17 November 2023
Launch of the Syria Supplement to the International Protocol on Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict
Some twelve years into the Syrian conflict, sexual violence against men, women, boys and girls remains a scourge and a reminder of the enormous impunity gap for international crimes committed by all parties to the conflict since 2011.
The Syria Supplement to the second edition of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict (IP2) presents information, guidance, and good practices for practitioners documenting and investigating conflict and atrocity-related sexual violence (CARSV) in Syria. This country guide combines findings already made about the perpetration of CARSV in Syria and new research to provide a comprehensive overview of the scale and types of CARSV criminality, as well as efforts to hold those responsible to account to date.
The Syria Supplement to the IP2 was prepared by Synergy for Justice, which – together with its Syrian partner organisations Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) and the Amal Healing and Advocacy Center (AHAC) – carried out original research on CARSV in Syria and the response thereto. In addition, Synergy, LDHR, and the University of Galway conducted separate research on male sexual violence in Syria. The empirical findings of those research studies are published for the first time herein and can be found embedded throughout the chapters.
These research findings also ensure that the voices and views of Syrian survivors, as well as other Syrians striving to achieve justice and accountability for crimes of sexual violence, are amplified through this publication.
The primary audience for the Syria Supplement are those who are documenting, investigating or otherwise participating in accountability processes for CARSV in or concerning Syria. This includes members of civil society, including survivor networks and human rights organisations, legal professionals, investigators, prosecutors, judges, and other practitioners contributing to justice for Syria.
“More than 12 years into the conflict, there is still no viable recourse to justice in Syria owing to many factors, not least the total impunity for perpetrators in all parts of the country. This is compounded by lack of criminalization of many forms of sexual violence that amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide and in areas under Syrian government control a complex web of amnesties, immunities, and pardons that shield perpetrators for justice. This is why the documentation and preservation of evidence of sexual violence is critical; so that opportunities to seek justice in the future and before foreign courts abroad can be taken when they arise. The publication launched today provides a roadmap for evidence-gatherers for how to do this safely, ethically, and in line with international standards,” comments Stephanie Barbour, a Director of Synergy for Justice, an International Criminal Investigator, an Expert in Sexual Violence in Conflict and one of the Syria Supplement contributors.
The Syria Supplement is available online in both English and Arabic, and we encourage everyone involved in justice for Syria to use it to advance accountability for survivors of sexual violence and to support their needs and communities as they heal from conflict.
5 October 2023
A Closer Look at the Access to Justice Challenges in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Most people know very little about Iraq and even less about the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The KRI is a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, with its seat of government (the Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG) in the city of Erbil. KRI’s autonomy was realised in 1992 after Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War. The KRI borders Iran in the east, Turkey in the north, and Syria in the west.
Although KRI's population is majority Kurdish Muslim, it is home to a rich diversity of minority groups. And while the Kurdistan Region Law of 2015 preserved the rights of the national components (Turkmens, Chaldeans, Syrians, Assyrians, and Armenians) and religious and sectarian groups (Christians, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandaeans, Kaka’i, Shabaks, Faili Kurds, and Zoroastrians), accessing justice in meaningful ways remains challenging for many members of minority communities, as well as for economically disadvantaged people, survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence, and other marginalised people.
“Access to justice” is not merely about the right to file a complaint/lawsuit, be represented by a lawyer, and have one’s case heard in court. In places where access to justice is robust, people are able to have their voices heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination, hold decision-makers accountable, and obtain remedies for grievances in accordance with human rights principles and standards. There are many barriers to accessing justice in most countries, and we know that poor and marginalised people, including women and many subsets of vulnerable populations, have the greatest difficulty accessing justice mechanisms due to the following obstacles:
Women in the KRI, in particular, face these obstacles as well as challenges specific to their gender such as lack of gender sensitivity in the justice system, lack of economic independence, and inhibited freedom of mobility due to home-based responsibilities and/or lack of permission from male relatives to travel. Additionally, discriminatory social and cultural norms, including shame and stigma attached to sexual violence, prevent many people from seeking justice in court.
Synergy for Justice is working with key stakeholders and government actors in the KRI to enhance access to justice for all people. We are partnering with local experts and members of the communities to ensure that respect, promotion, and protection of human rights are strengthened for all, especially for vulnerable and marginalised populations, for sustained peace and inclusive development. We are also focusing specifically on the need to ensure that justice processes are survivor-centred, trauma-informed, and free from stigma so that survivors of sexual violence and other human rights violations will feel comfortable and safe filing complaints and providing witness testimony.
18 September 2023
A Year in Review 2022-2023
Synergy for Justice has been growing steadily over the past year as we continue to expand partnerships, strengthen our programming, and explore new geographic areas where our models and expertise would positively impact local justice and accountability processes.
This year we continued to focus largely on the Syrian context, working with locally-led partners to (1) empower survivors of human rights violations to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure that they can access the support services they need to heal from their experiences so they can fully participate in society; and to (2) elevate the voices of women to lead transitional justice processes. Peace, democracy, and reconciliation cannot be achieved unless women’s experiences, leadership, and wisdom are fully incorporated into transitional justice efforts.
As a longtime UK partner, Synergy was invited to showcase its work at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) conference in London, specifically how the medical documentation of torture and sexual violence cases contributes to accountability for perpetrators and justice for survivors. Through a moot court exercise, Synergy and longtime partner Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights demonstrated the impact of medical expert evidence and how it can be used to provide alternative sources of evidence and reduce reliance on survivor testimony which often results in retraumatisation and/or revictimisation of survivors. We also highlighted the importance of dedicated commitment to local actors and the positive impacts that survivors experience after their cases have been documented.
At the global level, we completed the first draft of a comprehensive Stigma Toolkit that provides a roadmap for recognising and understanding the effects of stigma across the justice spectrum. Justice systems that meet survivor-centric and trauma-informed standards will prosecute more cases and convict more perpetrators, reducing impunity. We are now preparing to pilot the Toolkit in various contexts.
Operationally, we expanded our board by adding three dynamic women leaders from Human Rights Watch, the International Commission on Missing Persons, and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute. The bios of all board members are available on our website. We also strengthened our communications strategy, expanded our social media presence, and started sending e-newsletters and posting regular blogs to share our knowledge and experience with others in the field as well as anyone curious about justice and accountability.
In February, we watched with horror as the earthquakes that hit Syria and Turkey, where our partners work and live, destroyed their homes, their offices, and forced their displacement. With the support of our donors, we were able to provide financial, psychological, and moral support to our partner staff. We thank all of you who donated to Synergy over the past year, especially those who donated to our earthquake campaign. All donations made to Synergy in February and March assisted our local partners impacted by the earthquakes.
17 August 2023
What is Stigma? Why is it important to understand?
In the dark corners of our world, unimaginable horrors unfold as innocent lives are shattered by torture and conflict-related sexual violence. Amidst the physical and psychological scars, another invisible wound exists—the stigma that perpetuates suffering and denies survivors the justice and support they deserve. At Synergy for Justice, we recognise the urgent need to understand and challenge stigma to pave the path towards healing and transformation.
Significant Effects of Stigma on Survivors
Silencing the Voice of Survivors: Stigma thrusts survivors into a vortex of silence, rendering their voices unheard and their stories untold. The societal perception that victims are somehow responsible for the violence inflicted upon them intensifies their pain and shame. This silence reinforces a sense of powerlessness and prevents survivors from seeking help or speaking out, allowing perpetrators to operate freely and without consequence.
Impeding Access to Justice: The stigma surrounding torture and conflict-related sexual violence is a barrier to justice, obstructing survivors' pursuit of legal recourse. The prevailing belief that survivors are to blame fosters an environment that discourages reporting and dismisses survivors' experiences as insignificant. This lack of accountability perpetuates a cycle of impunity, leaving survivors without the justice they deserve and emboldening perpetrators to continue their acts of violence.
