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Property Restoration as a Component of Transitional Justice

In early April, Syria’s Southern Front coalition seized the Nasib Border Crossing from government forces in a major rebel-led victory. Following the seizure, the rebels and their supporters looted the checkpoint, duty free shops, and trucks that were abandoned while crossing customs. Onlookers photographed and filmed rebels driving away from the checkpoint carrying everything from cooking oil to refrigerators, and soon afterwards, news of the looting spread through social media sites. Outrage ensued among the local community in nearby Dera’a. Plundering, however, has not been unique to the rebels. The Shabiha, a government militia force, has been documented looting and destroying civilian houses in Sunni neighborhoods. The stolen goods are then taken to Alawite areas and sold cheaply in so-called “Sunni Markets.”

Both the rebels and government-affiliated forces believe that they are justified in their actions because the goods they take are spoils of war. The rebels’ justification is rooted in the legacy of government corruption, whereby Syrian state assets have been illegally appropriated by the governing elite; for ordinary government forces, meanwhile, there are few incentives to fight in a complicated war except the ability to gain wealth through looting.

Property dispossession is a common occurrence in conflicts as each side feels as though it deserves compensation for the hardships their people have suffered. Where systems of justice have broken down and no accountability exists for bad behavior, certain groups take advantage of society’s grievances for their own financial gain. In rare instances, communities hold perpetrators accountable and behavior changes. In the case of the Nasib Border Crossing, for example, the documentation of looting by rebels created a sense of accountability, and as a result, the Southern Front Coalition issued a statement promising that it would return stolen goods to anyone who could prove ownership. Several stolen trucks were consequently returned. Conversely, despite significant documentation of the Sunni Markets, the regime has taken no known steps to restore property or put an end to this alarming practice.

Unlike the physical harms of torture and murder, property damage cannot be addressed in whole or in part by holding perpetrators accountable through prosecutions. For society to move on, rather, people must be able to repossess their houses and property or at least receive alternative resources to start a new life. In Syria, where the conflict has resulted in the widespread destruction of houses, cars, and household goods, social reconstruction cannot take place without addressing property as part of the transitional justice process. But making this happen can be a challenge, and the more time that elapses between the loss and the compensation program, the more difficult it will be to identify victims or their heirs and calculate the value of the damage.

This is where human rights documenters can play a pivotal role. Through the documentation of property dispossession, activists can create a record of loss and help facilitate the implementation of programs that enable victims to return to a life of dignity. The resulting restoration and reparations programs will require ingenuity and significant resources. In Bosnia, where the conflict led to massive displacement of half the population, Bosnians worked closely with the international community to create multiple institutions that oversaw the return of over 1 million displaced persons to their homes by 2003. Choice is also an important component of the process. Property restoration mechanisms should offer victims a choice of whether to return to their pre-conflict property or start anew elsewhere. The ability to choose restores a sense of dignity which is often lost when victims are forced to flee their homes with few possessions.

With over 12 million displaced persons in Syria, the challenges are immense. Nonetheless, property restoration and reparations must be included within a holistic transitional justice program. Recovering from the realities of the Syrian conflict will require nothing less. For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].