank finally published something saying it is not money and bombs, that were the trigger for people to leave, and it will not be the trigger for people to come back. It’s torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance. The things that Hanan was talking about. So, that sense of security beyond the bombs, which I concur with Aisha on.

In terms of the roadmap. Well, the problem is that the roadmap for Syria involves so many states now, that not one state has the answer. It’s no longer a Syrian problem. As much as I would like to think it’s all about us, it really isn’t. I always tell that to UK policy makers. When Russia breaches international law in Syria, that is not a message to Syria, that is a message to the UK: ‘You can stand up with as many Geneva conventions as you want, and ratify whatever Rome statutes you want, and I can break it, and I can get away with it, so who’s the world power now?’

So, that kind of roadmap is so complicated, because it has a lot of state interests. But, on the other hand, that also means that if we manage to lobby and galvanize the states that are with us, then we might be able to get somewhere.

So, I think the most complicated in the roadmap is the issue of the detentions and the enforced disappearances. So, I think that is the first thing that needs to be settled. Because they’ve been suffering the most, since 2011. Their families have been suffering the most. We don’t know where they are, we don’t know what’s happening to them, and that’s the file that the regime has not moved an inch—for many reasons, which we can go into later.

Then, you have the issue of stopping the bombs. And I actually put the detainees before stopping the bombs, because I think it causes far more damage. And then you can look into issues of a kind of reform and get into the political side of things: security sector reform, and justice approaches, and all of that. Constitution, elections, the rest of it. But, again, it’s no longer a Syrian issue. It’s a Russia, US, UK, Saudi, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan issue. Israel to add to the mix.

Kellie Strom:
Could I just jump back to something we had earlier. Hanan was talking abut the arrest warrants that have been issued in Germany, and also in France. Could you just give us a little idea, of why that’s happening in Germany, why it’s happening in France, why, when we’ve heard there are also victims in the UK, why haven’t we yet seen something like that happen in the UK, or, is there a possibility of it?

Ibrahim Olabi:
Well, I could give you the legal answer, but I’d much rather give you the political answer. There is no political will in the UK. The UK has been busy for a long time with other matters. Germany has a much higher refugee population. They want to show that they’re doing something for Syrians, you know. It’s also an anti-extremism tool, in a sense. ‘Look, our country is doing something for you, so don’t take matters into your own hands.’ Which the UK tried to do. I used to YouTube things related to Syria, the first sponsored video, that appears on my YouTube list is about what is the UK doing for Syria, and has the special envoy saying we’re doing this, we’re doing that, and all of this.

There are different legal challenges in the UK. And again, it also matters that the legal sector has huge funding cuts at the moment, the courts are a mess, there are huge challenges, so how do we justify looking into a conflict that doesn’t affect us? Or, so they think. So, our role is to show how the Syrian conflict does indeed affect the UK. This is the first step that we need to do. I think there have been excellent organisations in Germany and France that have been pushing with this. And to get an arrest warrant at that level requires approval from the highest authority in the country—the Chancellor of Germany—I’ve checked about that fact personally. While in the UK, we don’t even know what’s going to happen in the next couple of days, or who can take that decision, and it’s politically sensitive as well.

Hanan Albarmawi:
So, my answer to your question about the roadmap, or the return of the Syrians, to Syria, is it is a very complicated, or thorny way. So, what we know, is that the Syrian situation is very different or any other situation in the world. What is happening in Syria, is totally different from any other country.

So, our work, it’s very important, that we need to stress on this point, that our work as Syrians is a comprehensive work, whether the refugees, the IDPs inside Syria, We have comprehensive work that includes legal, humanitarian, social etc. So, it’s very important to stress that it’s about me, you, and them and he, or she. We are, as individuals, we are the base of this. As long as we are existing, we are continuing with this work. As long as we are continuing and able to do things.

In this context, with the ending of the war, it is very important to know the fate of the detainees, about disclosing their fate, about us Syrians remaining healthy human beings, mentally healthy, able to rebuild Syria, because we are the only ones who can rebuild Syria.

So, I personally have lost my nephew, my sister’s son, who was forcibly disappeared. He didn’t reach eighteen years old and because of that, his mother is suffering from, until now, from a severe mental health issue, and despite that, I’m here with you, talking. And our will we not be affected. We are continuing. All we want from you, is that our voice is delivered, with your help, to the world. That’s how our path will be clearer. Thank you.

My name is Baraa, I am a mental health caseworker on the Syrian resettlement scheme in Walsall in West Midlands. I’ve got families who have family members who have been detained or disappeared. What kind of support are you able to give them? How can we inform them of your movement? How can they contact you, because most of them are women, who lost their sons or their husbands, and suddenly they find themselves here in the UK where yes, the government sometimes provide everything in a material way, but sometimes the women have a special need for people with the same background. How can they get involved in your movement? Because I’m sure also with their passions, and their ideas, they can give something to help others. And what kind of support are you giving to them, emotional support. How to do that within the Syrian community, because London is different to West Midlands, and a big part of the Syrians are now in the West Midlands.

Hanan Albarmawi:
So, as a start. As long as a person feels that they can start expressing their pain, and talking about it, that’s a first step. As a start, to be able to move from this stage, of not being able to express, not being able to call for your right, not being able to grieve, even. Because any person there, if they lost someone, they were not able to bury them, or have a gathering to give condolences. It’s just one person who can go and bury them, if that’s possible. So if they can, they are right in expressing their grief, and they move to this stage where they can deal with people who would be able to deliver their voices, that’s a first step. That’s a very important step.

This is one of the things I’ve been talking about most of the time.

Hanan Albarmawi:
We as a movement, Families for Freedom, we’re really focused on working with families who have lost someone in their families. We organise activities. We’ve organised recently activities for people who wanted to talk to an MP, or to the Red Cross, to talk about their experience about losing, or the disappearance of one of their family members, and we’re still ongoing working on that. The thing is that, if you manage to deliver their voices, that was something that was not allowed to them in the past, it is a very important step.

Kellie Strom:
Sorry, I’m just aware that the next panel, we are crashing into their time, so I hope you will continue the conversation. Our next panel is going to be on accountability challenges for humanitarian aid. So thank you very much, all of you, for doing this.

Accountability challenges for humanitarian aid

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Accountability strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Kholoud Mansour, Lund University; Rouba Mhaissen, Sawa for Development and Aid; Salama Mohammed Mubarak, humanitarian practitioner from Yemen; Ruairi Nolan, The Syria Campaign.

Facilitated by Fatima Hashem Morales. Transcript by Zoë Ranson.

Image: Protest greets a United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy in besieged Eastern Ghouta, 23 February 2016. Photo via Siege Watch on Twitter.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Good afternoon everyone, thanks for coming. My name is Fatima and today I’m going to be facilitating this session. We’re going to talk about challenges in aid accountability. And joining me in the panel we have Salama Mohammed Mubarak. She’s a humanitarian practitioner with experience in emergency response and post-conflict programming, especially in Yemen. And we also have Ruairi Nolan, head of programmes at The Syria Campaign, which is a human rights organisation supporting the Syrian cause through campaigning and advocacy work. And we have Rouba Mhaissen, the founder of SAWA for Development and Aid, an organisation working with refugees in Lebanon and forced migrants in the Middle East and Europe. We also have with us Kholoud Mansour. Kholoud is an affiliated researcher with the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Lund, and she’s also a co-founding member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement.