Fostering Victim-Blaming Culture: Stigma fuels a culture of victim-blaming, which places the burden of responsibility on survivors rather than the perpetrators. Survivors are often subjected to interrogations about their actions, clothing, or behaviour, diverting attention away from the crimes committed against them. This blame-shifting narrative not only disempowers survivors but also strengthens the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, allowing them to evade consequences and perpetuate violence.
Denying Support and Healing: Stigma creates an environment where survivors are denied the support and healing they urgently need. Society's judgment and prejudice can lead to exclusion, isolation, and the denial of essential services such as medical care, counselling, or rehabilitation. Survivors may hesitate to seek help due to the fear of being stigmatised or re-victimised, leaving them to suffer in silence and hindering their recovery.
Cultivating a Culture of Inaction: Stigma cultivates a culture of inaction and indifference toward violence. When survivors are stigmatised, and their experiences invalidated, society becomes desensitised to their plight. This apathy reinforces a culture of impunity, as the lack of collective outrage or demand for justice allows perpetrators to operate freely without fear of consequences.
14 June 2023
Survivor Experiences with Forensic Documentation in the Syrian Context
Forensic Medical Documentation (FMD) is a core aspect of Synergy’s work to aid survivors in holding their perpetrators accountable. We recently explained what FMD is and why it is important for obtaining justice, but how is it beneficial for survivors?
The forensic medical documentation process is often the first time a survivor has the opportunity to share their story with a non-judgmental, objective person trained to be trauma-informed and survivor-centric in their approach. It’s a unique chance to open up and share the horrible details about their detention and torture experience with an empathetic person. It is also an opportunity to discuss the various physical and psychological sequelae (lasting effects, such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, difficulty sleeping, erectile dysfunction, etc.) with a trained medical professional who can diagnose issues and provide referrals for follow-up care, which may include medicine, testing, and therapy, all of which may contribute to the healing process.
For many survivors, telling a doctor about their experience is the first time someone has listened to them without judgment and paid credence to what happened. There is validation that their experience was real, and reassurance that they did nothing wrong. It can be a very powerful, positive experience.
“Just telling the story and having the feeling of companionship with Dr. M made me feel comfortable.”
“The doctor listened to me until the end, and understood me, and felt what I felt during the arrest.”
“(I felt free to release) words that I had not spoken for 7 years. (Hiding my experience) was an obsession for me and a heavy burden. (When I documented my case) I spoke about it completely. It was as if I had emptied all thoughts of my detention and became a different person.”
“Just telling the story and unpacking it with the doctor gave me profound psychological relief.”
The documentation process can be very difficult for some survivors, however. They may feel ashamed and embarassed to share their story, especially if it involves sexual violence. Many survivors find it difficult to trust the doctor or the case manager because of the risk of being stigmatised by their community if other people in their community learn of their experiences. The documentation process also forces them to relive traumatic experiences from the detention, torture, and/or sexual violence they experienced. While the documentation professionals at Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights are skilled and knowledgeable regarding trauma-informed practices, and know how to minimise retraumatisation, survivors still have to engage with their past experiences to complete the documentation process.
Nevertheless, while the documentation process can be difficult for survivors, most find the experience helpful and empowering. On the justice side, there are 3 potential avenues of satisfaction, although none is guaranteed. Contributing evidence to hold the perpetrator accountable, the chance to perhaps receive compensation for suffering, and the basis for a future asylum case in another country are all powerful reasons that many choose to undergo forensic medical evaluation.
“I hope (my case contributes) to prosecuting the regime and revealing its crimes and actions to the world.”
“I now know there are people interested in pushing for accountability and helping survivors to pursue our rights.”
17 May 2023
What is Universal Jurisdiction?
As we talk about arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and conflict-related sexual violence, it is important to remember that when these crimes are committed at scale during a military conflict or in places where due process is non-existent, it is nearly impossible for perpetrators to be held accountable by the justice system of their home nations. When governmental systems are autocratic, self-serving, and corrupt, impunity for human rights violations is an inevitable outcome of those in power using any and all means to remain in power.
Universal jurisdiction offers an alternative route to pursuing justice and accountability. Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle that allows national courts to exercise jurisdiction over individuals for certain serious crimes, regardless of where the crime was committed, the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim, or any other connection to the country exercising jurisdiction. It enables a state (nation) to prosecute individuals who have committed crimes considered to be particularly heinous and have a global impact, such as crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture. The principle of universal jurisdiction is based on the idea that certain crimes are so severe that they concern the international community as a whole, and that no state should be allowed to provide a safe haven for perpetrators of such crimes.
Universal jurisdiction is an expansive undertaking by several governments around the world to create accountability for exceptionally terrible crimes that demand international interventions. Universal jurisdiction is enacted differently from territorial jurisdiction and nationality jurisdiction.
Territorial jurisdiction is based on the principle that a state has the right to exercise jurisdiction over any person or activity within its territory. This means that a state can prosecute individuals for crimes that were committed within its borders, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim.
On the other hand, nationality jurisdiction allows a state to exercise jurisdiction over its nationals, regardless of where the crime was committed. This means that a state can prosecute its citizens for crimes committed abroad, even if it is not considered a crime in the country where it was committed.
In contrast, universal jurisdiction allows a state to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed outside of its territory by individuals who are not its nationals and who did not commit the crime within its borders.
One of the first notable cases that helped develop the principle of universal jurisdiction was the arrest and attempted prosecution of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The Pinochet case was a landmark case that helped to establish and expand the use of universal jurisdiction. The case began in 1998 when Pinochet, who had been in London for medical treatment, was arrested on a warrant issued by a Spanish judge who sought to extradite him to Spain to face charges of torture and other crimes committed during his regime. The extradition request was based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. The Pinochet case established that universal jurisdiction could be applied to crimes committed by high-ranking officials, including heads of state, and that national courts could hold them accountable.
Survivors of arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence and civil society organisations (CSOs) play an essential role in making the prosecution of universal jurisdiction cases possible. In order to prosecute cases under universal jurisdiction, there is a need for evidence and testimony that meets the standards of international criminal courts. Organisations like Synergy for Justice and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights play an essential role in helping survivors document their cases, ensuring that the documentation and record-keeping requirements are met and maintained as these cases are submitted to international justice actors.
Synergy and its partners conduct forensic medical evaluations (FMEs) for survivors of torture and sexual violence. These FMEs can prompt investigations into crimes against humanity and other international crimes, guide case-building efforts as prosecutors hone in on patterns, locations, and perpetrators, and serve as evidence in criminal and civil court. Synergy and LDHR work together with plaintiff lawyers and prosecutors in Europe and the US and with UN mechanisms (such as the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the IIIM), providing forensic medical documentation to support case-building efforts. In line with our survivor-centric approach, we only provide information to justice actors after obtaining full informed consent from survivors to share the information.
One notable outcome of the documentation work done by Synergy for Justice and LDHR is the inclusion of our joint report on male sexual violence into the record of the Al-Khatib trial that ultimately contributed to the conviction of Anwar Raslan, a Syrian Intelligence officer for crimes against humanity.
Many survivors, families, and justice actors are hopeful that commencement of universal jurisdiction trials will be the means of ensuring accountability for those who commit atrocities. However, recent evidence suggests that states are hesitant to use absolute universal jurisdiction, and instead, more countries are implementing measures to limit its application. Even though universal jurisdiction can be used to prosecute a growing range of international crimes, there is limited evidence of its use in national courts. As a result, states are moving towards conditional universal jurisdiction that requires a stronger connection between the alleged crime and the prosecuting state. This shift is due to concerns among states regarding the risks of overstepping judicial boundaries and prosecuting foreign nationals for crimes committed in foreign territories, which could have negative implications for international justice. - Paraphrased, Source
While the use of universal jurisdiction is limited, it is growing. A recent report by the International Center for Transitional Justice states:
“Although the numbers of universal jurisdiction cases are tiny compared to the number of criminal cases opened, there is nonetheless great value in each case for the global fight against impunity. A complaint brought before a domestic court for international crimes is already a small measure of acknowledgement for victims because it is often accompanied by considerable media attention and advocacy campaigns. Similarly, an international arrest warrant issued against a high-level perpetrator constitutes a form of accountability because it inhibits travel and places them at risk of arrest. The issuing of arrest warrants focuses attention on the suspects and raises questions around their role in public life. Universal jurisdiction convictions contribute to the development of state practice and international law.”
