Filling the Justice Vacuum in Syria
As a result of the relative calm following the US-Russia brokered ceasefire, widespread anti-regime protests have taken place throughout Syria for the first time in years. Syrians in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama, and parts of Damascus took to the streets to demand freedom, declaring that the revolution is still alive. Islamist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaish al-Fatah, however, immediately disapproved and have intervened to disperse the protesters. The Islamist groups appear to have cracked down because the protesters were holding the “revolution flags” and signs calling for secularism and democracy. Activists reported that Islamist militants threatened them with death if they did not immediately leave the streets. The militants also smashed recording equipment and cameras, seized and tore apart revolutionary banners and flags, and detained some protesters.
After seizing neighborhoods and towns from either the government or opposition fighters, Islamist factions implemented so-called Sharia courts to mete out justice in the areas which they control. These courts have no written laws or legal texts to define procedures and punishments. A video taken from one of Jabhat al Nusra’s Sharia courts shows that judges do not adhere to a penal code, and instead, dole out punishments based on their own discretionary interpretation of Quranic law. A majority of these judges and clerks lack experience or academic qualifications in either civil or Islamic jurisprudence. As a result, the courts have often times been the scene of inconsistent, unfair, and vengeful trials.
These Sharia courts are also inconsistent in their interpretations of Islamic law, varying based on what school of Islam the faction follows. According to some Syrian activists, the courts interpret Sharia law to exert their own faction’s influence and goals, a problem akin to the justice system under Bashar al-Assad’s government. As a result, Syrians cannot use the courts to fairly address simple complaints, let alone human rights violations committed by the same factions that control the courts. Due to Syrians’ lack of access to fair dispute resolution mechanisms, a justice vacuum has emerged that Islamist militants have been unable to fill.
With no avenue for legal recourse, some Syrians have fought back. Recent footage from Marat al-Nuuman in Idlib show protesters chanting against Jabhat al-Nusra and tearing down the Islamist group’s black flags. The reemergence of protests against both the government and Islamist groups indicate that, despite five years of conflict, Syrians desire more than basic food and aid. It also signals a strong rejection by some segments of Syrian society of the hardline values and systems imposed by groups like al-Nusra.
A group of protesters tearing down an Al Nusra flag | Photo Credit: Hany Hilal (Facebook)
A fair and balanced legal system is one of the demands of the Syrian people. Such a legal system would adhere to the rule of law, abide by due process guarantees, grant fair trials, punishments, and redress to victims, and hold perpetrators accountable regardless of their affiliation. Syria’s judicial system is a long way from these international standards, which is why institutional reform is needed. The Sharia courts are not reform-minded. Instead they repeat the same failures of the current system and add additional chaos with conflicting and arbitrary rules. A key pillar of transitional justice, institutional reform, could include the vetting of judicial personnel, structural reforms, oversight, transforming legal frameworks, and education. Given their long history of abuse and corruption, the reform of Syrian state institutions will be vital to disabling the structures that allow abuses to occur, preventing the recurrence of violations, and instilling respect for human rights and the rule of law.
Syrian peace talks need to address the urgent need for institutional reform in Syria, particularly in the justice sector. These are issues that the negotiators cannot ignore and in which civil society can play a vital role, including by providing documentation of past institutional abuse. Additionally, international organizations and donors can support the reform process, both financially and through expertise that builds the capacity of local judges and lawyers.
While international experts largely focus on criminal accountability through international tribunals, the domestic system will also need the ability to address human rights abuses as well as ordinary complaints. International justice remains a priority, but without reform and capacity building of Syria’s justice sector, the same problems that led to dissatisfaction and conflict will inevitably continue, no matter which government emerges in the post-conflict period.
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