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Inclusivity framework vital to achieving transitional justice in Syria

HNC delegation arrives to Geneva at the start of the peace talks in February. | Photo Credit: United Nations / Jean-Marc Ferré

Two weeks ago in London, the opposition bloc to the Syrian government, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), unveiled a plan to bring about political transition within Syria and an end to the country’s five-year civil war. The plan, which includes three chief phases (six months of negotiations and a ceasefire; the establishment of a transitional government along with the abdication of President Bashar al-Assad; and the drafting of a new constitution with UN supervised elections after 18 months of transitional government rule) is the most detailed and unified proposed political solution to the crisis that the opposition has offered to date.

Although based off the 2012 Geneva Communique‘s commitment to “equal opportunities” and non-discrimination, the transition plan contains language that conflicts with establishing this type of inclusive society. Namely, the HNC’s first General Principle fails to appropriately confront Syria’s past dysfunctions and create the foundation for institutional reform. Instead, the first principle states:

“Syria is an integral part of the Arab World, and Arabic is the official language of the state. Arab Islamic culture represents a fertile source for intellectual production and social relations amongst all Syrians of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs as the majority of Syrians are Arabs and followers of Islam and its tolerant message which is distinctly moderate.”

HNC’s formulation of this General Principle shares characteristics with what sociologists call a “hegemonic state,” whose “primary characteristic . . . is the dominance of one community over others, recognizing them only if they submit to its rule.”

With this language, the HNC has set the tone of hegemony for Syria’s future state — one that prioritizes specific religious and cultural groups over others — which not only harms the creation of an authentic inclusive society open to all forms of social identity, but also mirrors the type of discriminatory political environment established by President al-Assad and his consolidation of power through the Alawite sect. The HNC plan seemingly tries to correct for its prioritization of the “Arab Islamic culture” in the third General Principle by stating that Syrians should be able to enjoy equal rights without discrimination on all levels, including “color, gender, language, ethnicity, opinion, religion, or ideology.”

Nevertheless, having in one breath already established a framework for a new Syrian state based on Arab culture, ethnicity, and Islam, it is difficult to believe in the legitimacy of the plan’s succeeding promise for total inclusivity. In fact, many Syrian human rights activists and ethnic/religious minorities have criticized the HNC’s motives and its ability to represent all Syrians in the negotiations which is unfortunate because this document was a means for the HNC to build trust among Syrians from all backgrounds.

Every aspect of a proposed plan must be sensitive to the harms war has inflicted on society. The HNC’s transition plan, however, sets a tone that hinders the extension of justice, fairness, and equal rights and opportunities to all peoples within the state — which can lead to civil unrest and violence, as was the case in Syria in 2011. It is critical that Syria’s future state breaks away from the past entirely by avoiding any precedent for hegemonic behavior. General principles should instead stress non-discrimination and inclusivity without exception and create avenues to facilitate reconciliation among all groups within Syria.

The importance of citizenship and its role as a cornerstone for state development is overshadowed by the first General Principle. Instead of citizenship being the chief connector of an individual to the state, the plan implies that individuals, no matter their religious or ethnic backgrounds, must relate to the state as an Arab Islamic entity first and foremost, rather than as a neutral state entity composed of Syrian citizens.  Without a strong emphasis on citizenship, reconciliation will be stymied and, as a result, institutional reform will also falter because not all Syrians will feel invested in the country’s future.

SJAC was pleased to see that the HNC’s plan included many references to transitional justice. As the plan acknowledged, any holistic transitional justice program in Syria must include an institutional reform component. But that reform need not wait until the transition. It can begin during the negotiations, as long as those at the negotiating table have the will to break from past legacies and use the peace agreement and transition as an opportunity to create the foundation for the country’s future. The first General Principle demonstrates a lack of will to adequately confront social divisions or to build citizens’ trust in the new government. Given Syria’s diverse demographics and rich cultural history, tolerant pluralism is the only option for achieving long term peace and stability, a fact which any proposed solution must be cognizant of.

For more information or to provide feedback, please email SJAC at [email protected].