Stephanie Dunning
Last updated: 28 February, 2013

The what and how of transitional justice in Syria

How should Syria get back on its feet once the dust settles? And which are the aspects to focus on?

Transitional justice is not a modern invention; and democratic transitional justice could be said to have supported the birth of democracy itself. Such processes were seen in the restoration of Athenian democracy in 411 and 403 B.C., and both experiences evoked the same challenges and sought to fortify the same democratic principles many in Syria now hope to install following a longstanding authoritarian history.

These very transitional justice issues were addressed on 26-27 January in Istanbul. The Washington D.C.-based Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS) held a conference, entitled ‘Transitional Justice in Syria: Accountability and Reconciliation’, which explored both Syria’s needs engendered during the recent conflict and requisite strategies for moving beyond a nearly 40-year legacy of alleged repression, forced disappearances and torture under the Assad regime and its authoritarian apparatus – the Ba‘ath Party and the security services of the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense.

Syrian human rights activists, political opposition leaders, religious and minority leaders, families of victims, civil society organisations, legal practitioners and international experts gathered to assess the complex aftermath of a post-Assad Syria, and discussed justice centred on institutional reform, fact-finding and democracy-building. The conference concluded with the establishment of the National Preparatory Committee for Transitional Justice. Due to security concerns, the exact number and names of its members in Syria has not been made public. However, eight names were released, and it was said that women account for 40% of the Committee.

SCPSS issued a press release stating,
“Syria needs to establish a new culture of legitimacy and overcome the legacy of the past by engaging in a national reconciliation carried out through social reconstruction, the establishment of truth commissions, compensation for victims, and the reform of the State’s institutions, especially the security services and the police.”

The conference opened by honouring victims and their families, and was followed by a wide-range of experts who addressed obstacles states still undergoing unrest have in initiating a transitional justice process. Key panels covered documenting war crimes, political opposition forces’ vision of the transition – which included the National Coalition for the Forces of the Revolution and the Syrian Opposition, the Kurdish National Council, and the Assyrian Democratic Organization – and enforced disappearances since the 1980s.

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What is most apparent from this recent conference is that panelists were, perhaps rationally, more focused on the political transition than the societal one. Syria’s transitional justice process was chiefly discussed in terms of state-building, or rather, it appeared that reconciliation is to be measured by how effectively the state’s judicial, security, and media institutions are reformed. ‘Transitional justice for the past and institution-building for the future,’ was how Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, co-founder and Director of SCPSS, phrased his views on Syria’s transition. He went further by saying a main priority is to open an investigation into war crimes committed recently as well as over the 40-year period. This is indicative of a society in need of a truth-seeking transitional justice mechanism, such as a fact-finding commission or a historical committee, in order to ensure accountability is enforced and post-conflict citizens remain involved and supportive.  

In terms of what that accountability will appear as following investigations, Ziadeh prefers an international justice approach, which will inevitably open the door to further debate in terms of sovereignty, especially when examining parallel examples, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

“Since Syria is a divided society it is much better to go on an international level because at least that will ease the preparation for reconciliation in the future,” said Ziadeh.

One of the international panelists, Anne Massagee, Deputy Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice’s (ICTJ) Middle East and North Africa Program, additionally highlighted the necessity of an engaged civil society if transitional justice mechanisms are to successfully enact lasting change.  

The National Preparatory Committee for Transitional Justice will hold its first official meeting in mid-March. At this time, a Board of Directors and an International Advisory Board will be established. International practitioners included on the Advisory Board thus far are David Crane (former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone), Dan Saxon (senior Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia), and Anne Massagee (Deputy Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice’s Middle East and North Africa Program).

The Committee’s activity proposal comprises a variety of transitional justice strategies. Public hearings, in which victims’ families may speak about their experiences, will be broadcast on Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya as well as on the Internet. Documentary films sharing personal stories of the conflict will be commissioned and screened, and the Committee will oversee the integration of a single human rights violation database. In terms of fact-finding, exhaustive research on the capacity of Syria’s judiciary and police force will be done, along with comparative research of other states who underwent transitional justice programmes – such as South Africa, Morocco, and the former Yugoslavia.

In a society with deep sectarian divides, many unanswered questions and numerous lost neighbours, justice and reconciliation will be a rocky road. This conference is a beacon of hope that many, and not few, will be involved in Syria’s transitional process. Yet, what remains to be seen is whether Syria will take a cue from the forward-looking Athens in 403 B.C. and utilise strategies that aim for social reconciliation, or rather reform its institutions for the purpose of deterrence and retribution like that of Athenians in 411 B.C.

Stephanie Dunning is a freelance writer with an MA in Conflict Resolution in Divided Societies, King’s College London. Her main focus is transitional justice, diasporas and ethno-national identities. You can follow her on Twitter @steviEDUnning_

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