So, welcome again, and I would like to just start first by thanking everyone for being with us, and I’ll start with you Rouba actually. So, we can talk a little bit about what are the main challenges which SAWA for Development is now facing, mainly in Lebanon, especially given the recent updates of what is happening in Lebanon, and how are you protecting your projects and yourselves, first of all from threats of corruption, and also from the government demands that are mainly focusing on security and terrorism and so on.

Rouba Mhaissen:
Okay, so hi everyone, it’s great to be here, and I want to thank the organisers of this conference for their wonderful work, and the nice line-up of speakers and the really beautifully designed booklet for this conference.

Actually as I said previously, I really can’t believe that it’s 2019, and we are still discussing some of the very same topics that we’ve been talking about. So, sometimes I feel redundant in a lot of things I’ve got to say but I’m very pleased that a lot of you here today are people that I’ve never met before, so I really thank you for being here and taking interest in Syria.

For me, I think as a local Syrian organisation operating in the context of Lebanon which isn’t a very easy context, whether it’s legally, whether it’s structurally, whether it’s politically, I think one of the things that we continuously struggle with as a local organisation is the idea of partnership. Until today, I think, although we have come a long way as Syrian activists, as Syrian organisations, to have our voices more heard, to be more taken seriously as central actors, and a response that is a response to our very own client base. I think a lot of times, we are still very much sidelined from a lot of areas and a lot of places where decision making is happening. And that goes very much from deciding where money is being spent, to deciding how the money on Syria is being spent, to deciding what are the priorities for policy in Syria.

And I just want to give an example that happened a couple of months ago, where one of the directors of one of the biggest Syrian organisations called UOSSM, the Union of Syrian Medical Workers, he went on strike. And he published a very long statement online saying that we, as Syrian doctors, and as Syrian organisations working on medical needs inside Syria and in the region, we have been trying for the last months to influence the priorities of the WHO, the world health organisation, on Syria, inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries, but still the WHO are still choosing to do programmes that do not respond to the real needs on the ground, whether it’s the destruction of medical facilities, or the needs of the medical doctors, or the medical needs in besieged areas. And joining this strike were a lot of aid workers, from a lot of different organisations, that were trying to say the WHO is setting its own priorities, without consulting or even listening to us. We have been trying to get in touch with them, to change these priorities, but they are not listening to us. And, I think that the result of this strike was positive, because their concerns were taken in.

But this is just to underline the fact that until today, a lot of the aid going into Syria and into the region is very much access-based and is extremely politicised. Rather than it being needs-based, rather than it being a bottom-up decision on what the priorities of the local organisations are, unfortunately a lot of the money is not possible to track, so a local organisation, we go and we attend these big conferences in Brussels and in the UN etcetera, and after the Brussels pledges, we try as much a we can, to track whether the pledge numbers—because you know it’s a nice and big circus in Brussels and all the donors, all the countries are going to say, oh we pledge that much, and we pledge that much, but actually the real monies that are being spent are not always meeting these pledges. And even if the numbers meet the pledges, we don’t know how much of it trickles down to the local organisations.

And I always give this example, if ten million dollars was donated by ‘X’ government—let’s say, I’m just giving an example, the UK donates ten million dollars—then there is two million dollars overhead for DFID, we are left with eight million that they give to DFID in the region, and there is a cut of another million etcetera, and by the time it reaches us, there is an open call for a proposal for thirty thousand dollars for local organisations to apply for, and even then, there’s a huge list of things that the organisation needs to have to be able to access this fund.

Half a million Syrians and almost half of our population, like twelve million, are refugees, more than half a million died for us to be able to access the rights and the freedom that people in this country very much take for granted—I mean, I know that I’m preaching to the wrong crowd, because you all here, on a Saturday, and you obviously all believe in this very much—but I think most of the time we underestimate our capacity to hold those in power accountable for what they are doing.

At the end of the day, the money that is being cashed for Syria is taxpayers’ money. It’s money that you guys have paid. It’s money that you should know where it’s being spent, and how it’s being spent. And you can put pressure from where you stand, to continue asking donors to realise that the war in Syria is not over yet. That funding is still needed. But that the system, altogether, that there’s something going wrong in the system, whether it’s all the way from here, all the way to where the money has reached us in Syria.

I just want to go back, very briefly, to the idea of partnership. I know that a lot of you know that as Syrian organisations, we have really been putting our foot down to tell donors that we are equals, we have the right to the same benefits that you get as staff. A lot of the time, if one of our staff dies, even the donors wouldn’t allow us to give funds to their wives, or families, even though they’ve worked that whole month. A lot of times, a lot of benefits for our staff are not allowed. They don’t allow us to take any overhead costs. A lot of the times they are looking at us only as implementing partners, rather than real partners in deciding what are the priorities, and where the money goes. So, remember, since 2012 until today, we are telling people we are Syrians, speak to us, don’t speak about us. We are Syrians, include us. We are Syrians, bring us to these spaces. And I think a lot of you guys, I’ve just met someone who works at UNICEF of Syria, I know a lot of you work at these different organisations, and I think there’s a big role for you guys to play, whether it’s in the context of Syria, Yemen, Sudan or others, to just say trust the locals, work with them, treat them as equal. And, I think I’ll stop here, because I know this is part of a conversation.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much, Rouba. And it’s great actually that you brought up the whole dynamics of INGOs and the UN agencies and all of this. That makes me go to you, Ruari, and basically in 2016, The Syrian Campaign published a report about the United Nations work in Syria, and how they are lacking impartiality and neutrality. And recently also Human Rights Watch released another report, three years later, which confirms that this issue is still going on, and it’s even worse than I think it was in 2016. So, would you like to maybe let us know more about those accountabilities, especially in regard to the UN and the INGOs that are working in Damascus. And what is the role of the international community, or country donors such as the UK, for example, in tackling this, and holding the UN accountable.

Ruairi Nolan:
Sure, well thank you very much for the invite and the chance to join this panel, it’s an honour. The Syria Campaign put out a report in 2016 about the UN that really came out of the experiences of civil society organisations in Syria and the fury they felt about how the UN was operating. It wasn’t being independent, it wasn’t being impartial, and it was actually serving to, in many ways, support the regime and even its war effort, by subsidising so much of what the Syrian regime should have been offering to its citizens. So we had 56 local organisations who signed up to this report, having seen only the executive summary. For fear of it leaking, we couldn’t show the full report, and I do encourage people to go and read it.

But what we covered there is how UN was operating in a system at a time when you had probably one million people living under siege, and you had the UN operating an aid system where it was allowing the regime to dictate access and cut off access to those who needed aid most. So that tended to be people who were living in areas outside the government’s control, they were living under bombardment, they were living with hospitals being attacked, lack of medical facilities.

