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bombed-out street Aleppo, Syria attacks on civilians
bombed-out street Aleppo, Syria attacks on civilians

The abandoned, debris-strewn streets of Aleppo, Syria, 2013. The civilian population of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has been repeatedly targeted during the country's civil war. Image: Courtesy of Franco Pagetti, VII

» Tipsheet



Tipsheet for Investigative Journalists on War Crimes and Attacks on Civilians

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Editor’s Note: Amid wars in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, GIJN has created this tipsheet for journalists about understanding war crimes and attacks on civilians. It is excerpted from a longer chapter by Maggie Michael that is part of the GIJN Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes. 

The obligation on parties to a conflict to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants is one of the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of armed conflict or the laws of war). While purposefully targeting civilians or civilian objects does constitute a war crime, civilian harm resulting from attacks is not necessarily unlawful if it respects the principle of proportionality.

Violating either of the principles of proportionality or distinction constitutes a war crime. Some other specific war crimes against civilians include (but are not limited to):

  • Torture or inhuman treatment
  • Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement
  • Taking of hostages
  • Transfer of civilian population into occupied territory, or deportation of the population of the occupied territory
  • Pillaging
  • Use of prohibited weapons
  • Rape and other sexual violence
  • Use of human shields
  • Using starvation as a method of warfare
  • Recruiting child soldiers

In some cases, for example sexual violence or torture, it will be more obvious that these are unlawful acts, as such acts are always prohibited, even against combatants. However, when coming across the scene of possible unlawful attacks against civilians or civilian property or infrastructure, some of the questions that will need to be asked include:

  • Was the victim a civilian? Were they possibly taking a direct part in hostilities?
  • Was the property or infrastructure destroyed a civilian or military objective? (Did it have a possible military use?)
  • Were these people/property the target of the attack? Or was the harm a consequence of targeting something or someone else (e.g., was there a military objective or combatant nearby?)

Even with this information it may not always be possible to determine the legality of an act, but answering these questions can begin pointing towards the answers.

Tips and Tools

Before embarking on this journey of fact-finding, investigating, and collecting evidence, journalists need a deep understanding of the facts. There is nothing more important than being fully informed about the geography and landscape, the population under attack, the perpetrators, the political, cultural and religious dynamics, the historical background of the conflict, and how it has unfolded.

Background Research

Such extensive research is required before conducting deep, months-long investigations into attacks against civilians, to protect journalists from being manipulated by misleading narratives and propaganda. It can also boost confidence before a journalist even sets foot in the conflict zone.

One of the main sources of research are think tanks, like those on this George Washington University list of top think tanks in the Middle East and North Africa. Research centers like the International Crisis Group, in addition to the UN Panel of Experts, and rights groups like Amnesty International are always informative. Previous work done by UN human rights investigators is also important, such as those affiliated with the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights.

As always, journalists should do a full search of previous work on the conflict. A look at a news database like LexisNexis can help identify the best investigations.

Interview Witnesses and Victims

To prove victims are civilians, look for documents that verify identity, and records that show educational background and career history. The collection of such evidence or testimony, along with the corresponding paper trail, should give enough answers to whether the victim was part of the conflict. Collect testimonies from local municipal officials, tribal leaders, and neighbors.

Look for the “no-target” list, a list which includes all civilian properties that participants in the war must avoid. Reach out to sources at the ministries of defense, sometimes to the relevant UN bodies, and other international organizations to obtain a copy of this list in order to check and compare what came under attack and establish without doubt which sites had no military value.

In some situations, properties on the no-target list can be occupied or taken over by parties of the conflict, similar to soldiers or fighters using human shields. In those situations, witness accounts, especially those living in the same vicinity, are key to establishing whether military forces were present at the site during the time of the attack. On many occasions, civilians may possess footage of suspicious activity in buildings near them.

Interviews with Former Combatants or Insiders

Both of these elements — intent and information available to the parties — are crucial to establishing the legality of certain acts in armed conflict. However, investigators must be wary of approaching insiders and always consider: What is the motive this source has for coming forward with information?

Also recognize that there are different types of insiders: Those forced to join perpetrators against their will; those who believe that the benefits of cooperating outweighs the harm; and those who freely joined the perpetrators, and later repented.

Questions to these insiders could include: What was the motive or intent behind an attack or certain act? For example, were they targeting a specific combatant or military objective in the area or were they intending to target civilians and their property? It is also helpful to try and establish what information the parties to the conflict had at the time of the attack, such as the intelligence about the nature of the buildings or the presence of combatants in the areas. Were they aware of the presence of civilian buildings or people? Both of these elements — intent and information available to the parties — are crucial to establishing the legality of certain acts in armed conflict. They can help to point towards establishing — or disproving — war crimes against civilians.

Breaching the Language Barrier

Find a reliable, independent, and previously tested translator. Also important: a backup, such as a colleague or an independent researcher who can cross-reference your translations.

Preparing for Traumatic Conversations

Be prepared, as these civilians may be seriously impacted by the death of a family member, injury, various assaults including rape, psychological trauma, displacement, or loss of property. Journalists might get overwhelmed by the task of sitting with shattered souls to get their accounts for fear of retraumatizing them.

Victims or witnesses often open up only after a second or a third interview. And while journalists need to collect as much testimony as possible, conducting several interviews with one person may be difficult.

Keeping a written timeline also helps journalists to understand the sequence of events and will lead to further questions which can fill in the gaps of information. Collecting names, contacts, and pictures of the interviewees is essential.

Cellphones Are Gold Mines

Chats on social media platforms, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, can show the last moments of conversations before an attack. They can also provide a definitive answer with whom the victim was communicating, the content of any discussions, movement, actions, and other factors that would indicate a victim’s status in the armed conflict around the same time of the attack.

In addition, journalists can ask victims to consent to share screenshots, pictures, or videos from their phones, including contacts of other victims, or sources who might have inside information or documents needed for the investigation. It’s important to check dates, locations, and to ask questions about the context of the photos so that they can later be cross-checked with locations and dates gathered during the course of the investigation. Reporters always need to carry copies of written consent forms for owners of the material to give journalists’ permission to publish.

Collecting Physical Evidence and Military Materiel

Collecting shrapnel, spent ordnance, or other evidence of weapons and armaments are a crucial element in verifying the basic information about an attack. Marks or writings on this battlefield detritus can be examined by experts to determine the origins.

This kind of evidence paves the way for future investigation into the countries that exported the weapons to the attacking party. In addition to victims and insiders, look for accounts from other sources: medical teams, relief workers, lawyers, tribal leaders, local officials, drivers, and school teachers, all of whom can add depth and open up pathways for further investigations.

Getting coordinates, locations, maps, and accurate descriptions of the sites of attacks on civilians are important for seeking verification and documentation through satellite imagery or other geolocation techniques.

Maggie Michael, ICIJMaggie Michael is an investigative journalist with Reuters based in Cairo. She has over 15 years of experience covering conflicts in the Middle East. In 2019, she was part of an Associated Press team that won various awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and the McGill Medal for Courage for groundbreaking investigations of corruption, torture, and other war crimes in Yemen.

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