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What Iranian Human Rights Defenders Can Learn From Syria and Beyond

Justice is unattainable without evidence. Documenting abuses by gathering and archiving this evidence must be a priority.

A person raises their arms in front of a protest sign that reads "Woman, Life, Freedom" and "Freedom for Iran" in the colors of the Iranian flag.
A person raises their arms in front of a protest sign that reads "Woman, Life, Freedom" and "Freedom for Iran" in the colors of the Iranian flag.
Demonstrators chant slogans while marching during the "March of Solidarity for Iran" in Washington on Oct. 15. STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 16, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died from injuries allegedly inflicted by Iran’s so-called morality police. Ever since, Iranians across the country—and worldwide—have protested not only her death but also the Iranian regime itself.

In keeping with the Iranian government’s modus operandi, it has instituted nationwide internet shutdowns while simultaneously responding to peaceful protests with lethal force, arbitrary detentions, and other human rights violations. Despite the internet shutdowns, these violations by the state have been widely documented on independent news sites focused on Iran such as IranWire, in foreign and international media such as the Washington Post, and on social media by journalists, activists, and civilians.

Documenting such abuses by gathering and archiving this evidence must be a priority. Evidence preservation is critical for accountability and establishing the historical record, as well as for honoring the victims and supporting the uprising. These principles have guided the missions of the United Nations’ investigative mechanisms—especially the Syria-focused International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, both of which are centered on case-building for potential trials.

On Sept. 16, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died from injuries allegedly inflicted by Iran’s so-called morality police. Ever since, Iranians across the country—and worldwide—have protested not only her death but also the Iranian regime itself.

In keeping with the Iranian government’s modus operandi, it has instituted nationwide internet shutdowns while simultaneously responding to peaceful protests with lethal force, arbitrary detentions, and other human rights violations. Despite the internet shutdowns, these violations by the state have been widely documented on independent news sites focused on Iran such as IranWire, in foreign and international media such as the Washington Post, and on social media by journalists, activists, and civilians.

Documenting such abuses by gathering and archiving this evidence must be a priority. Evidence preservation is critical for accountability and establishing the historical record, as well as for honoring the victims and supporting the uprising. These principles have guided the missions of the United Nations’ investigative mechanisms—especially the Syria-focused International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, both of which are centered on case-building for potential trials.

Justice is unattainable without evidence. No matter how blatant the Iranian regime’s culpability may seem, any eventual accountability processes will need to be conducted according to international legal standards—including guidelines establishing burdens of proof that must be met through admissible evidence.

The protests in Iran are hardly the first instance over the past decade where human rights defenders have grappled with recording and preserving evidence during civil resistance movements. Experts such as Abdulrahman Alhaj, who leads the forthcoming Syrian Memory Project, and Fadel Abdul Ghany, the founder and head of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, have developed these skills—often the hard way—and have shared their views on ways practitioners in Iran can best gather evidence in furtherance of the fight for accountability. Their comments have informed our views on the following principles that should guide the collection of evidence for future litigation.

Make it an institutional effort

First, evidence-gathering and all surrounding work—including archival efforts and data analysis—cannot be done on an individual or piecemeal basis. It must be institutional. No matter how efficient or professional individuals might be, documentation needs to be institutional to ensure its comprehensiveness instead of focusing on isolated topics or geographic areas. Only with reasonably comprehensive coverage can the context of events be clear.

Such institutions, be it universities, human rights watchdogs, or think tanks, can be fed input from within the country and abroad but have to be located somewhere safe—in this case, outside Iran. Investigators should have diverse backgrounds to account for a range of lived experiences. Because there is frequent communication between activists inside and outside Iran, being based outside Iran should not preclude investigators from engaging in the work and in fact may help shield them from regime intimidation and help maintain their neutrality.

Further, the Iranian government has used digital repression during the protests, including blocking certain sites and disrupting internet connections and virtual private networks (VPNs) used often for accessing blocked sites and disguising the identities of users. As the situation continues and evolves, investigators outside Iran may be better able to reliably access certain investigative sites and tools.

Investigators must follow strict and sound archiving and documentation rules, such as those in the Berkeley Protocol on Digital Open Source Investigations, which offers guidance on topics including ethical considerations (such as protecting the dignity of participating individuals), security considerations (such as threat assessment and management), and practical considerations (such as best practices for evidence storage). Investigators also must be trained to gather evidence that will be admissible in legal processes, including on skills such as verifying the evidence’s reliability and establishing chains of custody. Trainings don’t need to be formal, in-person courses but can instead consist of online classes.

Gather available online evidence

Online evidence can take several forms. It can include social media content from witnesses on the ground, such as photos, videos, and testimonies, as well as news articles. Investigators should collect, at least, a database of daily events to show how the protests have unfolded, to prevent the distortion of the context of events in the future, and a repository of collected documents on which future legal interventions can draw to support their cases.