And so the UN’s role, in that regard, was actually allowing this, and was turning down a host of requests from different groups to get aid in. And our analysis of the situation with the UN obviously felt it was in a situation where it was wanting to provide aid to Syria, but needing to do so with the permission of the government. And above all, what it therefore prioritised was keeping good relations with the regime. That was its number one priority, and that dictated how it ran its programme.

And one of the things for us that’s significant is that this really went right back to the very start. That went right back to 2011, in Daraa, where there was a need to get aid in to the community there, and the regime at that point started trying to stop aid deliveries. At that point, the UN took the decision to accept that, accept those limitations on how they could operate. And that really continues to this day.

So, as you mentioned, Human Rights Watch brought out a report just in the last couple of weeks. The context has changed a little bit, so, there are some things that are a bit different. So, when we did out report, the issue of sieges, was a particularly important one. That’s not the same now, but that same underlying problem remains of the UN being unwilling to really show any kind of backbone and confront the regime, because at all stages it has prioritised access. And, even to the extent that the UN pushed back on the whole of Syria approach that allowed aid to come in across the border, it only did that after insisting on a UN Security Council resolution, and now there’s talk of more of the aid being channelled again back all through Damascus, which would only reinforce these problems of regime control over the aid system.

And the other thing I would say in terms of how the context has changed from 2016 to now, the Human Rights report also covers the impact in terms of reconstruction. So, we were looking at humanitarian aid, but those same problems will exist with reconstruction if the Syrian regime is allowed to control the reconstruction process, with direct reconstruction to happen in areas where it’s politically useful for it to happen, as opposed to where the need is greatest.

And it applies to the UN, but it also applies to humanitarian organisations, and in terms of other recent publications, Haid Haid of Chatham House has just this week, I think, had another publication out, about recommendations for international organisations in terms of what they can do for setting red lines for when they will and will not deliver aid. And I think there are some very good suggestions in there, but I do think the system will continue to function the way it is until the point that the international community and the UN insist on standing up to the regime and not accepting all of the constrictions on their operations.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you very much. And actually, I just want to emphasise one very interesting point that Human Rights Watch tackled, is how the Syrian regime now is treating areas that have been regained by the regime, so for example, there was a difference in how they were treating Harasta and Douma. And, as most of you more probably know, Harasta and Douma were besieged by the Syrian regime, and they regained control last year, but because Harasta has more a population that is coming from back from Damascus to live in Harasta, so there is more aid going into Harasta, while Douma, because people stayed there, and they were controlled by the opposition, so they’ve been punished, in a way.

Which actually brings me to you, Kholoud, to talk about your co-authored paper about humanitarianism, state sovereignity and authoritarian regime maintenance in the Syrian war. And maybe you can also explain to us more, with more nuances, about how the regime is using aid, and politicising it, and regaining power using this money, and this kind of control.

Kholoud Mansour:
Thank you very much. It is very humbling, actually, to be in the same room with very passionate people, who are still interested in Syria, and still interested to listen to us even though, as Rouba mentioned that we are all always frustrated by repeating exactly the same things we’ve been saying for the last eight years.

To understand aid and accountability, it is very important also, to understand the politics of aid, which does have different players, and when we talk about humanitarian aid, we need to know that it is very political and it is not purely humanitarian. Even in one of the evaluation reports of the UN, it is said that humanitarian action has been substituting for a political solution in Syria.

We need to always consider this in every conflict, especially that humanitarian aid is always driven by different agendas, different politics, and different aspirations of the donor governments. So it is very difficult to talk about the humanitarian aid without addressing the politics of it.

We additionally, we have also a different layer, that is within the UN agencies, within the international system itself, where they have the legacy of tensions and competition between the agencies, which also obstructs holding UN agencies and holding the international system accountable. They have this tension and competition between the UN agencies themselves, mainly OCHA and UNHCR, between the World Bank and UNDP, and between the UN agencies and the international organisations. And this something that has been there since the establishment of the UN agencies.

And this is something for the donors, to hold the UN agencies accountable as there is a huge amount of money that is being channelled through the UN agencies. For donors, they feel more secure, as this, for them, is the only avenue that they can channel this amount of money through. And even when donor governments know that the UN agencies cannot be held accountable, even when they are not satisfied with their performance, they will not change anything. This is the safer option, in front of the taxpayers, it’s like a protection mechanism, somehow, for the donor governments.

Even when donor governments do make promises, they never hold themselves accountable towards these promises. For example, in one study in 2016, on humanitarian funding flow to Syrian local humanitarian organisations, between partnership and sub-contracting, we analysed the data from 2014, and we found out that 75% of the implementation of the work was done by the Syrian organisations. However, they were only getting less than 1% from the direct fund. We can see this contrast, which is not only discrepancy but, as many say, sadly also hypocrisy.

One recent report on the grand bargain in 2016 that promotes localisation shows that those who signed the grand bargain are not committing to what they said.
This again takes us back to the politics of aid, because for example in Syria more than 50% of the humanitarian fund is channelled through the UN agencies. Hence, it is always about, who makes the decisions in the UN, or the international humanitarian system: Who makes the decisions? Who implements those decisions? And who pays for those decisions? So, just to have a little bit of background about the bigger picture.

Now, back to Syria, and I would refer to this old co-authored study, where we linked between humanitarianism, state sovereignty, and regime authoritarian maintenance. This is not new of course, however we tried to analyse the data, and tried to see how much is going from the UN agencies and from the donor governments, to the regime cronies, through procurement contracts and other kinds of contracts. There are companies and individuals who are under EU sanctions, yet they are receiving money from UN agencies. This was resource mobilisation for the regime to sustain itself. And this is also a big question for the UN agencies and for the donor governments, whether they are on the side of people they want to serve, or they care more about their presence in the country. Many reports show that the UN operating in Damascus did actually discredit all the humanitarian principles, and that the humanitarian aid helped the regime to survive for many years.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much. That was very interesting. It would be actually also interesting to hear from Salama about this. Probably there are a lot of similarities between the contexts of humanitarian war and humanitarian aid between Syria and Yemen. If you can elaborate more about the challenges that are faced by local organisations that are based in Yemen, and in front of INGO and UN, and also, in terms of accountability, and what are the requirements, huge requirements, from small and local NGOs, while as we are hearing, the big agencies are just let go on with whatever they do.

Salama Mohammed Mubarak:
First thank you for the invitation, it has been a very informative morning for me. And as these colleages were speaking, I was like, yes, yes, yes, because almost everything is duplicated, it’s exactly the same thing. If I just remove the word Syria and add Yemen, the sentences can still stay the same, with a little bit of difference in the particulars, because the humanitarian sector is still treating the countries receiving the aid as people we are giving charity to, and I think it’s that understanding between us doing conferences and talking about grand bargains and commitments, and then going back into hearing, ‘I’m giving you this, you should be happy with it, and you should not question me.’

And I think that is wha is repeated from one country to another, with different details. Just maybe one thing to highlight about Yemen, is that when we speak about Yemen, we speak about two regimes, and not two powers, because we have two ministries of health, two ministries of planning, two ministries of whatever, you name it. And we have two completely parallel governments.

