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Wise Words That Deserve Repeating: The ICTJ on Syria

Earlier this month the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) released a brief titled “Towards a Transitional Justice Strategy for Syria.” There’s a lot to like in ICTJ’s analysis, and we at the SJAC wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the report’s particularly important points that deserve repeating. The emphasis on Syrian ownership, the need to look broadly at all justice and accountability mechanisms, and the critical importance of documentation to inform such processes often go overlooked in international discussions of justice and accountability in Syria.

The first point to note is the emphasis on Syrian ownership of its transitional justice processes. Specifically, ICTJ recognizes that comprehensive consultations are not merely a part of transitional justice, but that they must play a central role in actually shaping the procedures and mechanisms. Rushing to establish these mechanisms without consultations with the broader Syrian population runs the risk of sacrificing the opportunity for long-term trust-building and authentic accountability for short-sighted gains. Rather than immediate action seeking to identify particular mechanisms now, the brief suggests a process of “mapping, assessing and consulting,” asserting that, “what is likely to be of more value in Syria is a comprehensive process of planned assessment and consultation that will provide recommendations.” Indeed, the success of transitional justice efforts will depend in large part upon whether or not the Syrian people, representatives of local and national institutions, political leaders, and civil society groups see the process as a truly Syrian undertaking. The report warns that “[t]he biggest mistake for the international community in the short term would be to impose or be seen as imposing a model that did not have the backing of a legitimate, nationally owned process.” ICTJ rightly acknowledges that well-meaning and highly informed international experts should recognize where they can most usefully contribute and where particular processes and mechanisms can only progress effectively with societal support.

Related to this point is the danger that a fixation on prosecutions and punishment will overshadow the real value of other critical transitional justice mechanisms. It is true that prosecutions, especially of those in the highest positions who may have perpetrated war crimes, can go a long way to achieving some sense of justice. But ICTJ reminds us that criminal justice is only one mechanism among many others, “including truth seeking… reparations, and institutional reform.” The report rightfully connects a comprehensive view of transitional justice to the end-goal of publicly-legitimized democratic state institutions, asserting that such “measures are most effective at restoring civic trust and preventing future violence when implemented together…Criminal justice alone is not sufficient to confront such histories on a national scale.”

The above points, while wise, suggest that an effective transitional justice process in Syria will not be easy and will take time. Public perceptions of credibility will be indispensable to the success of any process and durability of a future Syrian state, so efforts should be taken to understand and to manage expectations. The brief urges governmental cooperation, but cautions against haste at the expense of effectiveness and public buy-in. Mechanisms established to respond to immediate calls for justice and accountability without a clear understanding of public expectations will only make it more difficult in the end to gain the public’s trust and to address the actual needs and concerns of the Syrian population. ICTJ frankly admits, “if the initial process does not allow the time necessary to encourage trust and confidence, the rest will be built on sand.”  Domestic and international interests calling for swift justice must be tempered by a realization that the process of establishing and carrying out transitional justice is in large part just as important as the end results of these efforts.

Finally, and directly related to the SJAC’s work, is the paramount role that documentation will play in transitional justice. The brief mentions documentation at the outset, and concludes by noting that “a significant amount of work has been done and large collections of data and documents already exist with regard to systematic human rights violations in Syria.” And ICTJ goes yet further to ask the important question of “what should happen with this information?” This issue lies at the heart of the SJAC’s mission to support transitional justice in Syria through the responsible and impartial documentation of alleged violations by all parties. The SJAC supports both domestic and international efforts for documentation but, harkening back to the importance of Syrian leadership and domestic perceptions of these processes’ credibility, believes transitional justice processes will be most effective when carried out by and for Syrians.  Today, we continue to collect and vet documentation, train documenters on the ground, and further develop the capabilities of our violations database. The SJAC looks forward to the day when Syria will draw upon the documentation, using it as a practical tool to strengthen accountability efforts, secure some degree of the justice that the Syrian people deserve, and help lay the foundations for a peaceful state based on the rule of law and respect for human rights.

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