The Time to Address Transitional Justice in Syria is Now | The Center for Victims of Torture

The Time to Address Transitional Justice in Syria is Now

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

Six years into the war and accountability still eludes Syrians. Aside from several cases charging Syrian government officials for their role in torture and extrajudicial killing in Syrian prisons, making their way through courts in Europe with questionable chances of convicting and jailing the perpetrators, comprehensive accountability for Syrians still seems elusive. In this context, a U.S. government effort to encourage transitional justice efforts may seem premature. It is, however, high time that this effort is undertaken.

A comprehensive and strategic approach to United States foreign policy on justice in Syria is a necessary first step to guard against impunity and fulfill the justice needs of victims. A bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Cardin (D-MD),  Rubio (R-FL), Corker (R-TN), Shaheen (D-NH), Menendez (D-NJ) and Young (R-IN) aims to support Syrian transitional justice efforts with the technical expertise and experience of the United States government.

The Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act of 2017 directs the State Department to report to Congress on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated by all sides of the Syrian conflict, including the use of unconventional weapons. It further requires a full assessment of all of the programming the State Department, USAID and the Department of Justice have undertaken to support accountability and transitional justice in Syria, including training programs, and U.S. government support for efforts at evidence collection and documentation.  

Troves of documents, videos and testimony have already been collected, making the Syrian conflict one of the most well-documented in history. With the UN General Assembly recently creating the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in investigating crimes in Syria, referenced in the legislation as an entity the U.S. government could support, the international community may be on the road to creating a centralized repository for evidence and building a significant caseload to bring to courts with proper jurisdiction.

Justice, however, is more than accountability in a court of law. Trials are often limited to the most serious crimes and highest-level perpetrators, meaning millions of Syrians deeply affected by war will not testify and will not have their rights vindicated in court—whether internationalized or local.

For Khadija, who survived sexual violence when Syrian troops stormed into and destroyed her house, criminal accountability was not her primary concern. When she sought CVT’s mental health and psychosocial support services in Jordan in 2015, she lamented the breakdown in her relationships with her husband, family and community that the violent encounter with Syrian troops prompted. This is an often-intended result of torture and ill-treatment. Redressing the torture and ill-treatment requires accountability, community-based healing, truth-telling and reparations.

Although CVT’s Syrian clients express a need for even-handed justice in Syria, they also want their voice to be heard. Like Manal, who told of her experience of being forced to witness the rape of other female detainees in a makeshift prison, Syrians are defying their perpetrators by speaking out. Holistic transitional justice can provide them with the opportunity to ensure the historical record includes their experience. 

Crucially, CVT’s Syrian clients also express a desire for a safe and just future for their families without reoccurrence of violence. To fulfill all of these elements, comprehensive transitional justice is the answer, which includes criminal accountability, truth commissions, institutional reform, memorialization efforts and reparations.

Previous transitions from mass atrocity situations to peace demonstrate that criminal accountability must be taken together with other elements that allow for truth-telling to assist survivors in rebuilding their lives and communities and to assist an emerging state in the effort to rebuild institutions.

The Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act aims to holistically address the situation in Syria by mandating the State Department to undertake a comprehensive study on the “feasibility and desirability of transitional justice.” It acknowledges that transitional justice includes “judicial, non-judicial, formal, informal, retributive and restorative measures” that “redress legacies of atrocities” and “promote long-term, sustainable peace.” The primary driver of a transition is fulfilling the rights of victims and ensuring all efforts are carried out in accordance within international legal standards in the trauma-sensitive manner required in any post-atrocity situation.

The world must not give up hope for peace in Syria. Rather than allowing the international community to be ill-prepared for an eventual transition, this legislation mandates a thorough assessment of transitional justice options, including an international mechanism such as a hybrid tribunal. Experts have rightly warned in the past against premature efforts at transitional justice in Syria. However, with a review of the efforts already underway to document and collect evidence of violations of international law in Syria, the U.S. government can put its weight behind credible efforts to bring perpetrators to justice, build Syria’s investigative and judicial capacities, protect witnesses and support survivors. With much lip service paid to eventual justice, the time to lay the building blocks for transitional justice is now. 

Photograph by © Agnes Montanari

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