On June 27 and 28, 2013, The People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces killed six civilians associated with protests against the arbitrary detention of Yekiti Party members in the Northeast town of Amouda. The killings in Amouda have long been public knowledge; Human Rights Watch and the US State Department have both written about the crimes. However, last week, for the first time, the YPG officially acknowledged its culpability in these crimes, and apologized to victims and their families. While such an apology will never replace the lives lost, it represents a historic moment for Syria, where for decades perpetrators have failed to admit to their crimes, blocking any possibility of truth-telling or reconciliation.
Since October 2019, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political representative of the YPG, has been engaged in renewed reconciliation talks with The Kurdish National Council, a process sponsored by the US government in an attempt to foster Kurdish unity in Northeast Syria. These negotiations are complicated by a history of disagreement and conflict between the two parties. On June 27, as an apparent sign of good will, the YPG apologized for the Amouda killings on the seventh anniversary of the crime. The YPG spokesman, Nouri Mahmoud, acknowledged YPG culpability and the innocence of those who were killed, while expressing sorrow for the incident, which he called “a catastrophe.” Mahmoud’s statement was reaffirmed by the SDF Commander-in-Chief Mazloum Abdi. In addition to the acknowledgement and apology, the YPG also agreed to provide “financial and moral compensation,” the details of which have not yet been released, and recognize the victims as ‘martyrs,’ making families eligible for economic support and further acknowledging their loss.
One of SJAC’s documenters spoke to the uncle of one of the victims in order to understand how families are responding to the apology. While he shared that he believes families are generally grateful for the gesture, he also stated that, to his knowledge, most families still want to pursue criminal accountability for those involved in issuing and executing the orders to kill their sons, as is their right. He stated that YPG negotiators did not want to criminalize the matter, because a number of the YPG fighters involved were killed during the fight against ISIS, and they did not want a criminal trial to reflect negatively on the fighters or their sacrifice. While SJAC is not able to confirm the fates of the individual perpetrators, this scenario, one in which a perpetrator in one context becomes the victim in another, can be common in a conflict as complex as Syria’s. In the current context, when even the apology is significantly more recognition than had previously been given, it is to be expected that the YPG will not immediately support criminal prosecutions. However, this does not mean that criminal accountability cannot be pursued in the future. The current apology should not undermine the rights of the families to do so; it is not a replacement for other forms of justice. Negotiations about the apology can be seen as just the first step in a longer conversation that will hopefully result in a more comprehensive justice process.
While the issuance of an apology for such a serious crime may initially seem like an empty gesture, public apologies by authority figures and perpetrators play an important role in transitional justice. Apologies are considered a symbolic form of reparations and can serve as an acknowledgement of the dignity of victims, who were ignored or written out of history. Apologies can also serve an act of truth-telling, through which perpetrators confirm the facts of past crimes, and communities learn how to discuss the past in an accurate and unified fashion—a process that is integral to long term reconciliation.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the International Center for Transitional Justice have identified a number of attributes of an effective apology, including the following: apologies should be made publicly, in front of victims and their families; apologies should be made by the head of state or highest-level official of the responsible group, to show an understanding of shared responsibility; and apologies should be written in consultation with victims, utilizing their preferred language. These attributes will suggest not only remorse, but also, that a perpetrator is ready to engage with victims to right past wrongs.
The most meaningful apologies have been linked with other forms of symbolic and material reparations, including memorials to victims and financial support, as well as institutional reforms meant to prevent reoccurrence. After Sierra Leone’s 10-year war, the president apologized to women and girls for widespread sexual violence and announced the National Gender Strategic Plan, resulting in a number of pieces of legislation that both acknowledged the suffering of women during the conflict, and attempted to prevent their reoccurrence. In 2013, the United Kingdom apologized to Kenyans who were tortured and killed during the Mau Mau uprising, which British colonial forces brutally suppressed. The apology was paired with over $30 million of reparations and the unveiling of a memorial to survivors and victims.
In some cases, most infamously in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, apologies have been linked to amnesties or shorter criminal sentences. Amnesties may be appropriate in certain contexts, but they can often leave victims unsatisfied, questioning the sincerity of the apology and the value of the overall justice process. An apology should not necessarily be understood as ruling out the prospect of other justice processes, including criminal accountability. Discussions regarding what justice processes will accompany an apology need to be had directly with families and survivors.
While the YPG’s announcement in Amouda does not represent justice for the crimes committed, it does set an important precedent. In a functioning state, authorities must be able to admit when violations have occurred, investigate them, and take necessary actions to assure nonrecurrence and pursue justice. Historically, both the Syrian government and the various opposition forces that have operated in Syria since 2011 have failed to take such actions. The ability of the YPG to acknowledge the crimes committed in Amouda is an important step in the process of Kurdish reconciliation, as well as in developing government institutions that are both representative of and responsive to the people. Other armed groups in Syria, as well as the Syrian government, should learn from the YPG’s example. Meanwhile, the YPG must follow through with its promise to link the apology with financial reparations and other measures that are in line with victims’ and their families’ needs.