Syrian Victims Alter the Justice Landscape

Syrian Victims Alter the Justice Landscape

[Ahmad Helmi is a survivor of torture and three years detention in the Syrian regime’s detention centers, and is the co-founder and manager of Ta’afi, a survivor-led and centered initiative supporting survivors of detention.]

[Brigitte Herremans is a researcher at Justice Visions, an ERC project on Victim Participation in Transitional Justice, which is hosted at the Human Rights Centre of Ghent University.]

[Veronica Bellintani is a legal consultant and transitional justice specialist, currently working as Legal Analyst at the Syrian Legal Development Programme.]  

Photo credit: Mohammed Abdullah (Artino)

When the 2011 uprising started in Syria, both Syrian and international actors advanced the transitional justice paradigm to accompany the hoped-for transition. When the perspective of a transition vanished, Syrian civil society continued to use the paradigm to pursue justice in a situation where impunity increasingly seems the norm. The international community did not only fail to stop the regime’s and Russia’s policies of annihilation, but it also proved to be unsuccessful to open justice avenues to prosecute crimes committed in Syria. Syrian and international civil society organizations have resisted the passivity of the international community toward the Syrian conflict and initiated innovative justice initiatives with the aim to counter this reigning defeatism about the impossibility to pursue justice in this context. While most discussions regarding transitional justice efforts in Syria have focused on the work of established NGOs and international institutions, we argue that other forms of civil society activism deserve a further spotlight. Victim groups have opened spaces and approaches rooted in victims’ perspectives of justice, considerably strengthening the truth and justice efforts.

Syrian Victims as Key Justice Actors

The Syrian justice landscape is characterized by a very diverse group of justice actors. These justice actors range from mechanisms established by the UN such as the IIIM, states such as the Netherlands and Canada who recently initiated negotiations with the Syrian regime under article 30 of the Convention against Torture, to a huge group of private justice actors, i.e. both Syrian civil society organizations and international NGOs who are invested in justice efforts, often in cooperation with their Syrian counterparts.

In reality, Syrian civil society has been the main vector for change, foregrounding innovative approaches to break the justice impasse. Firstly, they invested heavily in documentation, in order to lay the foundation of (future) accountability efforts and to prevent evidence from disappearing. As Syrians have been victims of state violence for over 50 years, they resist being forced into silence and erasure once again. Secondly, the activism of Syrian and international NGOs opened a new avenue for criminal accountability, in the absence of domestic and international avenues due to the Russian and Chinese veto in the Security Council. Several NGOs invested in strategic litigation and pushed for universal jurisdiction to enable the prosecution of war crimes. These efforts resulted in April 2020 in the first trial worldwide against state torture, the so-called al-Khatib trial in Germany. Thirdly, the emergence of victim-led associations and their mobilization in informal spaces increasingly highlighted the priorities of the primary beneficiaries of justice, such as survivors of torture, families of the disappeared, and families of the detained.

We are most interested in the innovation in these informal spaces, as this is where the most marking innovations take place. Furthermore, we deem that the agency of victim groups deserves more attention and a more central role in the debate on truth and justice in Syria. The emergence of victim groups has enabled survivors and their families to take an active role in advocacy and awareness-raising activities. Based on the conviction that their role cannot be reduced to being merely witnesses, they have developed an independent agenda to advance truth and justice initiatives. They reclaim their role in justice processes while highlighting the marginalization they have suffered until now. “We have a role to play”, said Fadwa Mahmoud, whose husband and son are detained in regime prisons, during a side-event during the 46th Human Rights Council Session. “The international community talks about us, about our sons, while we are sitting in the margins.”

In this regard, the pro-active intervention of Syrian victims’ associations in the justice landscape has provided a way forward to solve the increasing tension between different initiatives that are developed under the umbrella of transitional justice (TJ). The mobilization of victims has enabled the introduction of a new, and very much needed, lens to identify the most adequate form of justice for Syria: a victim-centered justice, based on the central importance of victims and their needs as defined by victims themselves.

The Truth and Justice Charter

This mobilization that steadily grew from 2017 onwards, culminated with the development and release of the “Truth and Justice Charter” in February 2021. In this victim-led initiative five organizations, being the Association of Detainees and Missing of Saydnaya Prison, Caesar Families Association, the Coalition of Families of Persons Kidnapped by ISIS, Families for Freedom, and Ta’afi Initiative, designed a comprehensive roadmap based on the mechanisms of the TJ toolkit to define cumulative stages of short-term, medium, and long-term priorities for justice, truth, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence. The idea behind the Charter developed in 2019 when Syrian victims’ groups started cooperating more closely and intended to develop, with the contribution of TJ experts from other countries, a document to incorporate their perspectives, demands, and priorities. The Charter is primarily addressed to victims and families to provide a common ground for collective mobilization and cooperation. However, it is also directed to NGOs, states and international institutions, to strengthen their commitment to the victim-centered approach to which they all too often mainly pay lip service.

We believe that this Charter fills a fundamental gap as it is premised on victims’ visions, demands and needs, and on a revolutionary shift in the way victims and survivors should be viewed within the justice efforts on Syria, as experts equipped with extensive and advanced knowledge to be able to work themselves on truth and justice. In this way, it aims to ensure a greater genuine role for survivors and their families. Moreover, it provides sources for reflection, by introducing new concepts of justice, and strengthening the legitimacy of justice concepts that may have been so far overlooked or undervalued.

