Assad in Damascus, January 2015. (Media and Communications Office, Presidency of Syria)
In an interview with Foreign Affairs magazine coinciding with the Moscow discussions that took place in late January 2015, Bashar al-Assad discussed several points relating to the transitional justice and accountability process in Syria. Assad spoke conceptually about Syria’s commitment to upholding human rights but provided only vague and evasive answers when pressed on the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by government forces. For documenters, observers, and victims of the Syrian conflict, the interview highlighted the continued disconnect between Assad’s narrative of the Syrian conflict and the reality of the facts on the ground.
Questioned about whether the government has held regime officials accountable for human rights abuses, Assad noted only that some lower-level officials “were detained because they breached the law in that regard, and that happens of course in such circumstances.” However, at no time during the nearly four-year long conflict has the Syrian government released any details on how it punished such officials, for what crimes they were punished, or its process of determining culpability for those who have engaged in human rights violations.
Accountability measures themselves seek to empower victims to hold their abusers responsible in a public manner for widespread human rights violations; Assad’s claims, even if true, contravene the entire notion of accountability because observers are unable to categorically confirm or deny his characterization of such government-backed initiatives. Moreover, the remarks provide yet another example of Assad positioning himself as a staunch defender of human rights despite the existence of extensive evidence to the contrary. The international community’s failure to challenge Assad’s hypocrisy on accountability measures only emboldens the regime to continue its expansive violations of human rights going forward.
In the same interview, Assad refutes the notion that widely documented human rights abuses, such as those repeatedly detailed in a series of reports issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, even took place because these “mere allegations” have not been verified by independent fact finding commissions or in a domestic court of law. If Assad was interested in truth and accountability mechanisms, he would make the appropriate provisions, such as public investigations and prosecutions of regime officials who have committed human rights violations; yet, precisely because domestic and international inquiry into these matters has revealed a pattern of abuse on a nearly unprecedented scale, Assad appears unlikely to ever do so on his own accord.
Accountability for past abuses entails a commitment to transparently punish violators of human rights in manner that seeks to act as a deterrence against similar acts occurring again in the future. Assad’s passing references to already-established accountability mechanisms for government officials, as well as his categorical dismissal of documentations that detail the nature and scope of his regime’s crimes, do nothing to advance the transitional justice process in Syria or make violators answer for their actions.
The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) maintains that accountability cannot only be for a few, low-level government officials who may not have been punished at all, but rather for those responsible for abuses at the highest levels among all parties to the conflict. Currently, the individuals and systems that allow, and in many cases order, pervasive human rights violations operate without restriction or fear of punishment.
Therefore, institutional reform that leads to the establishment of real accountability measures, including legal frameworks for prosecuting violators of human rights and oversight commissions to monitor situations in which abuse occurs, comprises a key component of the transitional justice process in Syria. Ideally enacted by domestic civil society but initiated by the international community should the Assad regime remain unwilling to act, such processes should begin as soon as possible.