And what’s happening, and what I’ve been hearing so far about Syria, is duplicated in two ways, if you speak about it in the Yemen context. So, talking about local NGO and involving them, I was part of the accountability training, and we rolled out this amazing training to all the partners, saying this is our commitment going forward. And that was in 2016, and the clusters, and the partners, and the UN, and the NGOs, they all wrote these amazing statements, saying this is what we’re going to do in Yemen. But did that move from being a tokenistic tick-a-box approach, to actually happening? It didn’t.

So, we all have this amazing report. If you open any website by any agency operating in Yemen, you will read amazing stories. But what is happening on the ground, that is a very different approach.

And the fact that in the same country, we’re speaking about donors at meetings in Geneva talking about four billion dollars and more for Yemen, and in the same news report, you will find another sentence saying, ten million people might be at risk of famine, or might die of hunger between now and the end of the year. And being someone, as a Yemeni citizen, reading both, you feel your head spinning. Because it’s not that you’re accusing everyone getting the money of being corrupt, it’s just saying, if people are still dying of cholera, still dying of famine, we still don’t have money, we still don’t have water, we still have all these issues—can you please tell me, where this money is going?

And, so far, that has been a call from local NGOs, and we hear it more and more. Even from the public. There was a campaign that started recently in Arabic, it was a hashtag saying ‘where’s the money.’ Simply, just tell us, where is the money. And, the only response we heard from the UN was another hashtag saying ‘check out our results.’ And ‘check out our results’ was pictures of them feeding babies, and giving water, but that’s not what we want, we want a level deeper, of you telling us exactly.

It might be actually used, I’m not saying that it’s all going in corruption. It might have been actually used, but it’s just that superiority of still the humanitarian agencies seeing the people receiving aid as the last people to be accountable towards.

If we talk about accountability towards donors, that is happening, because if it is not happening, the money is not going to flow, so that is happening. But with the local NGOs, we’re still treating them as contractors. Here’s your money, do this. Don’t ask us. I’ve been talking and I’ve been working a lot with local NGOs that don’t even know from the agencies they are implementing for, what’s happening with the rest of the fund? So, if the fund was ten million and I’m given five thousand, and if I go back and ask, okay, this is my part, I’ll do it, but what’s happening to the rest? Not even in closed rooms, these questions are not answered. I was sitting in a meeting with local NGOs and a UN official in Yemen in 2017, and the local NGOs asked, okay, when they knew that this UN official was coming, okay, you’re the person who’s signed the grand bargain, you’re the person to ask. And they asked clearly, what is happening and how come this is not channelled more through us? So simply he said, ‘oh yeah, man, it’s difficult… access issues… it’s complicated… corruption… we cannot do it.’ And that cannot be the answer, to brush it off. And we cannot continue taking that as an answer.

If we take an example of the humanitarian needs overview, and you mentioned that in your talk, if you read the document it talks about consultations. I was in those consultations, and how that happened was that you would go sit in a room with different clusters, two or three hundred people, and you were given a set of indicators. If you’re asked to choose between an apple and an orange, you’re not choosing a fruit, you’re choosing between two options that are given to you. And that is how those consultations went.

It’s like okay, this is the WHO health indicators, this is the food indicators, this is the whatever indicators. And when people came back in those meetings saying, you know what, we think in the health sector, maybe we shouldn’t do this, maybe we can do that, we think—they went no, no, no. This is the list of things, and if you want to add to it, add it under comments. And I’ve been in the room, on the other side, with my UN hat on, and I’ve seen where those comments go. So, it’s having those, that parallel non-balance of power between both.

And maybe just the last thing that I will touch on is that the risks, if we continue going the way we are, I think the humanitarian agencies do not understand that this will lead to them losing the access that they have now. They are complaining now about lack of access, but if you continue pushing away the people, they will be your problem. Your problem will no longer be the Houthi, or the government, or the Saudis, the problem will be that if you are coming with a truck to my village, giving to a number of people, and I don’t know how you selected them, when you selected them, why are they getting this assistance, then people might start pushing back on that. And that is what we are starting to see on a smaller scale. And maybe the other thing is that the main consequence for me, is that this is leading to a lack of understanding of what the need. We’re still operating in a context that ‘I’m telling you what you need, take it and say thank you.’ And that’s it.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you, so much, actually. Very helpful, and annoying at the same time. I think we’re going to open up for some questions. We have around ten minutes.

Brian Slocock:
As I understand it, with respect to Syria, one of the things that is hanging over all this, is the fact that the Security Council resolution authorising cross-border delivery of aid is coming up for renewal, and that the expectation is that Russia will block the renewal. I wondered if people could give some indication of what is the status of that, what the indications are, and how it should feature in campaigning?

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Are you talking about the UN resolution that was in 2014, about cross border, or?

Rouba Mhaissen:
It’s a scare that we have every year, about the renewal of this Security Council resolution, and Russia threatens to veto it. In the past years, we have done campaigns leading up to the moment of the vote. Thankfully it has been renewed in the previous years. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, Ibrahim?

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, 2265, the cross-border Security Council resolution is important, because it gives a legal basis. But, as we all know, international law is subject to interpretation, and those who interpret it are the states. If the political will is there, and we’ve drafted a legal memo that we’ve sent to donors, that even if it doesn’t get renewed, there is a legal argument if you want to adopt it, that allows you to continue aid across borders. Which was the case prior to 2014. Prior to the resolution there was humanitarian aid going in. So again, the issue is, even if it doesn’t get renewed, if the UK, which is a permanent member of the Security Council—so we’re lucky to be living in a country where that country has a seat—it can do so. So, yes, some of us might lobby for renewal, but others should work on the parallel track.

So, has it been renewed, or is it coming up?

It renews every year, so I think it’s September? December?

David Taylor:
I’m David Taylor from Labour Campaign for International Development. Thanks so much for having us here, and the great contributions you all made. I just wanted to bring up another aspect of aid and accountability, and see what your views of it were. I used to work for Oxfam, on the government relations team, and as a number of you are obviously probably aware, Oxfam made the decision, before I joined actually, to deliver aid within Syria. And as a consequence, didn’t speak out publicly during the conflict. And I know other NGOs made a similar decision.

There is something called Crisis Action, you might be aware of, a sort of coalition, I’ve seen them do fantastic work. My fear—and I can’t point to a specific example—my fear was that some of the NGOs decided, like Oxfam, to not to speak out publicly, were sort of holding Crisis Action back from being more vocal. And, actually it stems from seeing, certainly in Oxfam, the shift in position from the support of intervention in Kosovo, to actively lobbying for the Responsibility to Protect in 2005, to where they are now, where they are not really supportive of this kind of thing.

I think it may be okay to make that decision—well, maybe not, personally, I wouldn’t have done it—but if an NGO is goint to make a decision to deliver aid, they need to be able to differentiate, and not stop those who do want to speak out, and do want to put pressure on people, on the Security Council, or whoever, to take action to stop dictators in this way. I just wondered if that’s something that you’ve come across yourself, and if you had reflections on that? I may not be right, but my sense is that we’ve got to be able to support those who do want to speak out.

