International Justice and the Building Blocks for Accountability in Syria | The Center for Victims of Torture

International Justice and the Building Blocks for Accountability in Syria

Friday, July 15, 2016

Marie Soueid is CVT’s policy counsel

Long before a judge or jury announces a verdict and years before the dramatic courtroom scenes, Lawyers, activists, and witnesses spend years working behind the scenes, gathering evidence and interviewing victims to lay the building blocks for international justice. Although justice has eluded Syrian victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity for over five years now, a recent U.S.-based case demonstrates that the mighty task of collecting and documenting evidence can open different doors for accountability when traditional ones are closed. This is a speck of good news for Syrian activists, victims and survivors after years of waiting.

The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has collected vast amounts of documentary evidence, smuggled out of Syria, linking high level officials to a systematic campaign to detain and torture individuals and activists. Likewise, the Syrian Justice Accountability Center (SJAC) has staff across the region interviewing displaced Syrian victims and witnesses of war crimes and crimes against humanity, with a view to international accountability. Both organizations and their many local counterparts in Syria and around the region, emphasize their apolitical nature and collect information against all armed actors.

Much of the documented crimes in Syria remain secret, carefully guarded by the collectors, to protect the survivors and victims, and to ultimately use the evidence in courts or other forms of transitional justice measures as they are implemented in future post-conflict Syria. The case brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and international law firm, Shearman & Sterling, on behalf of journalist Marie Colvin’s family against Syria in a U.S. federal court, demonstrates that justice for international crimes can take many forms and is often years in the making. Colvin’s family is suing the Syrian government under a U.S. law that permits collecting monetary damages for crimes attributable to the state apparatus. This differs from much of the traditional discussion around accountability for international crimes, which usually refers to criminal liability for an individual accused of such crimes.

The lawsuit—a product of three years of investigation—uses documentary evidence collected by CIJA to demonstrate that the attack on Colvin and her colleagues was deliberately planned by the Syrian regime to silence her. However, even if Colvin’s family is victorious in court, they are unlikely to receive any money from the Syrian government, which has ignored such lawsuits in the past.

Regardless of payout, this may be the most telling test thus far of the documentation being collected from the Syrian conflict. A particularly positive outcome for Colvin’s family and international justice would take into account all of the evidence presented and find that the evidence is sufficient to hold the Syrian government liable for Colvin’s death. A full consideration of the evidence, unlike a default judgment that may result from Syrian non-compliance with the court, could open the possibility of not only individual criminal liability, but collective responsibility against the state or armed groups for crimes perpetrated against the civilian population in the future.

In a U.S.-based civil lawsuit under a different law, the family of slain Chilean singer and activist, Victor Jara, is underway to hold a former Chilean army officer accountable for Jara’s killing under the brutal rule of General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. Other international and local efforts, many of them led by CJA, continue to unfold in court against Pinochet’s henchmen for crimes committed nearly 40 ago. Additionally, the international ad hoc tribunals continue to mete out justice for victims of crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s.

On International Justice Day this July 17th, it’s important to note that international justice is not known for its speed. For Colvin’s family, who was killed in Syria in 2012, some semblance of justice, albeit symbolic, may come sooner than for most other victims of the Syrian war.  However, the efforts underway to preserve evidence seek to ensure that for many victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, their voice will one day be heard in a court.

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