3 min read

Transitional Justice Strategy Meeting for Syria

SJAC Executive Director, Mohammad Al-Abdallah

On April 13th, SJAC Executive Director Mohammad Al Abdallah opened the Transitional Justice Strategy Meeting for Syria, held in Istanbul, Turkey. International experts and key Syrian activists convened over several sessions, discussing preparations for accountability and peace in Syria. Drawing constructively on their conversation, the participants outlined a framework for transitional justice  efforts in Syria that recommends key principles, considerations, and steps that can be taken immediately to facilitate accountability and peacebuilding.

The meeting, supported by the Public International Law & Policy Group and the United States Institute of Peace, identified immediate and longer term challenges of transitional justice efforts. Habib Nassar, Middle East and North Africa Director for the Global Network for Public Interest Law, facilitated the meeting’s opening sessions posing questions of timing, priorities, and urgency. On Sunday, participants built upon the previous day’s discussions by forming break-out groups distilling key recommendations on the topics of memorialization, prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reform.

On truth-seeking and memorialization, Elizabeth Silkes of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and Neil Kritz of USIP facilitated a discussion of next steps in Syria. Truth-seeking efforts should balance the dual goals of sharing the stories of all sides while encouraging unity and coexistence. An independent body for truth-seeking should work to prevent a narrowly partisan rewriting of history. Similarly, memorialization efforts might involve the preservation of spaces and landmarks to emphasize the collective suffering experienced across Syrian communities.  Truth commissions commonly make recommendations to prevent future abuses, but they have often gone ignored by governments in the past. A Syrian truth commission might be empowered with a compelling mandate to ensure the government acts on its decisions.

Attendees also collaborated to recommend useful strategies for prosecutions in Syria, a discussion facilitated by Michael Scharf, co-founder and managing director of PILPG. First, given the huge scope of violations, prosecutorial efforts should be accompanied by  campaigns that clearly broadcast the scope and purpose of the trials in order to educate and manage Syrians’ expectations of the possible outcomes.  It will be important to protect witnesses, judges, and lawyers and insulate the trials as much as possible from local and international political pressures. To that end, the documentation efforts currently underway will be critical in providing strong evidence that will support the legitimacy and fairness of trials. Ideally, the first trials will involve victims of all groups in order to demonstrate that they are responsive to all of Syria, not aiming to marginalize particular groups.

Anne Massagee of the Internal Center for Transitional Justice facilitated the break-out session on reparations, an important topic given the scale of devastation, displacement, death, and injury in Syria. The participants emphasized the broad scope in which reparations must be contextualized. They could come in more traditional forms including grants, loans, and physical provisions for reconstruction, but should also comprise educational and social programs as well as psychological services. While bearing the responsibility for reparations is an important way the government can signal its sincerity to helping Syrian victims and their families, funding the reparations will be a serious challenge. The government should prioritize reparations based on need and might look to international sources of funding, as occurred in the case of Morocco’s Equity and Reconciliation Commission, funded in part by the EU and Belgium. Reparations also serve a symbolic purpose beyond the material compensation they provide, so the government should educate the public on the goals of reparations.

The key dimensions of short- and long-term institutional reform were discussed in a session led by Dr. Daniel Serwer,  Professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins University. Participants noted that a stable security situation will simultaneously require getting the militia off the streets while strengthening the police. Establishing confidence in civil institutions must be a top priority. To do this, civil society, largely composed of activists, must be recognized as an important stakeholder and actively integrated with local initiatives. During the transition it will be important to monitor how the structures of social and governmental power interact along sectarian dimension. As much as possible structural divides should be avoided while transitional strategies that naturally engender integration can be beneficial. Participants largely rejected the practicality of lustration (disqualifying former regime members from office) in the context of Syria. Conscious of the problems of deBaathification in Iraq, attendees recommended local tribunals might offer suggestions on the future roles of the regime’s public servants.

Achieving justice and accountability during and beyond Syria’s transition is a vital, but difficult, goal. The Transitional Justice Strategy Meeting for Syria has contributed to this process by assembling key Syrian activists and experts with considerable expertise in human rights and transitional justice. The framework produced by the meeting’s attendees will be a valuable source of guidance informing and steering the SJAC’s own efforts to support transitional justice in Syria. In the coming months, the  SJAC is looking forward to building upon the meeting’s insights and prescriptions while continuing to coordinate efforts advancing accountability and justice.

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