According to the 2023 universal jurisdiction annual review published by Trial International, 78 universal jurisdiction cases have resulted in convictions since its inception in 2015. This report also highlighted that universal jurisdiction is also being utilised to investigate economic actors for international crimes that have global impacts.
The use of universal jurisdiction to bring justice to victims of international crimes is still a work in progress. While there have been some successful prosecutions, using this principle in various countries worldwide, there are still limitations and ongoing challenges to its application. However, the increasing recognition of the need for universal jurisdiction in national and international legal systems signals a shift towards holding perpetrators of heinous crimes accountable regardless of their location or nationality. As efforts to expand the reach and use of universal jurisdiction continue, we hope to see it play a critical role in deterring and punishing international crimes and promoting global justice.
13 April 2023
Myths About Torture That You Don’t Realise You Believe
Torture is a heinous act that violates the human rights of a person and causes immense physical and psychological damage. Despite its brutal nature, torture has often been depicted in movies as an effective way to extract information. However, the reality of torture is far from what is portrayed in Hollywood movies and TV shows. In this blog post, we will debunk some of the myths about torture that are promoted by media and entertainment, and share more about the power dynamics that drive the use of torture around the world.
Myth #1: Torture is necessary to preserve national security
The myth that torture is necessary for national security is a dangerous misconception that has been perpetuated by some governments and media outlets. This idea is counter to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), which has been ratified by over 160 countries and prohibits the use of torture under any circumstances, including during times of war or national emergency. The justification of torture under any circumstance should be seen as a path toward authoritarian impunity, and an attack on human rights.
Myth #2: Torture is an effective way to obtain information
One of the most common myths about torture portrayed in Hollywood movies is that it is an effective way to obtain information. In movies, torture is often portrayed as the only way to get vital information from a suspect. An excellent example of this would be the TV Series “24” where the main character Jack Bauer tortured numerous people to extract critical information needed to stop a terrorist plot. However, in reality, torture is not an effective method of obtaining accurate information. Victims of torture often provide false information to stop the pain, making the information they provide unreliable.
Myth #3: Torture is only used on guilty people
In entertainment, torture is often used by the “hero” to extract information or punish a guilty person. This myth is particularly harmful as torture is most often used on innocent people by authoritarian governments to force compliance and to break the will of people and groups that oppose them. This is a clear violation of human rights and leads to the torture of many innocent people. Even worse, the people conducting the torture on behalf of these governments are often led to believe that they are heroes who are preserving the sovereignty of the government or the safety of the nation’s citizens.
Myth #4: Torture is a quick and easy way to get results
Torture is often portrayed as a quick and easy way to get results. The torturer asks a few questions, inflicts some pain, and the victim spills their secrets. However, in reality, torture is a long and brutal process that can take days or even weeks. Victims of torture may not reveal any useful information or may provide false information, making the process even longer and more brutal. In most cases, especially in the context of the Syrian conflict, the purpose of torture is not information extraction, rather, it is to exert control over the individual, their family, and their community. These crimes against humanity intentionally destroy the survivor’s physical and mental health, family trust and relationships, and community safety net.
Myth #5: Good people who are tortured recover quickly
In most entertainment depictions of torture, when heroes are tortured they are able to recover quickly and eventually overpower their captors and escape. This myth may be the most damaging of all, because it undermines the severity of the suffering that survivors of torture have endured. It also minimises the long term and lasting effects of torture on a person’s mental and physical health. Many people don’t survive detention and torture. Survivors of torture rarely have the capacity or opportunity to escape and often require years of medical and mental health care to properly recover from their ordeals.
Torture in any form, for any reason is a crime and a severe human rights violation. It may also constitute a crime against humanity under international criminal law, depending upon the extent to which it is being used against people. It is a crime that originates from and perpetuates impunity. Torture has severe, lasting impacts on the lives of survivors, their families and communities.
Synergy for Justice and our partners are working to support survivors of torture and ensure that they can access the physical and mental health care they need to recover and hold their perpetrators accountable. We also work to ensure that transitional justice processes are active in communities where survivors live. Their voices and experiences must be included in the formation of new social structures and governance systems as the community heals from conflict and human rights violations. Finally, we work with justice systems to ensure that they are able to create an environment where rigorous and predictable justice is possible, by identifying bias and stigmas built into the systems that negatively affect survivor experiences and the outcome of criminal prosecutions of human rights violations.
15 March 2023
What is Forensic Medical Documentation?
Forensic Medical Documentation is a core aspect of Synergy for Justice’s work as we help survivors of torture and sexual violence in conflict pursue justice and accountability of their perpetrators.
Forensic Medical Documentation (FMD) is a process wherein trained clinicians (medical doctors and mental health professionals) conduct a detailed clinical interview of a survivor of torture and/or sexual violence (SV) and examine all signs and sequelae of physical and psychological abuse. “Sequelae” is a clinical term referring to the long-term effects of a difficult experience, event, or injury that affect a person long after the event or injury have occurred.
The clinical interview includes medical history as well as questions about pre and post torture physical and mental health. The doctor also listens as the survivor shares the narrative of their torture or SV experience. The survivor tells her/his story, and the doctor conducts the forensic medical exam to correlate the story with the evidence of physical and psychological signs and sequelae they see and hear. The clinician photographs relevant scars or other physical conditions to include in the report. The process of interviewing, examining, photographing, then writing up the report takes several hours.
The resulting forensic medical reports, which contain the clinician’s expert opinion as to whether the signs and sequelae are consistent with the survivor’s narrative about torture events, serve as key evidence to prosecute perpetrators of torture and inhuman treatment, to help survivors obtain compensation in civil courts, and to substantiate claims of asylum in new countries.
Primary purpose of the FMD:
•To establish the facts relating to alleged torture events; and
•To evaluate and document the level of consistency between these events and the physical and psychological evidence of torture and maltreatment.
The idea is to complete a full physical and psychological examination of a person to try to assess if they have indeed experienced torture. A simple way to describe it is to say that doctors listen to their stories and look at their bodies to see if there is alignment.
Why doctors? What can they see?
What is the Istanbul Protocol? Who developed the protocol? What international justice actors require the protocol to be used for documentation.
The Istanbul Protocol’s full name is the “Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”
Development of the protocol was led by a group of Turkish doctors fed up with the excessive torture that had occurred over the years at the hands of the Turkish authorities, so the nickname Istanbul Protocol, or even shorter - IP - has stuck over the years.
The Istanbul Protocol provides international, legal standards on protection against torture and sets out specific guidelines on how effective legal and medical investigations into allegations of torture and ill treatment should be conducted.
Goals of the Istanbul Protocol:
The original Istanbul Protocol was developed by 75 experts in law, health, and human rights from 40 organisations in 15 countries, and it was officially recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1999. The 2022 revised version had 180 expert contributors from 51 countries, including experts from Synergy for Justice.
The protocol is used globally, most commonly for asylum applications because the number of asylum cases is exponential compared to the number of torture prosecutions or civil trials, but increasingly they are being used for case building in the Syria context and elsewhere.
Why is there a significant need for Forensic Medical Documentation globally?
Because torture is used by nearly every state in the world, and there are not enough adequately trained doctors to document all the cases, or even a fraction of them.
How does FMD increase accountability for arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence?
The idea is that if we as a global society can develop a regular and reliable pattern of global accountability, dictators and others who abuse their power will refrain from using these practices because there will be a reasonable expectation that they might also be held to account one day.
Unfortunately we are not quite there yet… there is still much work to do.
How are Forensic Medical Documenters trained?