Ruairi Nolan:
Quickly, just one response. There were some groups, for example, Mercy Corps, who then did stop their operations in Damascus, because they insisted on having access elsewhere. They drew a red line, and stuck to that.

And so I think that’s what humanitarian agencies if they do operate there are facing is that, are they going to prioritise getting access and keeping their programmes going, or are they going to set red lines. I think the problem for humanitarian organisations is, there are so many of them, and they sort of compete, and trying to get them to act in a unified way is really, really difficult. If the UN can’t even act in a unified way, and draw red lines, then it’s hard to see how humanitarian organisations will. Although obviously, I would hope that they would, but that’s the challenge, with the way they compete.

I was just going to say, as well, the regime has lots of different ways to apply pressure. That can be at the top level of an organisation, at a political level, and then even down to the level of people delivering programmes through control over access to visas as well, so it’s not just that these decisions are taken at a leadership level, it’s sort of, multiple ways they can put pressure on.

I wanted to jump in, just to say that a lot of the time UN organisations, or other organisations, they tell local organisations don’t use the word revolution, use the word crisis. Now, they are banning the words forced return, or return, they want them to use durable solutions, thing like that. They want to completely depoliticise whatever work that they are doing. These organisations have all chosen to depoliticise. Even now, a lot of them are operating out of Damascus. Even in the durable solution platform that’s been created, the NRC, Oxfam, and others, they’re completely now saying that it’s absolutely safe for people to go back, that things are okay inside Syria. It’s because they want their staff to get visas, they want money to flow in.

And now even there’s an emergence of a new Syrian civil society that we’ve never see before. It’s the organisations that these organisations are going to partner with, because obviously, they can’t partner with organisations that have been vocal about human rights violations, or that have been political in one way or another.

The UNHCR doesn’t get to choose who their staff are going to be in Syria. I mean, their offices are almost an intelligence hub. It’s odd, a lot of like, I don’t know whose husband is employed, or whose cousin. It’s a lot of corruption going on.

The Syrian regime will not allow the Syrian civil society that we know to operate in its region. So we have to be pragmatic and understand that, okay then, we need to think of alternative ways. What do we do with twelve or sixteen million Syrians inside Syria? They need to access food, or water, they need to access sanitation, they need to access all of these services. The regime will not allow organisations that are vocal on human rights to operate in there. The UNHCR and NRC and Oxfam are operating, okay, how can we do alliances with people working in these organisations, that believe in the same things that we believe in? How can we, in practical terms, push the donor governments that are funding the UN, to tell them, can you show us transparency and how people are employed? Can you ensure that the funds are being shared based on means, not based on access, or based on where the regime choosing, so that the punished areas are not replicated?

And this is where sometimes I feel a lot of my activist friends are elitist in what they think accountability is. So everybody wants to work on impunity and war crimes—I’m not undermining these things! But don’t look at aid and development as just humanitarian, there’s also a huge justice element there. Who’s going to run for elections in fifteen years if everyone is illiterate? Who’s going be political in fifteen years if they don’t have a decent standard of living?

So we have to realise that aid is extremely politicised, but it’s also a matter of justice and accountability in that sense. We need also the human rights lawyers and activists to do that.

And—one last word, sorry—even though some of the people inside Syria, like Syrian civil society inside Syria, they didn’t take as much of the response we wanted them to take from the revolution, but today they are the only people allowed to work inside Syria, so how can we rebuild these bridges and build with them a collaboration as strategic partners, because we don’t have any more access inside Syria? How can we become a bit more pragmatic?

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you. I would just like to hear your comment, Kholoud, and close with it.

Kholoud Mansour:
I’ll respond to some of what has been said. And it’s true, for example in 2013, there were eight international organisations operating in Damascus, and they were all obliged to sign, and after in 2014 and 2015, the number increased a little bit, but then they were all obliged to sign something that they would not have any cross-border operations.

This is something again that takes us back to aid, state sovereignty, and authoritarian regime. Having previously worked for the UN in Syria, we need to understand the bigger picture prior to 2011. If you work with the UN, if you know the system from inside, if you work in Syria, if you are Syrian yourself, you would know that these patterns were in place even when Syria was dealing with the Iraqi refugees.

And again, this does not happen only in Syria, as you said, if you just replace the name of the country in conflict. For example in Afghanistan, the research says that between 40-60% of the fund actually goes back to donor countries, in procurement and consultancies. In some cases, up to 90%, and this is shocking.

And again, it’s Syria, it’s Yemen, it’s Sudan, and so forth. I don’t know when the UN or the international community would actually learn the lessons. We want to be speaking about transparency and accountability. There must be a restructuring for the whole international humanitarian system where you can track the funds: donor by donor, organisation by organisation, programme by programme, project by project, activity by activity—I don’t know how more we can narrow this down—just to see, how much is actually received by the end users. I don’t like to use the word beneficiaries. How much is received, and how to track, and by having this unified system, you can have the transparency, you can have accountability, you can actually learn from the lessons, and not to continue in the same vicious cycle, and the same mistakes.

Fatima Hashem Morales:
Thank you so much. We don’t want to hold you any longer.

Military accountability

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Accountability strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Dmytro Chupryna, Airwars; Jennifer Dathan, Action on Armed Violence; Dearbhla Minogue, Global Legal Action Network.

Facilitated by Eyad Hamid. Transcript by Zoë Ranson.

Image: Men wait by the side of the road for casual labour amongst the ruins of Raqqa. Photo by Amnesty International, from War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus reality, a joint report by Amnesty International and Airwars.

This session began with Eyad asking Jennifer Dathan of Action on Armed Violence to explain their work, and why they focus on explosive weapons in particular. Jennifer began with telling about AOAV’s study of global explosive violence data for the period 2011-2018. This study included data on 22,153 incidents in 119 countries or territories, with 309,044 total casualties including 133,732 people killed and 175,312 people injured.

Jennifer Dathan:
We recorded over 300,000 casualties in that period, and over three-quarters of these were civilians. And in terms of patterns of harm, we also found that when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, over 90% of those killed or injured are civilians. And that there’s this consistent pattern of harm. It shows that it is always predictable that when explosive weapons are used in these areas, the people harmed are civilians. And there’s this direct impact and also, unlike some other types of weapons, there’s also this indirect harm that stems from their use. So, there’s also the damage to infrastructure, schools, hospitals, power and water networks. And these reverberating consequences, can have lasting civilian harm for decades even.

We’ve done research in Sri Lanka and Lebanon, and obviously a lot of our research, recently has been focused on Syria, but in these other contexts where the war was maybe a decade or so ago, there’s still these impacts that are lasting even now. So I think that’s why our work focuses on this area, because it is not only this significant, immediate harm, but the consequences of it are very severe and lasting.

Eyad Hamid:
Dmytro, Airwars, your organisation, focuses on gathering and assessing local reporting of civilian casualties. How does it work, if you can explain that to us, and what is the aim of it? Are you seeking legal litigation at some point, or is there another aim?