The Charter also provides a way for victims and survivors to raise their voices, countering the attempts by perpetrators to silence them and finally ensure the acknowledgment of their truth. During its e-launch, Diab Serriya, co-founder of the Association of Detainees and Missing of Saydnaya Prison and survivor of arbitrary detention and torture in the infamous Saydnaya prison, recalled how prison guards from Saydnaya used to taunt them by saying that “none will ever believe you when you get out of here.” Hence, Syrian victims use the Charter to publicly come forward not only as right-bearers but, most importantly, as experts and active justice actors who can and should shape a response to the injustices that affect them, their loved ones, and their lives.

The concrete impact that the Truth and Justice Charter and its victim-led component can bring to advance justice, can already be assessed by taking into consideration the recent resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in its March Session. For the first time ever, a UN resolution on Syria recognizes the importance and urgency to ensure the meaningful participation of victims and their families within accountability and TJ initiatives and in the political process, while also implicitly acknowledging the important contribution that victim-led initiatives can make in the justice, truth, and remedy agenda on the Syrian conflict. Despite not being legally binding, the resolution constitutes a precedent in shaping the victim-centered approach at the multilateral level.

Another key proposal designed by victims, is the establishment of a mechanism to disclose the fate of the disappeared. Forcible disappearances are one of the primary crimes that affect millions of Syrians. More than 140.000 Syrians have been forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime and other actors to the conflict. Victim groups have continuously raised this issue before the UNSC and other multilateral venues. Yet, this issue has not figured strongly on the international justice agenda in a concrete manner, with efforts by the UN starting to look more and more as empty promises and efforts to the issue onto the agenda of UN-led talks have led nowhere. For this reason, the associations decided to move beyond slogans and took the lead in setting up an action plan to address this current inaction and provide the international community with a specific, and achievable demand. This led the associations to design a mechanism to fulfill Syrian families’ right to the truth based on a humanitarian approach to the issue, similar in some ways to the framework of the Committee on Missing Persons of Cyprus, rather than naming and shaming perpetrators. The fact that victim’s associations independently designed such a framework following a phase-based approach to the right to the truth represents the clearest proof of the innovative and advanced contributions victims’ associations are bringing to the Syrian (transitional) justice landscape.

Beyond Criminal Justice: Tangible and Cumulative Forms of Justice

Most justice efforts implemented within the Syrian context until now have focused on criminal prosecutions, stemming from the determination of Syrian justice actors to seize every single opportunity to address justice. However, if other avenues are left unexplored, the risk looms of marginalizing victims’ perspectives. While many Syrian victims support accountability for those responsible for international crimes, their understanding of justice is often much broader. They tend to invoke less legalistic and complex forms of justice, and rather focus on the more tangible impact to people’s lives such as the delivery of remains of deceased detainees and the right to have a grave for a loved one. “A grave became a dream,” says Maryam al-Hallak, mother of Ayham Ghazzoul, a young man killed under torture in 2012. She recognized her son among the Caesar files, a collection of photos of around 6000 Syrian detainees who died under torture between 2011 and 2013. Additionally, survivors and family members of detainees highlight that releasing detainees should remain a priority: “I don’t want to wait for my dad to get killed and then go to a German court to ask for justice,” said Wafa Mustafa, daughter of Ali Mustafa, disappeared by the Syrian regime since 2013, during a sit-in in front of the Koblenz court.

In this respect, the efforts taking place under the TJ-umbrella cannot discard the concept of reparative justice. Recently, some key justice actors from Syrian civil society labeled reparative justice “not enough justice” and, in some cases, strongly opposed or even condemned it as an attempt to enforce impunity in Syria. This debate arose after a statement by the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir O. Pedersen mentioned the concept of restorative/reparative justice, which was met with outcry and criticism by some representatives of the Syrian civil society. We acknowledge that there is no easy answer as reparative justice is all too often sidelined in favor of criminal justice. Yet, states and international organizations can give priority to the right to reparation and compensation for victims while at the same time pursuing criminal accountability. In this regard, the Charter represents an important step forward in the recognition of the value of reparations in the Syrian context as recognized directly by victims and their families. It addresses the right to reparations alongside other ongoing justice efforts making it tangible and more relatable for victims who all too often feel excluded from ongoing initiatives. 

Justice efforts for Syrians have failed as states proved incapable of breaking the deadlock. Yet, Syrian and justice actors have continued to resist the defeatism and relentlessly strove to open new justice avenues, to prove that impunity cannot be taken for granted. This resulted in the first stage of the struggle against the justice impasse. We are witnessing the start of the second stage, marked by victims’ and their families’ determination to play a stronger and more visible role in the pursuit of justice. They need to impose their views; else they are overlooked. If the more established justice community can listen genuinely, and accommodate their views, then we can -to speak with Hannah Arendt- expect some illumination in these dark times, light kindled by women and men under impossible circumstances.

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Courts & Tribunals, Featured, General, International Criminal Law, International Humanitarian Law, Middle East, Organizations, Public International Law
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