On May 21, after a month of fighting between government forces and the Islamic State (IS), Syrian troops reentered Yarmouk Camp, one of the final areas of Southern Damascus that had been outside of government control. The return of Syrian troops was accompanied by widespread reports of looting. Local news sites and social media users shared videos and images of Syrian government soldiers stealing valuable appliances, including refrigerators and washing machines, from private homes, many of which had been evacuated during the fighting. The looting was so wide-spread that Russian forces arrested several government soldiers accused of theft (though the Syrian government denied that those arrested were affiliated with the army). Such reports have regularly accompanied transfers of power during the Syrian conflict, perhaps the most infamous example being the looting of the city of Afrin by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters. While discussion of property theft in Syria often focuses on immovable property, namely land, homes and businesses, such looting of businesses and private homes can also have devastating economic consequences. Theft by armed groups, referred to as pillage under international law, is illegal under customary international law and the practice can stow fear among already terrorized civilian populations. However, tracking ownership rights to private property stolen during conflict is extremely complicated, making this a crime that is difficult to address through transitional justice mechanisms.
Under international law, looting is referred to as pillage and is defined as theft of property by an invading army. While an armed group can legally take possession of a retreating army’s military supplies, such as ammunition, often referred to colloquially as ‘the spoils of war,’ rules around non-military government property are much more complicated, and under no circumstances can an armed group steal from private citizens. Pillaging is prohibited under customary international law and has regularly been prohibited by international treaties and codes of military conduct, including the Geneva Convention, Additional Protocol II and the International Criminal Court (ICC) Statute.
While the legal status of pillage is clear cut, seeking accountability for the crime can be difficult. There have been some cases of perpetrators convicted of pillage as a war crime under international law. For example, in March 2016 the ICC convicted the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the murder, rape and pillage carried out under his command. The court concluded that these crimes were part of the normal operating procedures of the militia which Bemba commanded, and that he was aware of their crimes both before and during their actions and did not attempt to prevent them. Such prosecutions could one day be possible in Syria, if it becomes clear that the armed groups that have participated in looting were operating with the knowledge and support of their commanders. However, considering the breadth and severity of crimes committed during the conflict in Syria, prosecuting individual, low-level soldiers for acts of pillage will most likely not be a priority in any future justice processes. A recent report by Carnegie, which included extensive discussions with Syrian refugees about their perspectives on justice, noted that refugees felt that amnesty would be acceptable for lesser crimes, including theft.
While holding individuals accountable for looting may not be a priority for Syrians, financial restitution for property loss is a more serious concern. Looting can have devastating consequences. Looters in Syria have been known to steal the copper wires out of the walls, and completely strip businesses of expensive machinery, eliminating owners’ livelihoods. While the issue of restitution for land has recently been receiving wider attention, with many organizations reporting on the implications of the newly issued law 10, the loss of movable property is much more difficult to address. Returning property to the rightful owners requires tracking stolen goods, an extremely complex task. Stolen property can quickly be removed from a neighborhood and sold, possibly changing hands multiple times within a few days of the theft. While there have been cases of property being returned, this is a task that is much easier to undertake directly after a theft, and not as part of a justice process months or years after the fact. Providing financial reparations based on the specific property loss would also be difficult, as many owners will not have any documentation of ownership for movable property, or proof that a particular piece of property is no longer in their possession. Even if schemes were created to attempt restitution or reparation of this kind, a massive amount of resources would be necessary in order to track down stolen goods and verify individual claims.
The most effective way to address the economic loss of looting may be through broader reparation programs, which could cover neighborhoods that experienced looting as well as those that experienced destruction as a direct result of fighting. Even before the recent looting, much of Yarmouk has been flattened, and many property owners will need extensive resources to rebuild, whether or not they were targeted by looters. When designing future reparations and reconstruction support for such neighborhoods, a wide variety of financial losses incurred as a result of the conflict, including but not limited to looting, should be considered.
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