Speakers at SJAC’s Panel. Photo Credit: SJAC
On May 12, the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), in cooperation with the American Bar Association’s International Criminal Court Project (ABA-ICC), held a panel discussion in Washington, DC on current accountability options for Syria. The discussion centered on the feasibility and potential impacts of available justice mechanisms during active conflict and was attended by legal and transitional justice experts, members from DC’s diplomatic community, and federal government representatives.
The event marked the launch of the report A Step towards Justice: Current Accountability Options for Crimes under International Law Committed in Syria, which SJAC co-authored with Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights. Lattimer and SJAC Executive Director Mohammad Al Abdallah spoke on the panel, along with Jennifer Trahan from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
The Honorable Patricia Wald, who previously served as a chief federal appellate judge and as a judge for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), moderated the panel. She opened the discussion by asking the panelists to share some of the findings from the report as well as their insights on what is possible for Syria.
Lattimer outlined the types of justice mechanisms currently available and described the feasibility of each. Although he mentioned the International Criminal Court and a hybrid tribunal as possibilities, Lattimer ultimately concluded that prosecutions in Europe and North America under principles of extraterritoriality are currently the most feasible. Lattimer warned, however, against “half-baked justice mechanisms that could actually harm the possibility of a fuller accountability process in the future.”
Following Lattimer’s points, Al Abdallah explained how each accountability option might be viewed from the perspective of Syrians. Al Abdallah expressed concern that current mechanisms may only target extremist rebel fighters for the sake of expediency and national security concerns, leaving Assad-regime officials immune from prosecution. Such a “one-sided” approach, Al Abdallah cautioned, would not lead to meaningful justice and might cause some Syrians to instead take justice into their own hands.
Trahan put the report’s findings in the context of past accountability efforts in other conflict states. Although Trahan agreed with many of the report’s findings, she objected to the conclusion that accountability should be postponed if it causes negative impacts in the long-term. Rather, Trahan argued, any steps towards justice, however imperfect, are better than none. Trahan advocated for optimism, and referenced the former Yugoslavia as a successful example of a situation where a mandate for a tribunal was set forth even when the stakeholders were at first unsure how they would accomplish the tribunal’s lofty goals.
Judge Wald then questioned the panelists, asking Lattimer and Al Abdallah to respond to Trahan’s argument that Syria should not wait to pursue justice. She then challenged Trahan’s use of the ICTY as a successful example since prosecutors were unable to apprehend high-level perpetrators, like Slobodan Milošević, until after the end of the conflict. Following the panelists’ responses, Judge Wald opened the floor to the audience.