Supporting Syrian Survivors During Justice Processes

The International Criminal Court in the Hague, which provides psychosocial support to witnesses. Source: the United Nations.

In 1998, the UN passed resolution 52/149, making June 26th the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture to raise awareness of the prevalence of torture and its absolute prohibition under international law. Now, over twenty years later, the struggle to eradicate torture continues, but, in Syria, the practice remains prevalent not only in the government’s infamous prison system, but at checkpoints, in homes, and among many of the non-state armed groups that have formed since the conflict began. SJAC documents torture and advocates for justice for survivors; but, survivors need a full range of support, including medical and psychosocial care, that justice actors are ill-equipped to provide. In light of the recent news of Germany’s arrest warrant against Syrian security official Jamil Hassan, which relied on testimony from Syrian torture survivors, it is necessary to consider how efforts to pursue justice for Syrians in European courts can incorporate the varied needs of survivors who are acting as complainants and witnesses and raise awareness among refugee communities about the types of services available in their host countries.

The ability to participate directly in justice processes can be, in and of itself, an important aspect of healing for survivors, allowing them to gain a sense of ownership over their experiences and pursue redress. However, sharing experiences about horrific atrocities during documentation or within a justice process can also be difficult and potentially re-traumatizing. Many survivors of torture suffer long-term psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety, all which can be exacerbated through revisiting the trauma. For the one million Syrian refugees who have remade their lives in Europe, the traumas of war are compounded by the experience of migration and the difficulty of living in a foreign country. Refugees in Europe struggle with the loss of culture and language, separation from their loved ones, and difficulty in integrating into their new communities. Compounding these struggles, many refugees do not have the local knowledge or language skills to access psychosocial services. For some, interacting with law enforcement regarding international criminal cases becomes an additional source of stress. Many Syrians have a deep distrust of law enforcement and worry that participation in court cases could affect their immigration status.

It is the responsibility of those working with survivors to reduce the risks of further harm and consider the effects of their actions on the well-being of survivors during justice processes, a philosophy expressed in the Do No Harm principle. For documentation organizations such as SJAC, Do No Harm means implementing informed consent policies, conducting trauma-sensitive interviews, and referring survivors to relevant medical and psychosocial services. While informed consent and trauma-sensitive interview practices remain similar regardless of where a victim is located, referral pathways are complicated by migration. Although European host nations often have far more support services than are available in Syria or its neighboring countries, European practitioners may not necessarily be trained in addressing conflict-related trauma, likely do not speak Arabic, and may not be aware of the cultural attitudes that influence the stress and resiliency of Syrian refugees.

Taking into account the additional stressors among refugee communities in Europe, documentation groups and justice actors should put in place additional protocols to support refugee communities, beginning with outreach programs that inform refugees of the possibility to pursue justice in the jurisdiction which they live and of the availability of support services in the area. To do the latter, civil society groups and prosecutors’ offices working on cases in Europe should make connections with psychosocial counselors and medical professionals who have the necessary skills and experience to treat Syrian trauma survivors. These professionals should be seen as allies in providing holistic support to survivors. Likewise, service providers working with refugee communities in Europe should have the knowledge and resources to inform their clients about contacting law enforcement if they have reason to believe that the person has been the victim of a serious crime.

For torture survivors who are witnesses in criminal proceedings in Europe, ongoing psychosocial support should be built into the entire process, as the survivor may be called upon to recount his or her story several times throughout the course of the investigation and trial. There are a number of existing programs that can offer possible frameworks, including a program at the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose witnesses, according to one 2014 report, have had generally positive experiences with the psychosocial care they received.

The widespread use of torture has come to be one of the defining aspects of the Syrian conflict. Ending this inhuman practice, holding perpetrators accountable, and providing support to survivors are all integral steps in creating a peaceful and just future for Syrians. As the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture follows on the footsteps of World Refugee Day, let us not forget the important role that those working towards justice can play in holistically supporting Syrian survivors who have been forced to flee and relocate around the world.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org.

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