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Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice and Geneva II

Mohammad Al Abdallah, Andrew Tabler, Balkees Jarrah, Craig Charney, and Firas Maksad

On January 29, SJAC convened a discussion entitled “Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice and Geneva II.” This event served in part to launch ‘He Who Did Wrong Should Be Accountable: Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice,’ a report conducted by Charney Research in cooperation with SJAC based on in-depth interviews with 46 Syrians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds and political viewpoints. However, the event also provided an opportunity for a more general conversation on transitional justice issues in the context of the currently ongoing Geneva II negotiations. The discussion was hosted at the United States Institute for Peace and was moderated by Firas Maksad (Managing Director, Global Policy Advisors). The panelists were Andrew J. Tabler (Senior Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Balkees Jarrah (Counsel, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch), Craig Charney (President, Charney Research) and Mohammad Al Abdallah (Executive Director, Syria Justice and Accountability Centre).

Al Abdallah opened by reviewing the key findings of the SJAC report, including the strong demand for rule of law, support for trials as the best form of transitional justice albeit given little knowledge of alternatives like truth commissions, and other insights into the viewpoint of ordinary Syrians. “Transitional justice has received remarkably little attention at the Geneva talks,” he noted, despite the great importance of this issue.

Jarrah then discussed the position of Human Rights Watch, focusing in particular on the possibility of ICC involvement.  She noted the temptation to forgo justice to end the conflict, using offers of impunity as a negotiating tool. This approach, she argued, must be rejected. ICC involvement would be a more productive means of moving towards justice and accountability that could also delegitimize and marginalize bad actors. Support for this approach by the United States has been limited, but Jarrah claimed that public statements in favor of ICC involvement could be valuable even if the US believes that Russian opposition makes the ICC avenue unrealistic.

Tabler took a more macro perspective, examining many of the practical barriers to transitional justice given the situation on the ground. Citing failed initiatives to have Assad removed to countries including the UAE, Russia, and Iran as well as a ‘blacklist’ producing by Western countries of officials who needed to step down, he argued that any potential ICC involvement significantly complicates such behind the scenes talks. He also argued that support for trails makes sense given the culture of revenge in the Levant, a point that Al-Abdullah returned to later in the discussion when he noted that Syrian support for the ICC is limited both because there is a desire for justice efforts to be Syria-led and because ICC penalties are seen as insufficiently severe. “Syrians,” he said, “don’t want to see Assad in a five star prison in The Hague for a maximum of 14 years.”

In discussing the methodology of the study, Charney highlighted the fact that levels of fear in Syria were higher than those in any of the other conflict environments where Charney Research has conducted work. Many of the individuals interviewed for this report were extremely concerned that their responses remain anonymous. Still, he noted that it was clear the respondents had thought deeply about issues like transitional justice and rule of law, and were not responding off-the-cuff.

Near the end of the discussion, both Charney and Al-Abdullah clarified that the ‘He Who Did Wrong Should Be Held Accountable’ report does not argue that now is the time to begin transitional justice mechanisms. Instead, now is the time to begin discussing transitional justice. Any approach to transitional justice is guaranteed to leave some parties unhappy, but a public dialogue can help manage expectations and prepare the country to act decisively when the time to actively pursue transitional justice does come. Given limited resources for reconstruction, sending a very large number of violators to prison seems practically unfeasible, Al-Abdullah remarked. On the other hand, as many panelists noted, a simple forgive and forget approach is also unviable. Finding an appropriate balance between these two extremes is essential, and this can only be achieved through ongoing discussion.