Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with war crimes investigator Bill Wiley, founder of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, on holding the Syrian regime accountable for its atrocities.
The 2011 Syrian uprising started partly as a response to government torture. The beating and arrest of a group of schoolchildren for writing anti-government graffiti in the city of Daraa triggered protests and regime crackdowns across the Middle Eastern country, which descended into the current civil war. Five years on, state-sanctioned torture, imprisonment and killings remain constant.
As international efforts continue to try and stop the conflict, some organizations are examining how to hold dictator Bashar Assad's regime and other belligerents accountable for their crimes. The Western government-funded Commission for International Justice and Accountability started with that aim. The private organization builds case files against Syrian officials for international prosecution, helps domestic authorities take action against war criminals who have left the conflict and has created a network of investigators within the country to find evidence.
The CIJA has secured over 600,000 documents from the Syrian regime through secretly transporting papers out of the country, a recent New Yorker profile of the group revealed. They evidence implicates high-level regime officials in violations of international law, and the CIJA's legal brief connects Assad and his administration to the systematic murder and abuse of Syrian citizens.
The WorldPost talked with the group's founder, veteran war crimes investigator Bill Wiley, on what makes the CIJA different, his personal opinions on the state of international justice and the work of holding war criminals accountable.
Why did the CIJA need to be created, as opposed to letting governmental or intergovernmental organizations handle this kind of task?
There’s a role for the CIJA for a couple reasons. The first is that international criminal investigations undertaken through public authorities -- international courts and tribunals -- have become very, very expensive. For example, the International Criminal Court's investigations division -- just the investigations division, not the office of the prosecutor as a whole -- spent 310 million Euros between its start in 2003 and the end of 2015. In that time, it built just a handful of cases encompassing 17 accused -- most of whom haven’t gone to trial.
“To save the system, we need to find a way to move quickly and at a fraction of the price”
The second problem is that international criminal investigations have become very, very slow. I would argue the system is in crisis to the extent that there’s conflict-affected societies that are starting to turn away from international criminal justice as not a realistic justice option.
To save the system, we need to find a way to move quickly and at a fraction of the price without any diminution of the quality of the case files and the evidence. The CIJA is meant to fill that gap. It’s ultimately about very low cost and very high quality, coupled with relative speed and all of this made possible by an ability to take on physical risks that public institutions can’t be expected to adopt.
There are many open source photos and videos and accounts that come out of Syria, but what makes something usable evidence for a war crimes trial?
There are two challenges. One is authentication and the other is admissibility. They’re quite distinct problems. Admissibility is rarely an issue in international proceedings because there are no juries, and essentially the judges will accept everything. They may discount it later, but they’ll decide how much weight they give to a thing.
Authentication can be a very challenging issue when you’re dealing with material from open sources -- this social media output. What we try to apply in such cases, if there’s something there that we think is useful as potential evidence, is that we need to authenticate it. What other information do we have that corroborates that piece of social media? Do we have witness testimony? Do we have documentation like in the case of the Syrian regime cases?
Most of our resources, around 80 percent, goes into establishing linkages. The first step in doing that, and most of the work, is rebuilding the command and control and communication [structures] of the entities that we’re looking at. As odd as it may seem, we don’t start with crimes, and we certainly don’t start with suspects.
How does the CIJA deal with the ethical issue of requiring cooperation from forces that may themselves be committing crimes in the conflict?
We were always clear with donors that we were attempting to solicit funds from -- we’re talking Western states and the European Union -- that to build cases to a criminal evidentiary standard we would need to entreat individuals and groups that anyone in their right mind would find distasteful.
This approach to criminal case building is very typical internationally and domestically. Domestically, the closest parallels are a transnational crime investigation or an organized crime investigation, as you’d call it in the United States. To get at the higher-level perpetrators, you’re dealing with other men within the organization who themselves have also perpetrated criminal offenses, but you’re going up that chain to establish linkages to higher level perpetrators.
Internationally, it’s the same methodology. The first form of evidence that you want is always documentation generated by the perpetrating institutions. The second most important source of evidence in these cases is insider witnesses. Because they’re insiders or former insiders, they’ve been part of the institutions that are perpetrating offenses, and there’s a high likelihood that many of these individuals to some degree have participated in offenses.
A victim witness -- there’s rare exceptions -- is not really of much use in helping you rebuild structures because they weren’t inside the institutions, they were merely victims of the institutions.
It was reported that you have around 600,000 pages of evidence, and possibly another half a million in Syria. At what point is this particular mission complete and when does the risk of evidence collecting outweigh the benefit in building the case?
We collect documentary evidence with an eye to three ends. One, is to build the international cases. Secondly, to support domestic processes -- one of the things that we support domestically aside from international prosecutions is immigration screening mechanisms. We digitize all the materials and we have about 20 personnel extract Syrian regime officials’ names manually from the digitized materials. Those names are put into a standalone database, which is available to national immigration screening authorities in the West.
“There’s an argument that as long as no one is going to get killed or hurt doing it to keep drawing this information”
Right now, there must be an excess of 800,000 names in the database, and we are only about a third of the way through the 600,000 pages that we have extracted from Syria. There’s an argument that as long as no one is going to get killed or hurt doing it, to keep drawing this information. Even if a decision was made by us and our donors that there’s no need to built additional international cases, that support to domestic authorities is so important. We get one or two requests every week from European and North American authorities for assistance with prosecutions or immigration issues.
The third area is that this stuff is an invaluable resource for the mid and long term as a transitional justice tool. Whatever archive we assemble will be invaluable in informing non-criminal justice processes, such as truth and reconciliation commissions. Even though they’re not criminal justice, they need to be built on evidence.
What makes Syria unique from the other war crimes cases that you’ve investigated?
I haven’t been engaged in a conflict of this magnitude in my career, and I’ve been involved in a number of wars. It’s a very multifaceted conflict that doesn’t fall evenly into two sides. The engagement of international actors is quite open now, and elements of it are an international conflict.
It’s extremely difficult not only politically, but also operationally. The convoluted nature makes it very hard to collect evidence -- especially to move documentation, because of the fluidity of the conflict lines. While we don’t choose sides, obviously we work with certain armed actors, and they’re often times fighting alongside groups that are hostile to what we’re trying to do, and to western conceptions of justice.
“Justice for core international crimes in Syria is coming, and it’s coming a lot sooner than I think most people maybe realize.”
It’s easily the toughest conflict within which I’ve worked, and I’ve worked in Iraq in the tribunal in Baghdad from 2006-2008. Working in that environment was bad enough, but this is worse.
Do you have any final thoughts about the process of investigating war crimes in Syria?
That justice for core international crimes in Syria is coming, and it’s coming a lot sooner than I think most people maybe realize.
What’s going to be unique in this situation is that unlike in the past, once jurisdiction is passed to a body like the ICC, the trials will start quite quickly on the back of the work we’ve done. There isn’t going to be that lag time that we’ve seen, there’s no need for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.