Impunity as Everyday Life

Even in areas of Syria away from the immediate vicinity of shelling or battles, the imposition of armed force is very real. Many authorities feel a sense of impunity within areas under their control, which too often means that calls for accountability for violations against civilians seem hopeless. The problem exists in areas under government control as well as in areas controlled by opposition fighters. How groups in power treat and interact with civilians says a lot about how they might view justice and accountability after the conflict.

Back in February, we posted “Ad Hoc Courts: More Transition than Justice,” discussing the various courts set up in areas under rebel control. In many ways, the courts filled a real everyday need for a civil bureaucracy. At the same time, arbitrary and despotic verdicts and punishments– as well as the ability of armed actors to intervene to enforce their own rulings– undermined many courts’ claims to be serving justice. But courts aren’t the only way that  groups enforce their rules, and civilians in Syria are becoming increasingly exposed to arbitrary violations by armed groups– whether in areas under government or rebel control.

In one middle-class neighborhood of Damascus under government-control, home robberies by individuals claiming to be from state security go uninvestigated and unpunished, as related in a story from Reuters. “Popular Committees” established to provide Damascus with added protection from rebel groups act with such impunity that even citizens inclined to support the pro-Assad groups resent them. A lawyer from Damascus complained to Reuters that “[t]hey get a gun and a carte blanche to bully and rob the rest of us.”

In areas under the control of opposition groups, stories of arbitrary violations by armed fighters are easy to find. One report about Raqqa (currently under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) from The Telegraphdescribes the arrest of an 18-year girl and her friend for not covering their hair, and the smashing of a liquor store. More severe violations in Raqqa include detention and torture of civilians, according to a recent report from CNN.

Justifying such acts as “necessary in times of conflict” is a thin veil, and no justification for arbitrary acts against civilians. While the gravity of the crimes range widely, the brazenness with which they are committed stands out. Perpetrators with a sense of impunity not only endanger the state of justice in Syria today, but have serious implications for transitional justice in the future. Documentation of such crimes can help to combat this sense of impunity, and authorities and armed groups that are serious about justice can show it by dealing transparently and fairly with civilians in areas under their control.

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