Dmytro Chupryna:
Reflecting Jennifer’s words, the key challenge we face now, for the last decade, is that conflicts have changed, and now, civilians are those who suffer the most, while militaries have almost no harm on their side. Militaries can’t understand civilian harm, and also are not willing to be transparent and accountable for their actions, so Airwars is designed to challenge that narrative.

There are three levels to how Airwars can change that. At the first level, we gather evidence of civilian harm by monitoring all available sources on a hyper-local level, to understand what civilians are telling themselves, on social networks, on Facebook and Twitter, and through local media. Airwars preserves this data from being lost or deleted and carefully records all the civilian harm allegations. This work builds up our civilian casualty archive, which we effectively use towards seeking transparency and accountability.

On the second level, we challenge the systematic narrative across militaries of zero civilian harm from their actions. Our aim here is to ensure that proper structures within militaries are existing to understand civilian casualties, to monitor, to assess, to investigate, and to be transparent and accountable. So, gathering this expertise and gathering our work with the Coalition we know what kind of a system should be in place, and we want to establish it on a durable basis, on a permanent basis, putting the proper structure inside the militaries for them to be capable to do it from day one if a new conflict emerges.

And of course the third one is the policy level, so all our advocacy work is to do with that. Because militaries know they kill people—they kill innocent people, they know that, but there’s some point where they can’t admit it it. So all our broader civic advocacy work, with a large network of partners, aims to challenge that global narrative and contribute to broader protection of civilians. The process of lessons learned and changes on the policy level will prevent civilian harm in new conflicts.

And also it could lead to bigger things. We don’t work in the financial territory, but we hugely assist organisations who do, and so one of the aims is for the governments and militaries to not only admit harm, but also to provide some compensation or means of justice.

Eyad Hamid:
Dearbhla, your organisation has conducted a series of investigations with Bellingcat on airstrikes in Yemen. These build on experience with open source investigations done in Syria, Ukraine, and other places. Do you aim to use these in courts as proof in a legal application, or is it something else as well?

Dearbhla Minogue:
Yeah, the project that we’ve been doing with Bellingcat, we’re trying to bring together the open source investigative skills that Bellingcat have, with the kind of legal principles that might mean that ultimately, in future legal proceedings, the evidence that they uncover is admissible in court, or is given more weight, depending on the kind of proceedings that you’re talking about. And the way we do that is that my organisation doesn’t do the investigations, it’s Bellingcat, but we sort of work together and shape how it’s all done.

Bellingcat have been building on the same sort of techniques that people like Syrian Archive have been doing for a number of years now. They make sure they also archive everything, and I think one of the biggest things that Bellingcat does, is that they drill down into the detail of the actual digital content that they find.

So, coming back to what was said earlier on, about how there is quite often this incredibly overwhelming flood of information, when you want to look online and see what’s happened, if there’s been an incident report of an air strike. Bellingcat have started to follow this quite replicable methodology, which tracks everything they’re doing online, shows how they arrived at certain pieces of evidence—let’s call it evidence, because we’re hoping at some point it could be—and then they perform verification on that content. So if somebody’s started filming after an air strike, has landed, they perform a series of verification tasks on it. And the main one usually being geolocation, so, they’ll compare it with other landmarks and satellite imagery to figure out where it was filmed.

They’ll also try and figure out, quite often, from shadows and from other reference points, you can find out exactly when it was filmed. And you can also find out whether or not it’s appeared online before, so whether it’s been repurposed, essentially. All of these go into whether it’s genuine, authentic, and reliable as a source of information about an air strike.

So, that’s the main verification that takes place. And also in terms of helping to say whether or not a given air strike violated international law, it can add quite a lot, because the Bellingcat investigations do collate reports on civilian harm, but it’s quite hard to verify that information using open sources, so they’ll focus in particular on things like, what did the target look like from above? Once you’ve found the geo-coordinates, you can look on satellite imagery. And, sometimes, when these investigations are finished, you can see that actually a particular market was very clearly a market from above, because you can see all the stalls. So with things like that you can talk about not only was there civilian harm, but the military responsible should have known that it was going to cause a lot of civilian harm, or you could even say they did know.

And then another area, that actually comes down to the use of wide area explosive weapons, is the fact that once you know what the site looks like, a lot of the time, using the open source information, you can figure out how far the damage extended into the surrounding streets, and you can also then compare that with what you would probably anticipate, knowing the blast area of these bombs. So, knowing that militaries are required to conduct collateral damage estimates, and also knowing the kinds of bombs that they favour, you can say a bit more about what could have been predicted from a certain air strike, even if you can say there was a military target.

There’s another thing, if I’ve got time? One issue is being able to use the open source information to contradict what the responsible authorities are saying. So, a lot of the time with the Yemen air strikes, the authorities will say either that there was a legitimate military target, so therefore the strike was lawful, or quite commonly they’ll say that there was no air strike, it must have been some other kind of explosion, and, therefore, they’ve got nothing to do with it. And quite often the open source information will actually enable you to say this definitely was an air strike, because you either have a very obvious crater, or you have a very obvious type of structural damage to a building, that a weapons expert can then come and say, that couldn’t have been caused by shelling, or an explosion of another kind. So it’s quite good for that as well.

Eyad Hamid:
Thank you. I’m going to follow up with three more questions, if you don’t mind. Jennifer, when you have several states in a coalition, say with the western Coalition in Syria as an example, it seems even harder to pin responsibility for actions on particular governments, or individuals. Can you say something about the problem in that, and how it can be tackled?

Jennifer Dathan:
We’re seeing more coalitions, and I guess it benefits them in the sense that they share resources, share expertise, but we are also finding that it decreases transparency in terms of addressing civilian casualties, because it’s more difficult to assess, in the sense that not only do they have different methods, rules of engagement, and ways of assessing civilian casualties, there’s also this ability to hide in the crowd. States aren’t likely to come forward, and say who caused what civilian casualties and damage.

So in terms of our work, we don’t always necessarily focus our advocacy on addressing individual states, but we try and take that bigger picture in, and we know that civilian casualties are being caused by the Coalition, and then we can also take that even bigger step back and say that we know that civilian casualties are highly likely from the airstrikes that are occurring by the Coalition, because of the areas they are being used in, and the weapons that are being used.

So our work mainly focuses on that big step back, so we are part of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, and through this really pushing for political commitment to address civilian harm, through preventing the use of explosive weapons with wide area impact in populated areas. So through that strand, AOAV tries to look at that wide picture, but AOAV also work with states directly as well to address the issues with transparency, similar to Airwars, for example we are engaging with the MoD to try and get a civilian casualty monitor similar to the one in the United States, so I think it’s important to address and tackle this through multiple strands.

Eyad Hamid:
Back to you Dearbhla. Is the flipside of dealing with coalitions, that it can increase the number of possible approaches or targets for strategic litigation? As in the recent legal case against the UK arms exports to Saudi?