Some organisations provide only one week of training, but this is wholly insufficient for doctors and mental health professionals to develop the level of skill and understanding needed to undertake FMD. Synergy for Justice requires and provides a minimum training package that entails 3 weeks of multi-disciplinary training over the course of a few months. This training is backed up by ongoing remote mentoring and case reviews. In order to be effective and engaging, the full 3 weeks of training must be in person with excellent simultaneous interpretation provided by people with deep experience in the subject matter concepts and terminology.
What is the impact of Forensic Medical Documentation on survivors’ well being? Are there additional benefits of FMD beyond accountability?
Benefit of Undergoing a Forensic Medical Evaluation
The validation of the survivor’s experience is extremely important. For many survivors, telling the doctor about their experience would be the first time someone has listened to them without judgment and paid credence to what happened. It can be a very powerful, positive experience. It is also an opportunity to discuss the various physical and psychological sequelae (lasting effects) with a trained medical professional who can diagnose issues and provide referrals for follow-up care.
On the justice side, there are 3 potential avenues of satisfaction, although none is guaranteed. Accountability of the perpetrator, the chance to perhaps receive compensation for suffering, and the basis for a future asylum case in another country are all powerful reasons that many choose to undergo forensic medical evaluation.
Where has FMD been used successfully to prosecute torture and conflict related sexual violence?
Unfortunately successful prosecution of torture and conflict-related sexual violence perpetrators is almost non-existant at the moment, due in part to the protection afforded perpetrators by their positions of power in oppressive, authoritarian governments. However, increasingly Synergy and its partner are asked for FMD to support case-building and investigation that is occurring in the context of the Syrian conflict.
Who pays for the cost of documentation?
In most places where it is available, volunteer networks organise Forensic Medical Documentation for affected populations, but there are never enough trained people, so the problem is less about money and more about finding adequate, qualified people. Synergy partners with Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights in the Syria context, who provide free documentation and referrals for survivors of torture and sexual violance in Turkey and Syria.
How do doctors feel about being involved in FMD?
The doctors we work with are thrilled to be able to use their clinical training and skills to help vulnerable populations and people who have suffered grievous harm. Most doctors become doctors because they want to help people feel better, but sometimes the substantive work gets lost in the administrative and bureaucratic issues associated with insurance and the business side of medicine. Conducting Forensic Medical Documentations gives them a chance to reconnect with people who require medical care, mental health and psychosocial support, and legal services. Many doctors also enjoy the chance to work with lawyers on the justice side because it is so different from the antagonistic relationship that often develops when they face each other over malpractice or negligence claims in court. And in conflict zones and/or oppressed areas, it’s a chance for doctors to be involved in accountability and justice work, even though they have no legal training.
There is still, however, risk for burnout and secondary retraumatisation of doctors who hear horrible stories repeatedly and see traumatic injuries and conditions that have resulted from torture and sexual violence, so we advise them to pace themselves and not do too many cases without a break. They need to pay attention to their own physical and mental health so that they can do the work without harming themselves and burning out.
What are Synergy’s plans for expanding the amount of documenters available in the Syria context? Worldwide?
Synergy’s plans include both expanding the numbers of documents in the Syrian context as well as deepening the skills of those who have already been trained as documenters. Last year Synergy completed a 2-week series of training for expert documenters who wanted to learn how to sensitively document the cases of children who have experienced torture and sexual violence. We also offered advanced training on psychological Forensic Medical Documentation because many doctors have less experience in this area than in FMD of physical injuries. We are also hoping to train on FMD and develop a network of documenters in Iraq, where torture and sexual violence have been endemic.
26 January 2023
Conversation with Amal Al Nasin - Part 2
This is part two of our conversation with Amal Al Nasin, the founder of Amal Healing and Advocacy Center (AHAC) based in Turkey. Amal has been working with survivors of arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence for many years as well as supporting the advocacy efforts of families of the detained who are still missing. She is constantly working to increase the breadth of support offered to the communities that Amal Center serves and improve the quality of care they provide to survivors and their families.
What does transitional justice mean to you, and what does it look like for these communities where you are working?
I am a lawyer, I believe in justice. I believe everybody should have equal access to their rights. For me, this means accountability and justice for victims of war and human rights violations. Justice is reached through accountability. The women we work with are trying to find the family members who have disappeared. They want to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes; this is the main thing they are focusing on.
How are you working to elevate women to leadership to have a voice in these processes?
At AHAC, we focus on gender sensitive transitional justice. We prioritize involving women in this process and raising awareness of women’s needs post conflict. We are advocating for reparation, institutional reform, and women’s inclusion in these processes. They should be able to talk about all the violations they were subjected to and be a part of reconciliation committees. We need to involve women in the justice process and raise their voices until the decision makers can hear them. Syrian women must be leaders to drive change and make a difference.
A few years ago, I formed a group for families of the disappeared. I gathered 60 families of the missing persons and taught them about democratic principles before anything else. Then we met to elect leaders to represent these families. We held a formal election with a lawyer present to ensure that the process was very transparent. The candidates explained their programmes and their agenda and the group elected 15 women to represent the 60 families. This was a very important step in establishing democratic leadership. Now, years later the group has grown to 120 families and this leadership structure and democratic process are still intact.
We then held workshops where we trained the 15 women on international law and advocacy and capacity building. We trained them, listened to them, and gave them everything they needed to successfully lead in their communities. Now they can, to a certain extent, represent the cases of missing persons very well.
How do these programs change the quality of life for survivors and improve their ability to participate in their communities?
I am an advocate for women survivors. Now, we are providing them with medical, social, psychological, and legal aid services in Hatay, Antakya and even in Istanbul. That’s why Amal Center was able, through these years, to gain the trust of the community.
We are seeing more initiative from women survivors who participate in our programmes and from those who hear about them. Some women hear about our programmes and our services from women who have participated in our activities and they feel empowered to improve their own lives by joining us.
During the legal awareness sessions for the Aswatuna project with Synergy, we met a lot of survivors who have not documented their cases because they do not believe in justice. It has been a long time since the conflict started, and nothing has happened. So by raising awareness of ongoing justice efforts, we were able to break this barrier and help them overcome their hesitation. Now both women and men are asking to have their cases documented by Amal Center.
For forensic medical documentation, we are referring these cases to Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) after we have obtained informed consent and established trust with the survivor.
We have a group of 20 women who approached us to help them start a network. They want us to support them by involving them in workshops and training. They see how involvement in activities that build their skills, increase their awareness and knowledge about their legal rights, and increase their awareness of the psychological effects of what they went through impact their lives. These activities help our participants reintegrate in their community and diminish the stigma they are feeling.
Other survivors were able to find jobs in different places. I know two of them who are still in touch with us. We also help some survivors manage their own websites. The Aswatuna “Listen To Us” campaign was conducted by 10 -15 women who became leaders and conducted their own advocacy campaigns with support from Amal Center. During the campaign some survivors were not cooperating with each other, so we were able to strengthen the personal relationships among women and help them focus on improving lives. Now they know that they have a bigger cause that is more important than their individual differences. As a result, many women are sharing their stories now, and are advancing the advocacy campaign.
We are also still working and communicating with women survivors inside Syria, and we are working with the families of missing persons. We represent the voices of those people authentically, providing them with the tools and training that they need to raise their voice effectively.
How has Synergy’s training helped you implement this program?
We recently completed a training on case building with Synergy, and are working on building our own capacity as a legal team at Amal Center. We are learning how to improve written documentation for cases, because initially we had some weakness in writing reports and documenting violations. Synergy also provided us with training on human resource management, as well as safety and security. They helped us a lot to use the training and tools to improve our institutional effectiveness and plan for the future. Synergy also helped our individual staff members develop their skills and bolstered their capacities. So we are working to export these skills to other organisations. We teach these skills to others, to other institutions and organisations who are working with us so that they can train their own staff.
Can you share a story about how the training has helped one of your staff care for survivors?
The psychological training we received from Dr Dina Al Shafie on the many aspects of psychological evaluations and how to develop those aspects of our work was very valuable. We are currently implementing her recommendations.
