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Reparations: Founded upon Data and Dialogue

Today’s post highlights the fourth installment of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre’s “Memorandum Series.” For more on Documentation and Truth-seeking, download and read the full memorandum, “Using Data, Documentation, and Evidence in Reparations Processes,” prepared for the SJAC by Christalla Yakinthou.

Reparations processes need not be considered a post-war activity; in best-case scenarios, much of the initial legwork takes place while the conflict is underway. Consequently, reparations processes carry special relevance for Syria today. Given the scope of destruction, Syria’s victims cannot anticipate full recovery through reparations. Nonetheless, reparations can begin to address the material and human damage incurred throughout the conflict. To pave the way for meaningful reparations, Syrians and the international community must support non-political documentation of rights abuses and initiate dialogue about the forms of reparations available to victims in Syria.

People clearing rubble in Ghouta, Damascus. (Source: Lens Young Dimashqi)

Data collection drives and substantiates reparations processes. Documented evidence of displacement, death, and injury form the basis from which victims can request formal retribution. Reparations efforts can only begin once they have tangible material with which to work.  Moreover, the nature of reparations will depend upon the nature of the data collected—if a crime is not documented, it may not be considered during reparations processes. If documented crimes present a skewed image of the conflict, reparations processes may also be skewed.

Given data’s influence, it is critical that documentation of rights abuses be comprehensive, representative, and fair. Data should be collected across time and place—this will help paint a picture of the scope of the conflict and the extent of antagonists’ offenses and victims’ suffering. In addition, data ought to be collected from all parties in the conflict, and reflect the damages accrued by all sides. This is key in approval from people who have lived through the conflict; if a victim or group’s stories are omitted from the body of data, the victim or group may not deem the data credible. Effective documentation, therefore, maximizes the potential of universal buy-in.

In the case of Syria, this means that data should be obtained from throughout the conflict, and data should aim to represent all sides and perspectives. The conflict has passed its three-year mark. Contemporaneous collection is the ideal, given the challenges of interviewing and determining facts post-facto. Nonetheless, now is not too late; data collectors should target the entirety of the three-year conflict and prepare for contemporaneous collection for as long as the conflict persists. Moreover, documenters ought to seek data from all parties to the conflict. Reparations processes depend upon victim buy-in, which can only be achieved when victims perceive the process to be non-politicized, and when data adequately reflects victims’ personal experiences and suffering. Politically-neutral data gathering is a critical first step. Fair and contemporaneously-collected data facilitates a speedy start to reparations programs once the conflict ends.

Assuming effective data collection, reparations programs may take different forms.  Symbolic and material reparations are often employed. Symbolic reparations include official apologies, memorials, restoration projects, and public education programs acknowledging repressed narratives. Material reparations may consist of payments to families of victims, pensions for victims and survivors, and funds for social programs for communities of victims. Given the breadth of avenues available, Syrians could benefit from considering each of these possibilities.

A discussion today is necessary to evaluate which forms of reparations are feasible, desired, and effective in the Syrian context. Ultimately, reparations are only as effective as victim’s buy-in—to achieve this, discussions of reparations should be widely-discussed.  Ideally, the process should be participatory, consultative, and driven by people’s needs. Although contemporaneous collection of data is ideal, delayed implementation of reparations are acceptable if the delay allows for more time to design programs in accordance with victims’ needs. Post-conflict Syria will likely have limited funds available for programs; consequently victims will need to consider which low-cost programs (such as official apologies) are meaningful, and which high-cost programs are high-priority for them. As with documentation, discussing reparations now, during the conflict, will get the ball rolling for reparations programs once the conflict ends.

The situation in Syria may seem bleak, but its bleakness does not preclude action. Syrians and the international community can make tangible, constructive progress by engaging in effective documentation and broad-based dialogue in preparation for future reparations.