Recent weeks have seen a bright spark of interest in transitional justice for Syria. This interest comes from within the country and internationally. That such a vital idea is being taken up en masse is an encouraging development. But, just as importantly, prioritizing transitional justice must not be reduced to a timely buzz word that soon loses its novel appeal.
Transitional justice is an invaluable approach to addressing human rights violations and crimes with a focus on reconciliation and meaningful transition, often from periods of extreme violence. It effectively tackles questions arising from the dual needs of holding violators accountable while enabling a positive post-conflict environment. Transitional justice often comprises consultations with victims, truth-seeking commissions, prosecutions as well as amnesty, reparations, and the creation and reform of institutions. The need for such mechanisms in Syria has helped spread wider discussions of what transitional justice will look like.
Talking about transitional justice in the future is good, but it is the concrete efforts that Syrians are making today to document and disseminate information that will drive the success of transitional justice enterprises. Documentation efforts have included websites devoted to recording victims’ accounts of events and YouTube videos of destruction. Activists armed with cameras and cell phones are playing a vital role in capturing and disseminating information about violations that contribute to establishing “facts on the ground” after the fact. SJAC is working to amplify these efforts by coordinating work among groups supporting transitional justice, improving the documentation of human rights violations through trainings and other methods, and developing a comprehensive database of information on abuses.
And the work of transitional justice is made easier as a collective effort, with different actors specializing to effectively carry out different vital roles. Aside from documentation, other individuals and groups contribute to transitional justice efforts, such as lawyers applying their legal knowledge to help future claimants. Other groups are specializing by aggregating local documentation of events in their cities and regions, or by focusing specifically on crimes against women, for example. These activities carry promise for holding authorities and individuals accountable for their actions. Larger databases and collection efforts, like that of SJAC and the UNHCR, are well-positioned for larger-scale collection and organization, but they depend on the committed efforts of Syrians, who often risk their lives to carry out their work.
But transitional justice cannot be a grassroots effort alone. The Syrian National Coalition can serve as a powerful galvanizing body with considerable legitimacy. Especially as the opposition accelerates its efforts to manage governmental transition, they can receive the baton of transitional justice as Syrian citizens work to pass it on. Part of this effort will be deciding how Syrians want to treat members of the former government, from foot soldiers of the regime up to Assad’s inner circle. Draft frameworks for accountability and punishment, like that proposed by the Syrian Support Group, are a good start. The National Coalition can embrace and spearhead such efforts, helping to support the process from the top.
The momentum and popularity enjoyed by transitional justice today must not wane, especially as the conflict draws to a close and stories of jockeying political factions steal the spotlight. The real work of Syrians capturing and documenting violations, pushing for discussions of a fair accountability mechanism and transition, and supporting collective efforts of reconciliation will prove invaluable to the future of Syria.