We have a psychosocial worker who was not dealing directly with survivors but acted as a main referral point. With Dina’s help, this woman is now able to provide care for some survivors. Some of her clients came to see me and thank me for supporting her to expand her work. They were happy with the psychological support they received from her and how she created a safe space for them to speak. Dr Dina helped our psychosocial team improve their skills to provide psychological support to survivors and their families.
I especially feel the impact of our partnership with Synergy in our legal work because we are working on some proposals for how to expand our legal programmes. We have an action plan and we are already doing good work solving legal problems for Syrians with the immigration office and the Turkish government.
We were able to help someone who was going to be deported from Turkey by resolving his issue with the Turkish immigration office. As a result of our work, a man and his family are able to return to their lives here, and remain safely in Turkey without fear of being deported. This is a success story.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Yes, I would like to talk about the challenges we are facing at Amal Center. The only significant long term grant we have received is the grant from Synergy for Justice. It has helped us a lot, it’s expanded our scope of work, and helped us have programmes for the future. We continue to apply to many different donors but it’s a challenge to expand our funding. I am afraid, after all these achievements, that lack of funding will be one of the obstacles to undermine our work.
12 January 2023
Moot Court Demonstration Showcases the Role of Expert Medical Documentation in Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Prosecution
As a partner of the UK Government's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI), Synergy for Justice directors, personnel, and partners from Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) participated in the PSVI conference in London from November 28-29, 2022. The PSVI was started by former British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie. It “aims to raise awareness of the extent of sexual violence against women, men, girls and boys in situations of armed conflict and rally global action to end it.” (read more about it here)
As a UK partner, Synergy was invited to showcase its work, specifically how the medical documentation of torture and sexual violence cases contributes to accountability for perpetrators and justice for survivors. Synergy and LDHR demonstrated the impact of medical expert evidence and how it can be used to provide alternative sources of evidence and reduce reliance on survivor testimony which often results in retraumatisation of survivors. We also highlighted the importance of dedicated commitment to local actors and the positive impacts that survivors experience after their cases have been documented.
To accomplish this we worked closely with the LDHR team to create a moot court scenario based on a real case they documented and prepare the testimony and the questions for the prosecutor. Synergy also moderated the panel discussion that followed the moot court.
What is a Moot Court and Why Is It Helpful?
A moot court is used as a way to simulate a real court environment to help lawyers train. Moot courts are helpful to illustrate the value of medical reports as a form of evidence. They are also helpful for the documenters to understand the importance of the quality of their documentation as evidence that must withstand the rigor of international court examinations. Since 2012, the UK FCDO has been supporting a group of dedicated Syrian doctors and lawyers to develop holistic, survivor-centric and effective responses to the widespread and systematic sexual violence which has been committed in Syria. This started as the PSVI’s first project and was the first deployment of its Team of Experts. It highlights what PSVI support and expertise can achieve.
Now in 2022, that group, Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR), is moving into its seventh successful year of programming as an NGO, supported and mentored by Synergy for Justice (largely the original training team and expert mentors). LDHR doctors have completed over 500 medical expert reports documenting survivors experiences, which are being provided for use in European universal jurisdiction criminal cases.
Synergy uses the moot court as a way to help its medical documenters practice providing expert witness testimony for cases of torture and conflict related sexual violence. We bring in international judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers to take LDHR through their expert testimony. Synergy also assigns medical and legal coaches to the doctors and lawyers to help prepare them for the moot court. During the sessions, LDHR doctors are asked questions about the medical report first by a prosecutor and then by defence, and the process is overseen by a judge. At the end of each session, the judge, coaches, and attendees give feedback to the doctor about what part of their testimony was strong and what requires more training.
Reactions to the PSVI Moot Court Experience
Participating in the presentation of the moot court at the PSVI conference was a meaningful experience for the Synergy team and our partners at Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights.
“Sharing our work through this moot court with a wider audience and hearing their positive feedback deepened our feeling of great responsibility to support survivors and to continue to develop ourselves and improve the quality of our work." Yasir Seyid (LHDR lawyer and chairman of the board. He was the prosecutor in the moot court)
“It was a wonderful experience. It gave us the opportunity to present our role as doctors and lawyers and it made us feel closer to our goal: Through our forensic medical documentation, we seek justice, to hold the perpetrators accountable, and to prevent sexual violence around the world and in Syria in particular.
We were proud to hear the comments from the audience during the Q&A session afterwards, and we felt great joy when the audience broke into applause when they heard about the survivors’ positive reaction to the documentation process.
The conference was a large well organised forum. It was nice to present our work and have the opportunity to meet others who work in this field around the world and learn more about their work. What distinguishes this experience is the opportunity to present our work in a realistic manner instead of using speeches and presentations. For me as a doctor, nothing compares to this experience, where I was in the position of an expert witness presenting my medical expertise and findings to those who are interested; and to show through this experience, how documenting violations can help prevent their occurrence.” Mohammad Al Sharif (LDHR documenter and head of the Quality Assurance Committee. He was the expert witness in the moot court)
Overall the PSVI conference was a very successful experience for Synergy for Justice. The conference introduced an audience of more than 600 participants to Synergy and LDHR’s work. Most people have never heard of forensic medical evaluations, or if they have, they still do not realise how concrete and substantial they are as evidence. People who attended our moot court session learned much more about the evaluation process and came to understand why courts are increasingly relying on forensic medical evidence in torture and sexual violence cases. We received feedback from those who attended the sessions saying that it was very interesting and one of the only sessions that was truly interactive and informative.
"I thought the most impactful part of participating in PSVI for us was demonstrating how the unique and important work of LDHR and Synergy fits in the global efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict." Mera Eftaiha, Synergy Director of Programmes
"The robust and meaningful participation of survivors in the conference was critical to its credibility. Many survivors were involved in the content planning as well as in the plenary and side sessions on both days. Not only were their contributions concrete and important, but they were also real. They were honest about their experiences and assessments of where the global community has fallen short in providing remedies and support." Christy Fujio, Synergy Executive Director
30 December 2022
Will You Help Us Grow in 2023?
You can help us expand our impact in 2023. December 31 is the last day to make tax deductible charitable contributions for 2022. If you are planning to make a year-end gift, would you consider making a donation to Synergy for Justice as part of your year-end giving?
We are working hard to expand our work to more countries, and create new partnerships with more local organisations that are working to hold perpetrators accountable and care for survivors of arbitrary detention, torture and conflict-related sexual violence.
Specifically our goals for next year include:
1. Increasing Support for Doctors Working with Child Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence
We want to provide more support and mentoring for the doctors who have just been trained to forensically document child cases of torture and sexual violence. This project has had an incredible impact on doctors ability to care for child survivors and document their cases, but it is emotionally draining and difficult work.
Synergy's support for doctors will include one-on-one mentoring and oversight by a Synergy expert as they begin to document their first child survivor cases. The Synergy expert, with consent of the survivor, can monitor the medical documentation, sitting in on the physical and psychological examination. The Synergy expert will then provide feedback to the doctor related to their interview techniques, informed consent process, the physical examination and the psychological examination, and their ability to build rapport with the survivor.
2. Expanding Forensic Medical Documentation to Germany
We are also planning to expand our forensic medical documentation programme to Germany, where there is a large Syrian diaspora needing documentation and follow-up support. The most active universal jurisdiction efforts related to Syria have been in Germany, and there are more than 800,000 Syrians residing in Germany, most of whom arrived over the past decade and many of whom are survivors of torture. There have been numerous reported cases of torture survivors encountering the perpetrators in their communities.
To support justice and accountability efforts against Syrian perpetrators of torture and sexual violence, Synergy will identify partners in Germany to expand its network of documenters and build on the sustained efforts of those prosecuting Syrian perpetrators of torture and sexual violence. Synergy will train doctors on completing medical evaluations using the Istanbul Protocol to contribute evidence that will support criminal investigations and trials of perpetrators of torture and sexual violence.