Dearbhla Minogue:
Yeah, I think so, I mean you obviously have the case where in any given airstrike, you can’t necessarily know which state was responsible, where a couple of members of the [Saudi-led] coalition have jets flying and launching air strikes, but then equally because of the way the legal framework is here in the UK, and I think it’s similar in other European states, because it’s all based on the same common EU position, the Government is not allowed to grant a licence a weapons sale, where there’s a clear risk it might be used in a serious violation of international law. So, it kind of puts the onus on the government to say, if somebody brings a challenge, as was done in the recent case, saying these weapons that you’re selling, while the coalition is not transparent and doesn’t tell you which nation state is responsible for each strike, the Government is responsible for the risk assessment, and so it’s up to them to say whether they know enough about which states are carrying out which air strikes, and if they don’t think there’s a clear risk, then why not? If there were multiple states carrying out those air strikes, they would need to break it down and explain it. So the fact that there is a coalition, the way the law is written, I think means that it’s actually harder to hide behind that than they might want.

Eyad Hamid:
Dmytro, do you and your colleagues at Airwars have a different expectation of what might be achieved, when you’re reporting say on Russian airstrikes in Syria compared to [US-led] Coalition airstrikes? Do you see a relationship in how Russia responds and how the Coalition responds? Are there similarities, or differences for that matter?

Dmytro Chupryna:
That’s a good question. Despite our success with the Coalition in admitting more than 1,300 deaths from their airstrikes, and the majority of these assessments referred to Airwars data, we haven’t seen the same level of transparency and accountability form other belligerents. We have good examples, like Australians admitting their civilian harm, but the UK still accepts only one civilian death from thousands of airstrikes on Raqqa and Airwars report ‘Credibility Gap’ shows clear evidence on why these claims are not relevant. The same with Belgians, with Dutch, with France. The Foreign Policy investigation two years ago showed the evidence of their responsibility for civilian harm from European belligerents, but they are still declining to release the data based on intelligence and security issues.

It also gets to a very strange situation, where they, for example the Dutch military—sorry for going into details, but it’s very clear example—the Dutch military say, ‘we can’t publish information on our air strike, because of security reasons, for our pilots.’ And the next day, on Dutch television, there is a documentary where the pilots sits in the studio, and say, ‘oh I dropped bombs on Raqqa.’

And this is really for political reasons, but we will do this work, our aim is to unlock all these relationships.

Regarding Russia, Airwars keeps monitoring Russian campaign in Syria but there’s no dialogue, they are not ready to work with us. And we can’t see that the same kind of work that we do with the Coalition will lead to a discussion with Russia, because it’s really different.

And the tactics they do are also different. So, from the patterns of the civilian harm from airstrikes, we can see that the Russians are really responsive to the political side, ceasefires, to some political targets, Assad government targets. While the Coalition mostly have their own military targets and so the civilian harm pattern is like—we use this bulldozer image—they are just pushing away.

So, it’s a difference, and our data analysis could bring a lot of insight for other post conflict war or political analysis. We are not experts in that particular area. But we also open for anyone who is interested to do this kind of research, to support and assist, because we can do a lot, having the evidence, having the data, reflecting all these investigations.

Each incident is an investigation, it’s based on overlapping geolocation, also media reporting, official reports as well. And each case on our website is open, it’s not closed. If we receive more information, for example from our recent project with Amnesty on Raqqa, so we provided assistance on data for particular events, Donatella [Donatella Rovera of Amnesty] did a lot of investigations on the ground, and then we updated our database based on this data, so it’s ongoing, and building, and open, and this is the basis for a lot of work, years ahead.

Eyad Hamid:
Thank you. We’re going to have a few rounds of questions.

Thank you so much. My question is about—you’ve mentioned a lot about the accountability for casualties caused by the airstrikes—but is there anything that is being done regarding disappeared people, detainees, especially here, I’m talking about under ISIS. Since, there is this kind of accountability discussed for the Coalition, and here maybe it is about the Coalition and also the Syrian Democratic Forces, so, is there anything that has been done regarding that issue?

Dmytro Chupryna:
We are quite niche organisation and only capture the data which is related to airstrikes and civilian casualties, and unfortunately we don’t track this information.

Dearbhla Minogue:
I don’t have an answer. Maybe somebody else will?

I’m a British trained lawyer, and I used to be a soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army, and I fled. I have a question about leveraging the data that you have, and also the laws in the UK that stops these transactions from happening. What are the implications, the punitive measures, that if there was a breach of that law, what can you do in order to punish the party? What is embedded in the law itself, if this happens, then this is the punitive measure? And have you tried to build a lobby in order to get that more enforced in your favour?

Dearbhla Minogue:
In the terms of the UK law, are you talking about the criminal law?

I don’t know. The statutary instrument that you rely on in order to build the litigation case, there should be in the law itself that if so-and-so happened, then here are the punitive measures accordingly.

Dearbhla Minogue:
I can only talk about the domestic framework in so far as it applies to Yemen, because that’s what I work on. But, it’s general principles, so here we have the International Criminal Court Act, which makes it a crime for UK nationals or residents to commit what would be a violation of the Rome Statute, of the International Criminal Court, so genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. And so, if anybody who is living here, or a national of here commits a crime, no matter where it happens, they can be prosecuted here.

And it also applies to secondary liability, so aiding and abetting a principle perpetrator of one of those crimes. So in that situation, the principle perpetrator doesn’t have to be a UK national or a resident, so somebody who’s a resident here could, for example, supply a weapon to somebody who has another nationality, and if they know that weapon is going to be used to commit a war crime, then they could be liable under criminal law, and prosecuted as if they’d committed it themselves.

And then we also have the Geneva Conventions Act as well, which makes it a crime to commit a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, which covers a lot of the same kinds of crimes, in particular killing civilians. And that doesn’t have a geographical restriction. Anybody could pass through the UK and be prosecuted under that framework.

But, let’s say you’ve found someone, you have all the data to corroborate that, and if he was found guilty, what are the repercussions then? How would you guarantee—is it embedded in the law that this person will guaranteed not walk free, or, is the law very vague about that?

Dearbhla Minogue:
I think the sentencing guidelines are similar to if you committed a murder. It’s probably life imprisonment, if you commit a war crime. I actually don’t know for certain, but yeah, it’s considered to be on a par.

Dmytro Chupryna:
It depends from country to country. We work internationally. There’s a whole set of organisations working in that area, and we co-operate with them, for example, ECCHR in Germany, Reprieve here in the UK. We can assist with our data, but this work is not a part of our expertise. We even helped in the Australian case which I mentioned. They confirmed in January, so now we are assisting a law firm in Australia, which is trying to pursue some compensation from the Australian government on behalf of the family.

In the US, they gained support in pursuing money from the Saudi government for the 9/11 attacks, so the flipside of that coin also should be applicable, where there should be an entity here supporting you guys, backed by the government, or backed by MPs, in order to pursue an action. And, I’m wondering if you guys pursued any litigation?

Dmytro Chupryna:
For us, it’s not our core competence. We are an open source monitoring organisation. You can’t put everything in one. It’s just a whole set of organisations who could round out this discussion, and there is a lot of things happening in the UK. There was a Parliament hearing in human rights, with an all-party group on human rights, on IHL procedures, civilian harm, and the protection of civilians. So, there is a discussion and if you need it, I can refer you to some people to ask that.

