At Great Risk, Group Gathers Evidence Of War Crimes In Syria
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
William Wiley has made a career out of international criminal law, working on cases in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq. He now oversees a nonprofit called the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability (SCJA).
The group's men and women are charged with collecting evidence of atrocities in the Syrian war, evidence they hope will be used to prosecute war crimes carried out by both sides.
"There's no international body with jurisdiction over the crimes being perpetrated in Syria at the current time," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The one advantage we have is that we can operate in the midst of the conflict, which a public body couldn't really do, for the simple reason that we have a much higher level of risk tolerance."
The SCJA uses different methods to suss out regime offenses and armed opposition offenses. At the regime level, "we're interested in quite high-level offenders," he says, "because criminal justice is a highly symbolic exercise."
They look for documentation and try to reconstruct chains of command to determine who's responsible. "We've removed about 300,000 pages from Syria at this point."
Moving paper around a war zone is difficult. "We acquire it, generally, in large collections ... through alliances with certain military groups on the opposition side," he says. Those groups capture a government facility, and then the SCJA goes in and secures the documentation.
It's dangerous work, and the SCJA has suffered losses. "Some of the men have been wounded, and one was wounded and captured. We believe he's dead," Wiley says. Still more SCJA workers have been captured, both by the regime and radical Islamists.
Wiley is closely watching the peace talks in the Geneva, where the idea of clemency for President Bashar Assad has been floated. "It would be very frustrating for perhaps all of our Syrian colleagues," he says.
But the SCJA's work won't go to waste. "We're also collecting with the idea that our database can be used to inform a broader truth-seeking, truth-telling process," something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. "All is not lost if there's no criminal prosecutions. Criminal prosecutions are a very, very small ... high profile part ... of the broader transitional justice process."
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WILLIAM WILEY: It's a very committed group. It's very high-risk. I don't want to get all emotional, but certainly the courage of these men and women is to be applauded. There's no question about it.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of William Wiley. The men and women he's talking about work for his nonprofit group, the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability. They're collecting evidence of atrocities, evidence they hope will be used to prosecute war crimes. Wiley has broad experience in international crime. He worked in Iraq and Rwanda, also Yugoslavia. He believes he has evidence that war crimes have been committed by both sides in Syria. Wiley hopes to build a case that will allow Syria to mend itself when the war is over. And he and his team are collecting the evidence while war is raging on. William Wiley is our Sunday Conversation.
WILEY: There's no international body with jurisdiction over the crimes being perpetrated in Syria at the current time. So, we, if you will, took it upon ourselves to set something up. And the one advantage we have is that we can operate in the midst of the conflict, which a public body couldn't really do for the simple reason that we have much higher level of risk tolerance.
MARTIN: It is worth underscoring that you are collecting evidence not only against the regime but also the opposition. Can you try to give us a sense of how you go about doing this work? How do you collect evidence? Are people you work with inside Syria, are they infiltrating these groups?
WILEY: There's a different methodology for regime offenses as opposed to armed opposition offenses. So, if we speak about regime offenses, the starting point is that we're interested in quite high-level offenders, because criminal justice is a highly symbolic exercise. Criminality is so widespread. So, we're interested in those who are most responsible for the offenses.
MARTIN: And you're looking for documentation, things that can hold up in a court of law?
WILEY: Exactly. We spend perhaps 10 percent of our time trying to look at individual acts of, let's say, murder or torture. And the reason for that is because the individuals who are ultimately going to be of interest to us are invariably several steps removed through chains of command from the crime scenes. So, 90 percent of our work involves rebuilding command control and communication structures of, let's say, an intelligence service or a particular military organization, because you understand how those groups work and then who runs them. And so the key is, in fact, documentation. And we've removed about 300,000 pages from Syria to this point.
MARTIN: You say so much of what you do relies on the documentation. Do you rely on defectors to hand those over to you? How do you get your hands on those documents?
WILEY: One of the things that one has to keep in mind is paper is very heavy or it feels very heavy when you're moving it around a war zone. So, just logistically it's hard to move this stuff. We acquire it generally in large collections, if you will, in the field through alliances with certain military groups on the opposition side. And essentially what'll happen is they'll capture a government facility and then our guys will go in and secure the documentation. We have quite a bit of material still inside Syria. We're getting new material all the time. Our problem is moving it. Acquiring it is generally not a problem.
MARTIN: So, obviously, this is dangerous work.
WILEY: Yeah. We've had some of the men that have been wounded. And one was wounded and captured. We believe he's dead. And we've had some people captured as well both by the regime and others have been captured by radical Islamists.
MARTIN: How do you recruit people to do this?
WILEY: Everyone's a volunteer, of course. And, as you can imagine, there's no advert in the Syria Daily Gleaner or anything. It's all done by word-of-mouth because trust is at a premium in Syria.
MARTIN: What's the end goal here, William? I mean, what's the ideal jurisdiction for you to present this evidence in?
WILEY: That would be a Syrian, probably constituted Syrian court. And it's a Syrian war and ultimately requires a Syrian solution. But criminal justice is not an end in itself. And it's not about revenge or punishment because only a small number of offenders, I think, will ever be prosecuted. It's a highly symbolic exercise. So, what you want to do is create a certain type of narrative and at the same time break damaging social narratives that are false. So, the prevailing narrative on the opposition side is that the Syrian regime is an Alawite structure - Alawites are a subsector of Shia Islam - that the regime is a sectarian structure bent on the destruction of Sunni. And point of fact, the regime is a complex multi-sectarian power political structure. So, when prosecuting regime figures would be folly to only prosecute Alawites because you're going to reinforce a damaging social narrative which is in fact false. There's plenty of Christians and Kurds and Sunni and other groups in the highest reaches of the regime.
MARTIN: I imagine you're closely watching the talks in Geneva right now. And, as you know, some of the options being floated out there include clemency for President Bashar al-Assad. Is that a frustrating option for you, if the evidence that you're collecting at great risk is never used to prosecute these people?
WILEY: It would be very frustrating for perhaps all of our Syrian colleagues. Now, let's say the current president is not prosecuted in the future. And indeed, if no one's prosecuted, the work will not have been for naught, because we're also collecting with the idea that our database can be used to inform a broader truth-seeking, truth-telling process. Most of our listeners will probably remember the Truth in Reconciliation Commission from South Africa. And these sorts of things are very common, and they need to be based on some sort of evidence as well. So, all is not lost if there's no criminal prosecutions. And indeed, as I've indicated, the criminal prosecutions are a very, very small part - high-profile part to be sure - but a small part of the broader transitional justice process to which a society torn apart by conflict needs to pass. So, it would not be a tragedy if there's no trials. But ultimately, I think the Syrians need to take that decision.
MARTIN: William Wiley of the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability. Thank you so much for talking with us.
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