3. Expanding Support for Women-led Justice Organisations to Iraq
We have identified a women-led justice organisation in Iraq that we want to support through organisational development. They are advocating for greater legal protection for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and they need support to reach their full potential. The organisational support will include a full scale assessment of their operational and programmatic implementation. The assessment will allow Synergy and the organisation to develop a set of milestones that both Synergy and the organisation can work towards to strengthen the organisation. Synergy will provide tailored training and mentoring to the staff based on the assessment and will support the women-led organisation in achieving its mission in Iraq.
4. The Stigma Toolkit Development
We want to expand our work with the Stigma Toolkit so that we can pilot it more robustly. We’d like to do comprehensive pilots in two countries. Synergy’s Stigma Toolkit is the result of years of research on the experiences of sexual violence survivors with justice systems around the world. We found that stigma is built into legal systems and affects the experiences of survivors and the outcomes of sexual violence cases.
We used this research to create a framework for assessing embedded stigma in legal systems and developing action plans to move the system toward survivor-centric and trauma-informed approaches that eliminate stigma and reduce harm to survivors. When implemented, these practices will result in more predictable and rigorous justice processes that hold perpetrators accountable and reduce impunity.
In addition to increasing the scope of our pilots of the Stigma Toolkit we would like to expand the amount of resources available in the toolkit. Two of these resources are:
Will you help us expand so we can equip justice actors to hold perpetrators accountable and support more survivors of arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence?
Here are some examples of how our money is disbursed:
28 December 2022
Barriers to Survivor Reintegration - Reducing the Risk of Self-harm Through Transitional Justice Activities
Women who experience arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence during their detention are more at risk for self harm. In Syria, tens of thousands of women have been detained, tortured, and sexually assaulted to destroy communities and to break the public and political opposition to the authoritarian Syrian regime. Thousands of these women are still missing and presumed dead. The women who survive the experience have lasting physical, mental, and emotional effects that prevent them from returning to a normal life.
While many women survive the detention, torture, and sexual violence, they are still at risk for other secondary harm, including self harm. Social isolation is one of the largest risk factors for self harm among survivors of detention. The isolation they experience has multiple causes, but much of it is related to shame and stigma associated with sexual violence. Due to the physical, mental, and emotional trauma these women have endured, and its lasting effects on their quality of life, many women feel shame and are self-conscious about their physical scars, trauma-related habits, anxiety, and emotions. This causes them to shy away from other people and avoid social and religious gatherings where they might be able to connect with other women who have similar experiences. Self isolation due to shame can also lead to conflict with their families, spouses, and friends, causing survivors to retreat further into isolating behaviors.
Stigma-related isolation results from the common social understanding of what often happens to a person arbitrarily detained during militarised political conflicts. People assume that detainees have been sexually assaulted, which impacts perceptions of family honour and value. Ultimately, this means that a survivor’s needs upon release are often overshadowed by the community’s beliefs about what happened to them. Stigma related to sexual violence - whether actual or perceived - deeply affects the survivor’s life, and women are disproportionately affected by the stigma of sexual violence. Women are often forced into isolation by family members who are afraid that they too will be stigmatised by the community or blamed for failing to protect the women in their family. There are also a percentage of families who don’t report their female relatives as missing if they are assumed to be detained, in an attempt to avoid the stigma of sexual violence associated with their families.
All of these factors result in the isolation of survivors and disproportionate isolation of women survivors of detention. As daunting as the situation seems there is hope. Synergy’s founders have been working with community leaders and advocates in Syrian communities since 2013. Over the last 9 years we have developed, tested, and implemented programmes to redirect stigma away from survivors toward the perpetrators of these horrible crimes. These tested methods successfully help communities debunk the myths that fuel stigma and understand the harm caused by misplacing the blame and shame of sexual violence on survivors. Communities learn how to care for survivors, and create safe spaces and prevent isolation of women that leads to mental health breakdowns and self-harm.
Synergy’s partner Amal Healing and Advocacy Center is also working to implement transitional justice programs that prepare women to lead and help communities integrate women, and survivors into their decision making processes to ensure that women feel included and that their agency is respected.
Would you consider including Synergy for Justice in your year-end charitable giving? Your gift this holiday season will enable us to invest in Syrian women and ensure that they have supportive communities where they feel safe, their needs are met, and they experience belonging.
26 December 2022
Reflecting on 2022 with Executive Director, Christy Fujio.
As we near the end of a long and wonderfully successful year, we wanted to take some time to reflect on the past year, and look forward to the exciting opportunities we expect in 2023.
Below, our Executive Director, Christy Fujio, shares some of the impacts of our work that have been meaningful to her this year, what gives her hope that the situation will improve for Syrian women, and how Synergy for Justice is expanding its work in 2023.
What motivates you to continue Synergy’s work?
The partners and the participants that we work with are incredibly inspiring. Most of them are living in extremely difficult circumstances, and yet they still have the commitment and energy to serve others and push for justice and accountability. They are also intellectually curious and devoted to learning more, as I am. Every time we get together it is an exceptional two-way learning process. I feel like I am constantly learning and realising how much more there is to understand, as well as seeing new opportunities to grow.
What experiences or stories have been most meaningful to you this year?
Three stand out: (1) The opportunity to see our partner Amal Healing and Advocacy Center (AHAC) grow and thrive is a joy to watch. We always knew they could expand services and do more to support survivors and families, and now that we have been working together for more than a year with significant funding, we are amazed and inspired at how incredible they are. Their participants are so positive about their experiences with AHAC. We could not be prouder to be their partner. (2) Seeing the renewed energy and commitment to holding perpetrators accountable for arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence following the conviction of Anwar Raslan in early 2022, inspires us to do more and support our documenting partners however we can. (3) Following the training we provided on documentation of cases for child survivors of torture and sexual violence, many of the doctors who participated reported that what they learned has improved their documentation and general care of child patients. Also the learning on developmental stages in children and how to interact more productively with children positively impacted their relationships with their own kids. I know how much our colleagues worry about raising their children while displaced and amidst racism, so the fact they are finding our training to be helpful in their family lives as well means so much, especially for me as a mom.
Where have you seen Synergy having a memorable impact on women's lives?
Our transitional justice work, which focuses on elevating women’s voices, strengthening their capacity to be leaders, and supporting their engagement in transitional justice processes clearly shows me how powerful women’s voices are, and particularly, how important it is to ensure that they are included in all decision-making processes at any level. Women speak not only for themselves, but also for families, for communities, for children, and for other women. We cannot achieve reconciliation without including women’s voices and experiences. By doing so, we can be sure that the needs of women will be raised and addressed.
This impacts not only women’s lives, but everyone’s lives. In all of our programming, we strive to facilitate the participation of women. We provide babysitters so that they can focus on training and workshops, we pay for additional family members to travel with them if they need support, and we ensure that they know we will support them however necessary because we care about them and their ability to participate and engage in justice issues.
What gives you hope for the future for Syrian women?
I have seen so many women break out of their shells and do more than they ever thought they could. It is not easy to do so, especially if someone comes from a conservative segment of society, but the Syrian women I know have incredible strength, intelligence, and adaptability. They are driven by their desire to improve the lives of their families and communities, and they will never stop.
What are your hopes for Synergy’s partners for 2023?
We hope and expect to see our partners continue to grow and expand their capacity to serve more survivors of torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearance. We know that they will, and we will continue to support them however is needed. We also hope to work with new locally-led partner organisations and to help them strengthen and expand as we have with our current partners. Our goal is always to reach a point where our locally-led partner organisations are sustainable and recognised by funders as a great investment for impact.
What exciting things are planned for Synergy for 2023?
We are laying the groundwork to pilot our stigma toolkit in Ukraine, and hopefully, one more location. We are proud of the work our multi-disciplinary team did on the stigma toolkit, and we are excited to test it out, obtain critical real world feedback, and refine it so that it can be used more broadly.
We are also looking forward to expanding our forensic medical documentation programme to Germany, where there is a large Syrian diaspora needing documentation and follow-up support and also where most of the universal jurisdiction actions to prosecute Syrian torture perpetrators are.