Such evidence has previously been used in places such as Libya, to identify the locations of beheadings by the Islamic State; Syria, to investigate chemical attacks; the United Kingdom, to look into the attempted assassinations of Sergei and Yulia Skripal; and Ukraine, to gather information about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, or MH17.

This evidence can be compiled manually through social media sites and through more specialized tools, including satellite services such as Google Earth Pro and transportation trackers such as Flightradar24. However, the process can also be partly automated. Paid content-scraping technologies today such as Apify, Scrapingbee, and Phantombuster permit users to identify content based on keywords in the title or the content, say a list of Iranian city names, and metadata such as the country of upload.

Store now, analyze later

While all relevant evidence should be collected and stored, it is often not immediately clear what is worth storing. For example, one of the key pieces of evidence for solving the puzzle of the downing of MH17 in 2014 came from a car dashboard camera that happened to show the missile launcher involved in the attack. The video was uploaded to YouTube in 2016—the sole video posted to the user’s account—and was discovered by two Twitter users about one week later and was then immediately evaluated by Bellingcat.

There are thousands of videos and photos circulating online daily of the events happening in Iran, and sorting and organizing them is resource-intensive and time-consuming. Further, video location and time recognition artificial intelligence technology are improving by the day, so what is not analytically possible today might become readily available soon. Given these factors, the rule of thumb should be to store whatever might be remotely useful now and then sort and analyze it later.

Archive online evidence as soon as it appears

Online evidence must also be archived, as the sites on which it was found may stop running; activists’ social media accounts may be suspended or deleted; and content may be flagged as graphic or violent—by other users or by AI—and taken down. This is a particularly pressing concern following Elon Musk’s recent purchase and restructuring of Twitter, which is now at risk of bankruptcy and of shutting down. Musk has indicated that he will find a new CEO for Twitter eventually, but there is no clear indication how he would handle Twitter’s content in the event of bankruptcy.

Graphic content, in particular, is more likely to be useful for litigation but is also more likely to be removed. Such content removal is likely to be ongoing but may also happen abruptly. For example, hundreds of thousands of amateur videos, some of which documented grave abuses in Syria, disappeared from YouTube in 2017 without notice, seemingly for being flagged as violating YouTube’s policies on violence.

There are ways to reduce the likelihood of content being removed, such as requesting that activists’ accounts be verified, and there are ongoing efforts by U.S. legislators and by civil society organizations to have social media sites archive any content on their platforms that could include evidence of human rights violations. However, online evidence should be stored as soon as it appears.

Evidence should be stored online through a secure cloud service using VPNs to circumvent internet restrictions. For example, Microsoft OneDrive permits 1 terabyte of storage and allows informants to directly upload their videos to the same place, regardless of their location. Once the evidence is uploaded, the metadata must also be archived in a standardized manner. All evidence should additionally be stored on an offline server to avoid any potential loss or damage to content on the cloud. Once the evidence has been archived, videos can then be streamed through paid services such as those available on Vimeo.

At times, a single photo or video frame can complete a puzzle—every single piece matters. This has been recognized time and time again when states have banded together to support accountability for atrocities—from the Allies’ military investigations ahead of the Nuremberg trials to the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate atrocity crimes in Ukraine. This time is no different, and it is in states’ interest to support evidence-gathering and litigation to show the Iranian government and all human rights-violating regimes that their officials are not exempt from international norms.

One clear and concrete way to support accountability processes for human rights violations and atrocity crimes in Iran is for U.N. member states to support the call of civil society organizations and U.N. human rights experts to establish a U.N. investigative mechanism at an upcoming special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

There are limited avenues through which Iranian officials can be held accountable. Notably, Iran is not a party to the International Criminal Court, and it is unlikely that the U.N. Security Council would be willing to refer the matter to the court given Iran’s alliance with veto-wielding members Russia and China.

However, as with Syrian perpetrators, there are still options. Universal jurisdiction is the principle by which certain states are able to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide even when they were committed in another country. While not a panacea, this allowed for the first trial against a high-ranking former Syrian official, who was convicted in January in Germany—where the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism has confirmed it is supporting jurisdictions in cases related to Syria. Only six months later, a former Iranian official was convicted after the first criminal prosecution for the 1988 Iran prisoner massacres, during which as many as 5,000 political prisoners were killed.

Justice is unattainable without evidence. Gather it and defend it.

Karam Shaar is a Syrian researcher and consultant as well as a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @karam__shaar

Gissou Nia is a lawyer specialized in international criminal and human rights law and the director of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project. Twitter: @gissounia

Celeste Kmiotek is a staff lawyer with the Atlantic Council's Strategic Litigation Project, where she focuses on targeted human rights sanctions and asset recovery. Twitter: @Celeste_Kmiotek

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