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New Paper: How Syrian Diaspora Use Digital Media to Pursue Justice

March 20, 2019

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a new article, Networking justice: digitally-enabled engagement in transitional justice by the Syrian diaspora. The article is part of a special issue by the journal  Ethnic and Racial Studies. I’m incredibly grateful for the great leadership and feedback from Maria Koinova and Dženeta Karabegović on this project, and for rich conversations with fellow contributors such as Milana NikolkoJoanna Quinn, Espen Stokke, and Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm.

What’s the article about, you ask? In short, it looks at how Syrian diaspora have used digital media to pursue accountability and truth in response to massive rights violations in Syria… and how the Syrian government and other actors use digitally-enabled tactics to fight these efforts.

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Illustration by Kevin Tong / OpenCanada.org

The article builds on a line of research I began a few years ago with the project The War is Just a Click Away, a series for OpenCanada that looked at how people experienced the Syrian civil war through digital connections.

Here is the abstract and first few paragraphs. I encourage you to check out the full article — and the full special issue — at Ethnic and Racial Studies:

Abstract

Digital communication technologies (DCTs) introduce new opportunities and challenges for diaspora to advance transitional justice. This article proposes three DCT-enabled mechanisms that shape diaspora engagement with transitional justice politics and processes, developed through an analysis of diaspora responses to rights violations in Syria. First, diaspora can promote transitional justice aims through connective action: loosely-coordinated, transnational mobilizations using social media. Second, DCTs enable diaspora to contribute to crowdsourced documentation of rights violations. Third, diaspora seeking to advance transitional justice may face digital repression by authoritarian governments in their original homelands. The article shows how DCTs may alter the means and opportunities for diaspora to engage in transitional justice activities, including in situations of ongoing conflict or repression in their original homelands. It also demonstrates how digital spaces are strategically engaged by activists, civil society organizations, state governments, and other actors seeking to advance or contest transitional justice aims.

Introduction

Between 2011 and 2013, a photographer working for the Syrian government took pictures of over 6,000 people allegedly killed in government custody, often after being tortured (Human Rights Watch 2015). The photographer, who used the alias “Caesar,” smuggled these images out of Syria on USB sticks and compact discs.

Foreign governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) used the images to call for Syrian government officials to be held accountable for violations (United Nations Security Council 2014; Human Rights Watch2015), a major attempt to introduce transitional justice amidst a conflict. The images were also shared online among Syrian diaspora, including a Spanish citizen who found a photo of her dead brother and launched a criminal complaint in Spanish courts against senior members of the Syrian government (Entous 2017). It is one of several criminal cases in Europe that use digital evidence of violations in Syria (Human Rights Watch 2017).

As this sketch illustrates, digital communication technologies (DCTs) are enabling new practices of transnational advocacy and action. How might these developments affect the field of transitional justice, and in particular the role that diaspora can play in its processes and politics?

In this article, I argue that DCTs change the opportunity structures for diaspora to pursue transitional justice aims, even in the absence of homeland-based processes. They allow for relevant global publics to call for or engage in accountability-seeking, truth-telling, and the recognition or memorialization of victims. They do so through two main causal mechanisms. First, diaspora can use DCTs to mobilize online through a networks-based mechanism, which Bennett and Segerberg (2013) call “connective action.” Second, DCTs enable diaspora to participate in strategic crowdsourced documentation by contributing to the collection, archiving and verification of evidence of mass violence and rights violations in their original homelands. However, opportunities for diaspora to advance transitional justice are also affected by a third mechanism, digital repression, when their online activities are targeted by supporters or agents of homeland governments.

These three mechanisms have shaped diaspora efforts to advance transitional justice responses to repression and violence in Syria, efforts made during the popular uprising of 2011 and during the subsequent civil war. The Syrian case, I argue, is paradigmatic of two recent developments in the field of transitional justice: increasing attention to transitional justice processes in the absence of peace or regime transition, and the expanding role of DCTs in committing rights violations and pursuing transnational responses to them.

This article demonstrates that digital spaces play a crucial role as arenas where transitional justice claims are made, and Syrian diaspora have been crucial actors advancing these claims. Even as conflict continues, Syrian diaspora have explicitly stated – and continue to state – that they are pursuing transitional justice, and have received support from NGOs, governments, and international organizations (see also Stokke and Wiebelhaus-Brahm, this volume). Among these efforts to advance transitional justice, Syrian diaspora have helped create digital databases of rights violations to contribute to future accountability processes and to provide immediate forms of truth and recognition to victims. Syrian diaspora have also been targeted with techniques of online repression by the Syrian government, and some diaspora members have contributed to those repressive efforts…

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