A brave group of journalists, lawyers and researchers are amassing evidence to bring Vladimir Putin to justice. Rachael Kerr talks to founder Janine di Giovanni
Mar 25, 2023
It is said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, but all too often the journalists who witness history happening in the context of war find that their drafts are considered too rough, too compromised to be admissible evidence when it comes to proving war crimes.
Janine di Giovanni, who has reported from more wars than most, wants to change that. She is a co-founder and executive director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies – an initiative aimed at training journalists and researchers to gather testimonies that will be legally admissible in national and international courts.
The Reckoning Project was formed in 2022, two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Peter Pomerantsev, the Kyiv-born British academic, author and specialist in Russian propaganda contacted di Giovanni. “He called me up and he was in tears”, she explains. “He’s Ukrainian, this whole concept of Russia invading a sovereign country was incredibly disturbing, it was so violent right from the beginning, and he said, ‘What can we do that goes beyond journalism?’”
Pomerantsev, a documentary filmmaker and the award-winning author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible and This Is Not Propaganda, is currently Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University in the US, where he co-directs the Arena initiative, “dedicated to overcoming the challenges of digital era disinformation and polarization.”
Di Giovanni, whose thirty years of human rights reporting from conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East, and nine published books, including The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, and most recently, The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East, have earned her numerous awards, had also been working in academia.
“For the past ten years I had been gradually working my way away from journalism because I felt a kind of frustration that, since the Syrian war, journalism had less impact than the days when I started out reporting from Bosnia or Rwanda or even Kosovo”, she explains. “By the time I reported the war in Syria, I realised that the impact journalists had on policy was much smaller. So, I went back to university, and I got a master’s degree in international law in 2015. And I began to work more and more in what’s known as the accountability space – looking at how the process works of holding those who are war criminals, people who do terrible things, to account and bringing them to justice.”
By 2022, di Giovanni was Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. “So, when Peter called me, I was teaching human rights. But I was also running a
United Nations programme in Iraq and Syria and Yemen, which was training journalists and doctors and first responders how to recognise war crimes, and how to report them, so I had a background in it, and I had an idea of what it entailed. The Reckoning Project just went one step further.”
Pomerantsev and di Giovanni linked up with Nataliya Gumenyuk, the renowned Ukrainian journalist, author, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab. Together, they would build a team: “It was very important that they were Ukrainian, and we would train them to be human rights monitors and how to spread out across Ukraine and gather evidence”, di Giovanni says. “And then we would do two things with it. We would build cases for courts, either national courts of Ukraine, or the International Criminal Court, or the Special Tribunal for Aggression [an international tribunal to deal with Russia’s crimes of aggression against Ukraine demanded by the European parliament], and with the other part of our witness statements we would make multi-media films and essays, so we’d write about what we were doing. This was our way of countering the terrible acts of the Kremlin.”
Writers from The Reckoning Project team have published essays in Time magazine, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and the New York Times to name but a few. “And today, one year on,” di Giovanni declares, “we have got nearly 300 witness statements, we have 25 field researchers working full time on the ground, we are building cases with various pathways of justice and we are becoming known to various governments who want us to work with them, to see whether we can bring about universal jurisdiction.” Universal jurisdiction is the legal principle that allows war criminals, or those committing other crimes against humanity, to be tried anywhere, regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the accused. Di Giovanni illustrates this with the example of the Koblenz Trials: “Syrian war criminals were tried [and convicted] in Germany last year, and it’s ground-breaking.” She believes that this is a historic moment in which digital technology can speed the course of justice: “International justice is happening much faster than it did in the 1990s, when the tribunal for Yugoslavia or the tribunal for Rwanda were going on. Things are happening much quicker because there is so much evidence that’s being gathered, and so much recording of data.”
Of course, the very smartphones that can record eyewitness accounts of atrocities, can also be exploited to spread disinformation. “With Peter being an expert in Russian propaganda, we know the lies that they are feeding people, that the Ukrainians are Nazis, that there are no war crimes,” di Giovanni avers, so an important part of The Reckoning Project is the countering of false narratives. For her, this has personal significance: “Especially in a way, because I am witnessing two very painful things: the re-writing of history of Bosnia, where there are genocide deniers, and the same in Rwanda. So, this work really lets us say, you are not going to rewrite this because we have witness statements and they are locked down, and they are verified. They are verified with OSINT and other tools.”
There is a third part of The Reckoning Project, one that will be a permanent, physical reminder of historical truth: “When the war is over, we will create a lasting memorial, something like the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda, or the Srebrenica Memorial in Bosnia, as a way of saying: ‘This happened and you will never take away this agony, and this shows the truth.’”
While combatting disinformation is important, di Giovanni focusses fiercely on the form in which truth is preserved. “We’re dealing with something that is on a different level, which is war crimes”, she stresses. “The truth has to be preserved in a certain way, and our witness statements have to be taken in a way so that they can be admissible in court.”
This intense focus stems from her own experience of the International Criminal Court. “I remember being called by a Hague investigator and by the time he called me it was ten years after the event. I no longer had my notebooks. I had actually burned my notebooks, because I wanted distance between what had happened in Bosnia and what was in my life by then. And I couldn’t remember it, so I was very honest with him, and I said, what you’re asking me, which was a very specific thing, about a certain day, I could not remember.” She has given evidence about other conflicts and firmly believes “that journalists are probably the people best suited to be brought to court, because they are witnessing it in real time.” But she is equally firm about the training needed for taking witness statements: “You cannot ask leading questions and a lot of what journalists do, and especially television journalists, is that you do ask leading questions. It’s not that you want to put words in people’s mouths but usually there is an answer that they want to get.”