For people who want to make a year end donation to Synergy for Justice, what will their donation fund?
Donations made this holiday season will used to support:
Your year-end donation is tax deductible, through our partner Chapel and York. Thank you in advance for your generosity as we work to elevate women, in Syria and other communities around the world.
15 December 2022
A Conversation with Amal Al Nasin, founder of Amal Healing and Advocacy Centre - Part 1
In October of this year we sat down for a conversation with Amal Al Nasin, the founder of Amal Healing and Advocacy Centre (AHAC), one of Synergy for Justice’s main partners. We had a great conversation about how she became involved in this work, the needs she sees in the communities she serves and the impact their work is having on people who have experienced arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence.
Below is part one of our conversation, we will share part two in January.
What motivated you to establish AHAC??
I found refuge in Turkey in 2012– I was a lawyer in Syria for 13 years, so in Turkey, I also started providing legal services. I first started with documentation (of human rights cases) with a group of judges. During this time, I met with a lot of survivors, former soldiers, and women survivors of detention. Their situations were very bad, and they needed a lot of services. But the organisation I was part of provided documentation services only.
I founded AHAC without any funding in 2014 to provide other needed services for survivors. I started holding outreach meetings with women survivors of detention and survivors of violence. This was voluntary work using all the knowledge and skills I had learned over the years. A group of women joined my initiative and started working with me. With time and networking, we were able to provide capacity building sessions to these women as well as psychosocial support sessions.
We did all of this without funding, until one day, my Austrian friend helped me financially, and I was able to start a women’s clinic providing medical services, specifically for Syrian women. This clinic served the Hatay area and the villages in Hatay region of Turkey. We were providing prescription medication as well as medical consultations for free. Then we saw the need for pediatric services, so we started providing those too. In addition to these medical services, we were also providing legal, psychological, and social support services, as well as conducting advocacy efforts and documenting cases of enforced disappearances and torture in detention.
Our beneficiaries trust AHAC and our staff. Now AHAC is the legal reference point for women in Hatay. They can reach out to us for any type of legal services they want, including human rights documentation, or if they need legal counselling in Turkish or Syrian law or international law.
Through our partnership with Synergy for Justice, doors began opening for us. Synergy worked with us on developing and strengthening our organisation in all areas, including finance, human resources, donor compliance, data security, and more. We were a very simple organisation, but now AHAC is more professional, and I have trust that we will develop into an international organisation and it will provide services inside and outside of Turkey.
Synergy also helped us reach women in remote areas. Every day we receive women in our centre, most of them survivors of detention and torture. Five to six women come every day to the centre, and this does not include the number of women that come for group sessions. Group sessions are for 20 people four to five times a month. They include women survivors of detention, families of the missing, and women that are facing violence because of their gender.
Our programme, funded by Synergy, covers a lot of services that women need, and specifically, Syrian women need. We provide legal counselling for establishing legal residency and we have built a good relationship with the immigration office in Turkey and other governmental agencies across sectors. They even invited women from our centre for discussion sessions, to improve collaboration between civil society organisations and the Turkish government and improve relationships between Turkish citizens and Syrian residents. We always share the challenges and problems that Syrian women and Syrians in general are facing with the immigration office in Hatay.
We have a hotline, and we receive calls requesting counselling for legal issues all over Turkey, not just in our region of Hatay. We get calls from Istanbul, Adana, and Bursa with questions regarding Syrian or Turkish law.
We have built this trust with our beneficiaries.
Can you describe the situation in the communities where you work? How does the social situation in the communities affect survivors?
The category of people we work with in Turkey are refugees, and some of them don’t have a male family member to provide for their needs. So the situation is very hard for these women as they have to be the breadwinner in addition to struggling with the burden of being refugees.
Coming to Turkey as a refugee already presents its set of challenges, the most important one being stigma. Stigma follows survivors in Syria and in Turkey. People in Turkey would look at women survivors of detention as weak and easy to exploit. This is the reason why we meet a lot of women, most of them with children, who rush into marriage without thinking it through and end up in a lot of marital problems. These problems are multiplying because women are isolated.
Spouses of disappeared and missing people are being exploited, even when they are being given relief boxes.
I can tell you a story about this, actually.
At the beginning of my work in Turkey, a group of women reached out to me. They were all spouses of missing individuals. They were being exploited sexually to receive food relief boxes. I couldn’t stay silent. I asked the manager of the organisation to meet with me in my office. At first, he did not believe the story. However, when we gave him the details with the names of the staff, he apologised to these women and reported the people who exploited them to the authorities. But this only happened because I was with them, so they felt strong.
We always work in that sense. We try as much as we can to empower survivors to be part of society. Society is never easy on them. There is also poverty in these communities, and work opportunities are very limited. Which means the situation is stark for Syrian refugees. It’s hard for them to pay their rent. All of this has a big impact on survivors and women survivors. There are also educational problems. Survivors should have access to education.
In Hatay, there is no other organisation that works like us. Which is why there is a big need for the services we provide.
The survivors know and trust that we are conveying their voices to others.
This interview with Amal provides a lot of context and insight into the situation Syrian refugees and former detainees are facing as they work to rebuild their lives after the atrocities they have experienced in war. We encourage you to read part two of this conversation in January, to learn more about the work Amal Centre is doing and the impact it is having in Syrian communities.
7 December 2022
The Lasting Effects of Sexual Violence in Conflict
In our last blog, we talked about the effects of torture on human beings and the myths we believe about torture because of the entertainment we consume as a global society. People consume depictions of violence and human suffering at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, and our consumption of that media shapes our understanding of its reality.
Depictions of violence and torture in entertainment are sensationalised and prevalent but fail to show its lasting effects on survivors. There is another form of politically weaponised violence that is thankfully less prevalent in entertainment: conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). Sexual violence in the context of conflict has been commonplace in war throughout history. It continues to be present in wars and political conflicts around the world today. Briefly explained, CRSV is any form of sexual violence that occurs in the context of war or geopolitical conflict. It is currently a problem in several countries around the world, including Syria, Ukraine, Myanmar, Yemen, and Sudan.
The severity of CRSV can range from insults and language threatening sexual assault to forced nudity, groping, and rape. It can also include being forced to witness the sexual assault of another person. Any experiences across this spectrum are deeply traumatic to the person living through the experience and profoundly affect their lives for years to come. Verbal sexual assaults can make a person fearful, withdrawn, and anxious, continually in fear for their safety. Conflict-related sexual assaults often cause physical damage that permanently harms a person’s ability to live a normal life due to things like scarring, incontinence, and impotence. It also leaves mental and emotional scars that can prevent a person from deeply connecting with a partner, making intimacy difficult or even impossible.
All of these physical and emotional outcomes contribute to shame and stigma. The injuries and effects of sexual violence affect deeply personal aspects of a person's physical health, subjects that many healthy people struggle to discuss with their partners or doctors. Personal shame and social stigma significantly reduce survivors' willingness and capacity to share these deeply personal problems with partners and physicians. Shame and stigma also prevent people who have experienced sexual violence from engaging a counsellor or psychosocial support worker to help them process their trauma and deal with their shame and self-stigmatisation as well as social stigma and isolation from their community.
Due to the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence, particularly CRSV, it receives little attention in news stories, and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. People in positions of power who use sexual violence as a weapon of war do so with impunity due to the lack of enforcement mechanisms available to prosecute them for their crimes. This impunity exists because we, as a global community, lack the public and political will to enforce change on a scale that would deter future perpetrators from committing such horrific crimes.
But this can change through meaningful, trauma-informed engagement. Synergy for Justice is supporting our partners working to document sexual violence cases from the Syrian conflict and submit them to international justice actors pursuing prosecutions under universal jurisdiction. We have recently seen a successful conviction of a Syrian intelligence officer for crimes against humanity, including conflict-related sexual violence.
