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Op-Ed: Accountability in Conflict – reflections from the inaugural meeting of the Syria Ukraine Network

Article by Elly Nott

December 12, 2023

Op-Ed: Accountability in Conflict – reflections from the inaugural meeting of the Syria Ukraine Network

The battle Ukraine fights is not just for its survival as a nation but for values we hold dear in the United Kingdom. The values of an open society – respect for individual rights, full participation in political and economic life and the rule of law to institutionalise those rights – are anathema to the leadership of the Russian Federation.


Being at the receiving end of the malign attentions of the Russian state is something that unites Ukrainian and Syrian civilians, so there was much to discuss when experts and activists from both nations met under the auspices of the Syria Ukraine Network in Kyiv on 16-17 October 2023.


The meeting aimed to stimulate new ways of thinking about justice and accountability in the two conflicts and foster solidarity between people who have suffered occupation and violence in response to their calls for democracy and human rights. My conclusion was that active, engaged citizens are essential to create the conditions for justice and thriving open societies.


Justice for war crimes is, understandably, commonly conceived as being secured through the mechanisms of the international legal system. In humanitarian relief operations, the multilateral institutions of the UN have traditionally been front and centre in media coverage of responses to emergencies. Less visible, but just as valuable, is the role of engaged citizens in collecting evidence and providing not just emergency responses to humanitarian disasters caused by conflict, but principled, long-term support and grassroots governance.


Among our group in Kyiv were investigative journalists, lawyers, policy experts, storytellers, healthcare workers and representatives from Syrian and Ukrainian NGOs. One such group was Truth Hounds, who have been documenting, monitoring and carrying out investigations into human rights violations in Ukraine and neighbouring states since 2014.


The Senior Legal Counsel of Truth Hounds shared a précis of their latest report on the abuse and torture of staff at the Zaporizhizhia Nuclear Power Plant. The plant was captured by Russian forces on 11 March 2022 and has since then been under the ‘management’ of Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear power company. Truth Hounds report that war crimes were aided and abetted by Rosatom, yet despite this the company conducts business in large parts of the world without sanction.


Getting Rosatom’s directors facing charges in court could take decades, if it ever happens at all, but the actions of Ukrainian lawyers to gather evidence and investigative journalists to bring these stories to light can exert pressure on companies that continue to do business with Rosatom and connected commercial entities.


From the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, when large swathes of the Syrian people dared to dream for greater political and economic freedom, citizen journalists have broadcast the brutality of the suppression of that revolution. As in Ukraine, Syrian-led organisations like the Syrian Network for Human Rights have conducted the painstaking work of gathering evidence, establishing databases to archive and catalogue incidents and seeking opportunities to bring perpetrators to justice.


On 10 October 2023, Canada and the Netherlands asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on seven ‘provisional measures’ designed to end ongoing torture and human rights abuses carried out by the Syrian state against the Syrian people. Among the sources of evidence referenced in court transcripts were fourteen contributions from the Syrian Network for Human Rights.


In further example of the importance of Syrian-led efforts to secure justice, on 15 November 2023 French criminal investigative justices have sensationally issued arrest warrants for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his brother and Commander of the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army Maher al-Assad, and two more senior officials.  The warrants were issued for the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma and eastern Ghouta in August 2013, attacks in which more than 1,000 people perished. Instrumental to convincing French judges there is a case is the testimony of survivors, filed by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM). The SCM have pushed for Syrian civil society involvement in international investigation and justice mechanisms and the French decision represents a degree of success for their endeavours, though there is still far to go.


In northwest Syria, locally-led organisations have also been at the forefront of the response to humanitarian challenges. From 2011 onwards, Syrian citizens in the nation and diaspora mobilised to create NGOs that provided services in areas where the regime had been expelled. As well as providing services, health organisations provided a degree of governance from the ground up. The Idlib Health Directorate holds elections to its board, the process is transparent and the result respected. This democratic exercise is admittedly on a small scale, but in a state that has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian Ba’athist governments since 1963 the determination to hold elections is an expression of independence and defiance of the regime and hardline religious groups.


Doctors have a particularly special role in Syrian society, regarded as hakim, meaning ‘wise’ in Arabic. Throughout the Syrian conflict, healthcare workers have been at the forefront of the narrative war that has raged alongside the conflict. Healthcare workers are in a unique position to speak to the carnage caused by barrel bombs, missiles and bullets as they witness it daily. Too often, violence is inflicted on the caregivers themselves.


The endless violence takes an immense toll on healthcare workers. Recent research by Aula Abbara, Diana Rayes and colleagues details the far-reaching impact that working in a conflict-afflicted area has. The notorious ‘double-tap’ attacks, where an initial strike is followed up with another when first responders and medical staff are on the scene, is identified as particularly disturbing for healthcare workers, creating anticipatory stress when they arrive to help.


In 2021, leaders of twelve of the world’s leading democracies including the UK stated in a joint Open Societies Statement that values of freedom and democracy are under threat from: ‘rising authoritarianism, electoral interference, corruption, economic coercion, manipulation of information, including disinformation, online harms and cyber-attacks, politically motivated internet shutdowns, human rights violations and abuses, terrorism and violent extremism.’


The threat is real, but the UK Government can help those at the civic frontline by targeting support to locally-led and grassroots groups doing the hard work of collecting evidence, documenting war crimes, providing essential services and grounding the principles of the open society in everyday lived activity.


International institutions and multilateral bodies are often overstretched and constrained by labyrinthine internal procedures. Individual states have the ability to target greater support to locally-led organisations on a bilateral basis. Funding cycles should be for the long-term and include funding for the documenting evidence, and protection of staff and infrastructure. Rather than targeting support on programmatic activity only, there should be support for governance and development too.


Active citizens make for vibrant, open societies but political will and financial support is needed to create and secure the space for them to thrive.



Elly Nott, leader in the humanitarian sector and PhD Candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

Image by WikiCommons.


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