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The Violations Documentation Center in Syria VDC, was born in June 2011 to ensure a careful and independent documentation of all kinds of violations of human rights taking place in the country both in the past, present and future, with the goal of becoming a reference not only for the media but more importantly for all future accountability and justice-related procedures that will be much needed for Syria.By 2012 arbitrary killings and other acts of violations of human rights, including political arrests, violations committed against journalists, imprisonment without trial, travel ban, forced exile, deprivation of Syrian nationality, torture and killing, grew alarmingly fast, while the situation in Syria turned into an armed conflict (as per the ICRC’s legal qualification), thus with the applicability of the Geneva Conventions and customary International Humanitarian Law. As a result of this and of an aggressive campaign by the government to intimidate, harass, detain and crackdown on all those perceived to be reporting on the situation (journalists, bloggers, writers…) has prompted the VDC to expand and include the coverage of these new systematic violations.
The VDC is one of the biggest organisation with staff members and contacts inside Syria, in most cities, relentlessly documenting human rights and humanitarian law abuses by the Government of Syria and by a number of the most prominent armed opposition groups. As such, the VDC is a credible reference to legal and media practitioners because of its standard sturdy methodology, its absolute adherence to legal standards when documented abuses, regardless of its perpetrator.
Finds of the VDC are often cited in international media and UN and other justice-related mechanisms, and the VDC is often called upon to provide in-depth briefings to most world forums such as the United Nations Security Council.
While the VDC was originally an offshoot of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), it moved into being 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 December 9, 2013, at about 10:40 p.m., a group of armed men stormed into the office of the Violations Documentation Center in Syria VDC in Douma and abducted Razan Zaitouneh, the head of the center, and her colleagues – Wael Hamada, who is also her husband, Samira al-Khalil, and Nazem Hamadi. The four VDC human rights defenders have not been heard of since.
Despite this tragic disappearance, the VDC’s staff (circa 35 people) continued working unabated, under the guidance of a board of directors that ensured 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 recruited Mr. Husam Alkatlaby as a Chief Executive Director in charge of strategically guiding the VDC and running its daily operations.
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Methodology-Collecting, Validating and documenting Data:
As for the criteria observed by VDC, they comply to the International standards regarding documentation mechanisms, specifically: the International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Law, and the 4 Geneva Conventions. Additionally, our website is administrated by a number of human rights activists, while the other activists have undergone international training courses, in addition to the practical training on the detailed modern documentation mechanisms adopted by the international bodies and organizations, headed by the United Nations.
Based on our principle that accuracy of the information related to victims of human rights violations is a human right, ethical and humanitarian duty and a right for the victims and their families, we- The Violation Documentation Center in Syria- adopt a multiple-stage process of documentation in order to achieve the highest accuracy possible amid the difficult complicated circumstances we have been going through in Syria since March 2011.
1-The first stage: gathering and documenting information by a group of human rights and field activists and reporters assigned by the center in different places, in addition to depending on reliable sources like field hospitals, cemeteries, casualties’ families and some of the media centers, which are highly credible, in order to get the information which -in turn- is sent to the website administrative team, after making sure it is neither repeated nor old, and looking for related details from various sources. This is the first stage of documentation, which can be called the primary stage of validating the received information.
2-The second stage: information gathering -including photos, videos and any other details about the casualties, will be completed during the first day of the violation or in the few upcoming days by the website administration team.
3-The third stage: (The one that distinguishes VDC in Syria) is the daily, weekly and monthly checking as all the information is sent to the field activists again to ensure that it is free of errors and to complete the missing information. And to include any additional available materials such as photos, videos or information on the person; career, mother’s name, age, etc. Employees who do that are called the ‘Daily Verifiers’ and they are, also, asked to bring a complete lists of information of casualties in different cities and villages to be compared with information that the center already has to verify the violation and its perpetrator. Added to the previous stages is a stage of database check to insure the data entry has been logged properly and overcome human errors.
These three stages are very essential and important, however, we –by no means- consider them as a complete mission due to the complexities of the Syrian situation, the siege imposed on the areas and what the bad security situation the activists are living, in addition to the separation of the Syrian cities and villages, the fear of the victims’ families of providing us with more details because of security threats, and the cut-out of electricity and internet connection in most of liberated areas.
Furthermore, VDC’s team is consisting of 35 staffers; most are in Syria distributed in the main conflict areas and frontlines. As a center we are only registered in Switzerland and due to the sensitivity of the information we produce and document, our activists are sometimes directly targeted by the Syrian government. This forced the center to adopt a context-specific security policy to try and insure the safety of its staff while to maintain the integrity of the information.
However, we seek through the three stages to overcome a number of such obstacles as much as possible together with maintaining the credibility of our center and the rights of victims by conveying the truth as it is on the condition that those data and information are being regularly reviewed, checked and revised even if months have gone past on the violation.
The Classification of Violations in the Center
In VDC, we document violations from all sides and regardless of the perpetrators. Nonetheless, we document all the information including the perpetrator, only distinguish between civilians and non-civilians in addition to the area, date, means of death, the violation, and other statistical characteristics for the victims and the violations.
As for the violations, what we consider to be a violation is based on what IHL, HRL, and Geneva conventions count as violations, including, but not limited to, attack against civilian infrastructures, civilians themselves, humanitarian and aid facilities and services, etc.
Lastly, because we document in this strict way, publishing is sometimes delayed, and in other cases numbers are less than what is published by similar sister organizations due to the time needed to get the full names, and other data as mentioned before.
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To get in touch with us in the Violation Documentation Center in Syria, please send us an email to this address: [email protected]
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