The Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC) was established in June 2011 to ensure careful and independent documentation of all kinds of human rights violations in Syria. The goal was to become a reference not only for the media, but also for all future accountability and justice-related procedures for Syria. By 2012, the number of arbitrary killings and other human rights violations, including imprisonment without trial and torture, had grown alarmingly fast, and the situation in Syria had escalated into an armed conflict (as per the ICRC’s legal qualification), with the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and customary International Humanitarian Law. These developments, alongside the Syrian government’s crackdown on those perceived to be reporting on the situation (journalists, bloggers, social media activists, etc.), prompted the VDC to expand its role and include the coverage of new systematic violations.
The VDC is one of the largest human rights organisations with staff members and contacts inside Syria, with a presence in all governorates and most cities. Its activists take great risks to document human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed by the Syrian government and other armed actors in the conflict. The VDC is a credible reference to legal and media practitioners because of its robust methodology and adherence to international legal standards regardless of the perpetrator. Its findings are often cited by international media, the UN and other justice-related mechanisms. The VDC is frequently called upon to provide in-depth briefings to world forums such as the United Nations Security Council.
While originally an offshoot of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the VDC became an independent entity after the SCM was raided by the Syrian security forces and 16 staff members, including the head of the organisation, Mr. Mazen Darwish, were arrested.
On the night of December 9, 2013, a group of armed men stormed into the office of the VDC in Douma and abducted Razan Zaitouneh, the head of the VDC, and her colleagues – Wael Hamada (also her husband), Samira al-Khalil, and Nazem Hamadi. There has been no news of their whereabouts since.
The VDC’s staff continue to work under the guidance of a board of directors who have worked to ensure the institutionalisation of the VDC by: 1-) registering it as a non-profit association in Switzerland, 2-) liaising with donors to ensure funding, 3-) drafting and adopting internal regulations to effectively set working modalities and standards for monitoring and reporting on the work itself.
In December 2015, the VDC’s board of directors appointed Mr. Husam Alkatlaby as an Executive Director, with the mandate of strategically guiding the VDC and running its daily operations.
Methodology-Collecting, Validating and Documenting Data:
The VDC adopts its methodology in accordance with International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and the 4 Geneva Conventions, all of which constitute the center’s legal framework for documentation.
What the VDC considers to be a violation is based on IHL, HRL, and Geneva conventions’ definitions of violations, including, but not limited to, attacks against civilians, civilian infrastructures, and humanitarian and aid facilities.
The VDC documents violations committed by all actors in Syria regardless of ethnicity, religion, or any other characteristic. As much information as possible is documented on each violation, including its perpetrators, the place of occurrence, date of occurance, type of violation, and other statistical attributes related to the victims and violations.
Due to robust documentation methodology, publications are often delayed, and numbers are sometimes less than what is published by similar organisations due to the time needed to obtain the aforementioned details.
Stages of Data Documentation:
The VDC carries out a multiple-stage process of documentation in order to achieve the highest level of accuracy.
Stage 1: Information is gathered and documented by the data collectors, a group of human rights and field activists, as well as reporters assigned by the center in different regions. In addition, data is collected from other reliable sources such as field hospitals, cemeteries, families of casualties, and certain media centers. Once data credibility is established and documented in special forms, the data is sent to the database administrative team, who in turn compare the information and establish verification.
Stage 2: Videos, images, and any other information related to the victims are gathered in the days following the incident. This data is then presented to the data inspectors, a team that consists of specialists in different Syrian governorates. This process ensures data accuracy, correctness, and completeness before it is entered into the database.
Stage 3: Follow ups and updates take place on a daily and monthly basis for data entered into the database. Information is sent back to the field activists to ensure that it is free from errors. Additionally, new information and material such as photos and videos are entered. This task is carried out by data collectors and data inspectors. Both work on collating complete lists of information on casualties in different cities and villages to be compared with information documented by the center. The executive team regularly inspects the database to minimise errors that may have taken place while logging the data.
These three stages are essential; however, they are by no means a complete mission due to the complexities of the situation in Syria, the sieges imposed on some areas, and the dire security situation activists are living in. In addition, challenges are presented by the barriers between Syrian cities and villages, families’ fear of providing more information due to security threats, and electricity and internet cut-outs in most rebel-held areas.
The VDC’s Managerial Framework:
The VDC is registered as a non-profit organisation in Switzerland, and consists of a team of 35. Most of the team is based in Syria and distributed among the main conflict areas and front lines, while other team members reside in neighbouring countries and Europe. Additionally, the VDC has five board members who oversee the center’s strategic direction and work closely with the executive director who supervises the daily operations of the center.