She also points out that many witnesses are in shock. “Traumatised evidence cannot be used in court, so if someone is deeply traumatised and you are talking to them, it’s basically inadmissible”, she says, because “one of the main things with people who are traumatised is that their timelines are not accurate. They have a restricted sense of time, or their sense of time is not linear.”
Journalists and researchers must, she says, “follow the principles of ‘do no harm’ – so you cannot re-traumatise a witness, which is something, I’m afraid, that journalists often don’t take into account in their zeal to get a scoop.” The pressure of the news cycle and the ferocity of some news editors is such that reporters are motivated to come back with exclusives rather than taking care with the people that they talk to, which, di Giovanni says, can have horrendous results. “Our researchers are trained very carefully not to re-traumatise witnesses, to make them feel safe when they are giving evidence and, in this way, we can use these statements from our archives, give them to prosecutors and build cases.”
The Reckoning Project team includes two Syrians – barrister Ibrahim Olabi, and legal data archive analyst Raji Abdul Salam – who have expertise in international law and war crimes. Their knowledge and experience is vital, says di Giovanni, to the understanding of Putin’s tactics. Putin has launched three wars, which, she says, are similar. Chechnya was Putin’s first war, Syria was where he honed his strategies, and now Ukraine.
“Because I reported all three of those wars, I’m in quite a unique place for scrutinizing his tactics. And his tactics are horrific.” Putin has, she says, very little care for the damage inflicted on civilians.
“They are extremely careless when they missile or rocket or shell cities or buildings. For instance, at the Kramatorsk train station, which was bombed last April, 60 people were killed and more than 100 injured, people who were trying to run away from the fighting and in fact it was
nowhere near a military facility. This very careless and cruel targeting of civilians, or targeting a maternity hospital, or schools, kindergartens, or taking out the infrastructure, taking away heating for people in the winter – these are all Putin’s tactics to chip away at their morale so that they will cave in, but what he didn’t intend or expect was that the Ukrainian people would put up such a fight.”
Di Giovanni has seen from her own reporting in Chechnya and Syria how Putin responds to such defiance: “In a way, that’s why he destroyed Grozny, in Chechnya, making it the most destroyed city on earth, according to the UN, because the Chechens fought back. And the same with the Syrians, Aleppo was just gutted because for Putin, who joined Assad’s fight in 2015, to have people resisting that much just made him hit them harder and that’s what’s happening in Ukraine.”
She believes the Ukrainians’ determination is driven not just by their fierce defence of their own identity and territory, but by their awareness of the responsibility laid upon them. “They’re not just fighting for Ukraine, they’re fighting for everyone, everyone who believes in having democratic values. It’s really annoying when you get Republican congressmen saying, ‘why are we fighting for them, this isn’t our war’, well yes, it is our war. If Putin was allowed to get away with this, there would be nothing stopping him and I’m convinced – I can’t remember who said this, but it’s so true – that if Trump was in power, the Russians would be in Poland by now.
“I think that what they are doing is more than heroic, they are doing something historic. Putin is the ultimate disruptor and the ultimate anti-democratic icon, and the Ukrainians are basically the last line of democracy before Europe, so for anyone that’s a naysayer, the question is: How much do you value your democracy?
“Everything that we believe in, human rights, rule of law, justice, these are the things that Putin despises, and what’s happening within Russia now is more and more autocratic and authoritarian. It’s a shell of a country where dissidents are put down and jailed and any kind of resistance is immediately mown down. I think that we in the West have to take this war very seriously and give the Ukrainians all the support we can.”
While acknowledging that she is not a military expert, “I can’t speak for what NATO should or shouldn’t do”, she believes Europe should provide the ammunition and aircraft that President Zelensky has asked for, and rather than worrying about how long it will take to train Ukrainian pilots, just get on and begin training them. “I know there is this question of a wider war, but let’s look back to 1999 when 19 countries went to war for Kosovo. That was a NATO alliance and in 78 days, Slobodan Milošević, a dictator, was put down. Several years later, three years later, to be exact, he was sitting in the Hague. So, when people say you will never defeat Putin, Putin will never go the Hague, I always look at the Milošević example because we never thought in a million years that he would fall. He had overseen four wars, he had ruled over his country for a decade and yet there he sat, in the dock, in the Hague. So, nothing is impossible if there is political will and I think right now there is a very strong political will, we need to keep the momentum moving, we need to keep it going and we need to keep supporting Ukraine.”
Di Giovanni has huge admiration and belief in the Ukrainian spirit. “We have a team of 25 people, many of them have been displaced, many of them come from the occupied territories, many of them have lost their homes, or family members, some have been taken by Russian forces and tortured, and they are the most resilient and hardworking and absolutely extraordinary people. So, if I’m just looking at the microcosm of my own team at The Reckoning Project, I just see people who are willing to fight at all costs, they’re willing to go without electricity, they are willing to walk up 19 flights of stairs, because their infrastructure has been hit. They are willing to spend a winter in a bomb shelter. They are willing to keep telling the truth. They are willing to keep their country going, because they believe so much in fighting against the Kremlin and fighting for democracy. The people I work with are just remarkable.
“I’m very proud of our work. It came out of great frustration and rage and anger that so little justice was delivered to people in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, or places like Ethiopia where a million people have been killed. The Reckoning Project is really a way to hasten justice. Instead of waiting for wars to end, we work on the ground while the war is ongoing. We collect the evidence and build cases while also keeping stories flowing so we can inform the public.”
As the International Criminal Court formally issues arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova Belova, charging them with the war crime of illegally deporting children from Ukraine, The Reckoning Project’s work could not be more important. As Janine di Giovanni put it in a tweet: “This is international justice working. Ukraine has amassed 300 witness statements in one year. Evidence doesn’t lie.”