With the recent decision in court, and the issue then of the UK government exporting arms, is that going to be a vehicle to try and use Airwars data to try and challenge other decisions in the UK on other conflicts in therms of the military? Has that opened the door to that kind of litigation, that kind of action? And does that circumnavigate potential issues of international responsibility, as well as how political international law can be? Is there sort of a way forwards?

Dearbhla Minogue:
I think it’s definitely opened the door to a lot more challenges, because before the court of appeal decision, the government had got away with saying, ‘in order to assess this future risk question, we just need to look at all the information in the round, but it’s ultimately up to us as to how we make the decision.’ So they were talking about all sorts of assurances that they were getting from Saudi Arabia, you know, public statements that were being made by Saudi Arabia, and they were looking at past incidents, but they were just saying, ‘oh we don’t really have enough information, and we don’t really think that any of this establishes a clear risk.’ And what the Court of Appeal said was that it’s completely irrational to say you can assess future risk, without actually looking at individual past incidents, and saying whether they violated international law.

So now, I think it would be a lot easier for claimants to actually push the Government to make the call on whether or not a past incident had violated international law, which in itself would be an incredibly valuable advocacy tool. Because if they were to say, ‘okay we’ve looked at it now, and we think that these five incidents in the past were serious violations of international law, I mean, there’s so much advocacy you can do around that. Because even if the UK then continues to supply weapons, you can ask why are they doing that when they themselves have had to admit that previous incidents have been violations. And I also just think it makes it a lot more difficult to justify continuing to sell weapons, if you’ve already identified previous violations. So I think it will definitely lead to more challenges to weapons sales to other countries.

Do you think it could be used outside of that context, not just weapons sales, but also other actions, for example, humanitarian aid, or financing? In terms of okay, we’re putting money into this country, so we need to be more transparent about where that money is actually going? Or is that a step too far?

Dearbhla Minogue:
I think that the arms trade is a very specific legal framework, that comes down through the arms trade treaty, and I’m not an expert on the aid and assistance area. I guess if you extrapolate the public law principle from the CAAT case to other risk assessments, then it probably would lead to more claims. Because you could say, you could apply the same principle to your assessment of future risk of the funds being used to facilitate violations of international law. So, thinking about it just on the spot, I think maybe so, yeah.

Jonathan Brown:
There’s been a long-running campaign by Syria Solidarity UK and other organisations, to challenge or to request the government to publish details on airstrikes by other countries, on which countries and which pilots and which aircraft were involved in conducting airstrikes, with the aim of establishing evidence that could theoretically be used in future in a war crimes trial.

I know Bellingcat has recently produced investigations where they’ve named individual Russian military commanders that were involved in Ukraine with the shooting down of the aircraft. So, it’s sort of two related questions. One is why is the UK government not willing, and has remained unwilling to do this, even to countries it is not on very friendly terms with, and given the UK government’s unwillingness to do it, through open source intelligence, are any other organisations able to do it themselves?  Even if it wouldn’t have quite the same weight as coming from a government? Are other organisations able to name specific pilots?

Dmytro Chupryna:
For the pilots, we don’t conduct these type of investigations, but for each incident we have a suspected belligerent, and we also, based on the data we receive from the Coalition, from all the official reports, we can by this kind of small investigations we can say, because when we know the campaign in official reports say that they bombed in that area, and using the geolocation, we can suspect the belligerent. And then as I said, cases are updated and this can be confirmed.

For particular pilots, that’s not necessarily our territory of the war. But I think it’s possible of course to do everything now with the data. The last thing I will say because of the reasons you asked the first question. Our director Chris Woods had an oral evidence session in the Defence Select Committee in Parliament, in January, and one of them, he said reflecting on his enquiry on transparency and accountability, one of them in the room said, we don’t want it to distract our citizens that we’re killing innocent civilians in other countries.

So, that’s a kind of response we have at the moment. We hope that we can establish a dialogue, and change the narrative, and the importance of that is also to have a broader and more coordinated partner network. And also, on that level, we need to involve NATO. And a lot of international UN missions, a lot of international missions could put influence on particular governments requesting to publish this data.

As the main proposal that we use is that the Coalition publish the data of airstrikes—on what particular and precise date and location—we have no case from several years of this engagement, no case when it affected personally the security of a particular pilot, or a particularly military, so they can’t hide behind that, there’s no reason for them not to publish or not to be transparent. There’s no reason.

Eyad Hamid:
Any other questions?

I have one, actually. I was going to ask can you point to any particular reasons why the Australian government has been more transparent than any other members the Coalition?

Dmytro Chupryna:
I think it’s in one case they just followed the recommendation from the US lead partner. Another point, I think it also depends on the particular domestic legislation. Regarding the acknowledged Australian airstrike, from the very first day, we had it in our database, but it took Australians several years to admit it. So the problem is why militaries are not doing proper investigations, and not reaching affected families, as it is quite a straightforward process. We have more than five thousand victim names, photos, event details, and in this case we reached the family within half an hour after the Australians admitted it.

Eyad Hamid:
I’ll ask a question for all of you, if you don’t mind. And, maybe we can finish with this one. It’s more about the future. You mentioned Brexit. How do you see the work of your organisations being affected by the UK leaving the European Union? It may be very speculative but I would like to hear your thoughts on that. Is it very pessimistic, or do you see it like some hope in pushing the UK government in doing something different?

Dmytro Chupryna:
I think Brexit is not a problem. The problem is the permanent narrative with society and its interest in civilian harm, that we’re killing innocent people somewhere. The same question we have regarding the media, and now Airwars is doing a study on the US media coverage of civilian harm in the war against ISIS, on why US media were so poor in reporting civilian harm, why with these thousands of deaths, just no-one heard about that, and trying to understand how we can improve on the reporting.
The same challenge we have also working with European media. It leads to lack of transparency and accountability, so we need more voices raised on civilian harm issues. Brexit will not really affect that, it’s more about civil society changing the narrative, and the media, as well.

Dearbhla Minogue:
I actually really agree with that, and I can’t fathom why people don’t care about this kind of civilian harm. I don’t know if I will ever understand it. And also, quite a lot of people have said, you know, why did everybody suddenly care about the air war in Yemen when Jamal Khashoggi was murdered? Because he didn’t have anything to do with Yemen, and obviously people were saying, this is terrible, this is such an awful thing to happen to this man, but what’s this got to do Yemen? Yet suddenly, for some reason people cared so much more about that. And then, by association, they were suddenly very angry with Saudi Arabia. But anyway, that just made me think of that.

In terms of Brexit, for me, I’m a little bit worried about what the UK will do with its arms trade legislation. Because, the current standards are derived from the EU common position, and so there might be an opportunity for them to water them down further, if we leave.

Jennifer Dathan:
I agree, but also, I’d add that as this Brexit debate has fuelled nationalism, critiquing military becomes harder, and is seen as that you can’t be critical of the state, because you’ve just got to be supportive of the national effort and critique of such efforts, including highlighting civilian harm from such airstrikes is seen as unpatriotic. And so I wonder if that will then make the narrative harder to dismantle, so we can progress and increase transparency? I worry that it will make it harder.