Amal Al Nasin, founder of Amal Healing and Advocacy Centre, one of our key partners in this work, says,
“We try as much as we can to empower survivors to be part of society. Society is never easy on them. … We need to involve women in this process. We are raising awareness of women, we are talking about reparation, we are talking about institutional reform, and women should be involved in this process through committees, through talking about all the violations they were subjected to. … we need to involve women in this justice and raise their voices until the decision-makers can hear them. Syrian women must be leaders to change and make a difference.”
Join our newsletter list to learn more about our work with Amal Healing and Advocacy Centre and how our partnership elevates Syrian women to lead in their communities.
16 November 2022
What is torture?
We often see it acted out in movies, where the hero is captured and tortured for information before eventually escaping. In movies and TV shows, heroes who are tortured are incredibly resilient. They endure enormous amounts of suffering and are still able to maintain their physical strength as well as their sanity. We rarely see the lasting effects of torture in the stories we consume.
We know that this is an unrealistic picture of torture. We know that it has lasting physical, mental, emotional, and social effects on a person’s quality of life.
Instead of giving a legal or technical definition of torture, today, we want to define torture by its lasting effects on human beings.
Torture physically damages the bodies of people in ways that are often unrepairable. Beatings can leave scars that can never be erased. Bones that are broken and not adequately treated are permanently damaged. Malnutrition from starvation diets or unsanitary food weakens the digestive system, the immune system, and the entire body. Psychological torture, including exposure to extreme noise, placement in solitary confinement, or witnessing of torture or execution of others, can also impact overall health and leave lasting effects.
Many survivors suffer from the psychological and emotional effects of torture long after it ends. Sleep deprivation and the anxiety and fear resulting from torture often leave survivors unable to rest or sleep. Many suffer from a need to constantly be alert and vigilant, ready to flee or fight at a moment’s notice. Shame, self-stigmatisation and deeply entrenched trauma lead some survivors to engage in self-harm and suicidal behaviours.
There are also social consequences for survivors of torture. Survivors of torture are often stigmatised and excluded from their families and religious and social activities in their communities. They are often marginalised and prevented from obtaining jobs in the community. In Syria, women survivors are often forced to stay at home to avoid bringing further attention and shame to their families. This further isolation intensifies the mental and emotional distress of their trauma.
Without access to medical and mental health care and social interventions in their communities, women’s chances of recovering and returning to a normal life are limited. For many survivors of torture in Syria, their stories have no happy ending.
But there is hope. Synergy is working with local partners in Syria to ensure women have access to the care they need to recover and to engage with their communities to help them process the trauma of war and conflict and learn how to care for survivors.
7 October 2022
Why We are Working in Syria
In Syria and many other countries worldwide, governments and criminal organisations use arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence with impunity to destroy their opponents’ will to resist and remain in power. These tactics aim to destroy the will and capacity of people to oppose their oppressors. These grave human rights violations devastate women, men, children, and communities.
Survivors of sexual violence are heavily stigmatised in most communities around the world. However, there is a lack of awareness globally of what stigma is and how it affects survivors.
Stigmatisation and ostracism of torture and sexual violence survivors can break family bonds, divide communities, and drive additional conflict resulting in gender-specific violence at the community level.
Women and girls face extraordinary barriers to disclosing their experiences and seeking justice for their attackers. Men who experience torture and sexual violence often fail to report it due to the stigma associated with being a victim. For both men and women, failure to report their cases reduces their access to medical and mental health services as well as social support services.
Global experts estimate that less than twenty per cent of violent sexual crimes are reported worldwide. Several factors contribute to underreporting, but survivors’ negative experiences within justice systems and nominal conviction rates for perpetrators are primary factors. The stigma associated with sexual violence is embedded in all layers of the justice system, causing unintended harm to survivors and preventing the successful prosecution of perpetrators. Sadly, estimates indicate that less than two per cent of reported cases result in a conviction. Conviction and reporting numbers in countries with developing justice systems or countries where sexual violence is weaponized during conflict are considerably lower.
Survivors of torture and sexual violence need opportunities to disclose their experiences safely, document their cases, and receive access to medical care, mental health services, and social support systems.
On a broader scale, failure to disclose cases of torture and conflict-related sexual violence results in greater impunity for oppressive regimes and the individuals who engage in these horrific violations of human rights. Most criminal justice systems fail to deliver predictable and rigorous justice outcomes due to ineffective handling of torture and sexual violence cases by justice actors resulting in increased impunity, emboldening perpetrators continued use of these inhuman tactics.
Much of the narrative surrounding human rights violations in Syria has focused on men’s experiences, and men dominate the social spaces where justice and potential political solutions are discussed. Women’s experiences and voices have been marginalized and occasionally tokenized. There is a considerable need to amplify the voices and experiences of women to ensure that their leadership is recognized and they can contribute to accountability processes and political solutions.
Synergy works with Syrian organizations and communities to end impunity for arbitrary detention, torture, and weaponized sexual violence. We also work with our partners, Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights and Amal’s Healing and Advocacy Center to support the recovery of survivors and communities affected by these horrific human rights violations.
19 July 2022
We are excited to share our first annual report. Synergy for Justice is almost seven years old. We are proud of what we have accomplished this year and deeply grateful for our partner organisations and funders for making it all possible.
Read the full report here.
10 March 2022
Through sustained partnership and long-term continuity, Synergy for Justice and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR), a Syrian NGO with unique and considerable expertise, have created life-changing, sustainable impact for survivors of torture, sexual violence, and other human rights violations in Syria. With continuous funding from the UK Government and the guidance and support from Synergy, LDHR has flourished and expanded its programming to assist survivors of torture and sexual violence not only in seeking justice but also in dealing with stigma, and healing and rehabilitating within communities affected by a decade of conflict. This partnership has successfully localised expertise in the Syrian context, serving the needs of a wide range of participants and stakeholders. Read the full report here.
5 February 2022
Synergy for Justice (Synergy) and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) recently held the third week of multi-disciplinary training for a group of Syrian doctors who will document torture and sexual violence (SV) in accordance with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also known as the “Istanbul Protocol.” During this practical, hands-on week, the doctors practiced conducting forensic medical exams in real time with actors playing the roles of survivors of torture and sexual violence. Doctors had the opportunity to use the skills gained during the first two weeks of training by conducting mock exams under the supervision of both international and Syrian experts.
The doctors shared that they were inspired by the recent conviction of Anwar Raslan in Koblenz, Germany. LDHR’s documentation and joint report with Synergy on male sexual violence was read into the official record in the Koblenz Court to solidify the charges of sexual assault, of which Raslan was ultimately convicted, among other crimes, including murder and crimes against humanity.
Now that the doctors have completed the third week of training, they will conduct forensic medical documentation that advances accountability and ultimately reduces impunity for international crimes and grave human rights violations occurring in Syria. Participating lawyers built a solid foundation to use this compelling evidence in case building and prosecution of perpetrators of torture and SV. Following the 5-day training week, both lawyers and doctors practiced their skills in a 2-day supplemental Moot Court organised by LDHR and Synergy. Forensic medical reports documenting the torture and SV that is ongoing in Syria have been accepted by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria as well by European courts asserting universal jurisdiction.
23 November 2021
Synergy for Justice (Synergy) and Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR) recently held the second week of multi-disciplinary training for a group of Syrian doctors who are learning to document torture and sexual violence in accordance with the Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, also known as the “Istanbul Protocol.” Doctors are learning how to interact sensitively with survivors, respond to their needs in survivor-centric ways, identify and describe sequelae of torture and sexual violence (SV) in medical-legal affidavits, assess mental status, and much more during a series of week-long training sessions led by Synergy and LDHR experts. After completing the third week of training, doctors will be able to conduct forensic medical documentation that advances accountability and ultimately reduces impunity for international crimes and grave human rights violations. Attorneys are also participating in the training weeks in order to learn how to use this compelling evidence in case building and prosecution of perpetrators of torture and SV. Forensic medical reports documenting the torture and SV that is ongoing in Syria have been accepted by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria as well by European courts asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction.