Planning for Transitional Justice in Syria

For the past two years the world has watched as the conflict in Syria has grown. What began as street protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2011 has escalated into a civil war, as the opposition to the Syrian government has become an organized military and political force in Syria. Given the nearly impossible task of collecting evidence of human rights violations after fact, there has been action by groups outside Syria who are already planning a transitional justice framework for a post-Assad Syria. With the UN Security Council condemning the Syrian government, the UN General Assembly calling for President al-Assad to resign and the U.S., Britain, France and Turkey officially recognizing the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people,” is now the appropriate time for the Syrian people to create a framework for transitional justice?

Although it is unusual for a country to plan for transitional justice before the transition period begins, having options already in place in terms of what transitional justice mechanisms to use could help an interim Syrian government avoid problems that have confronted other governments striving to implement transitional justice. In April 2012, the Public International Law and Policy Group published a report that presented options for an interim government in Syria, discussing how it could structure transitional justice after the current leader, President al-Assad, steps down. The report was created as a result of roundtable discussions by exiled Syrian opposition members and experts on transitional justice during a two-day workshop at the Hague. The report addressed several keys issues in transitional justice, focusing on prosecutions, reconciliation and reparations for victims.

Part of the process of preparing for the transition involves investigating and documenting the ongoing crimes and human rights violations being committed by the government and the opposition. This evidence will be crucial in moving criminal prosecutions forward as quickly as possible once Syria is able to hold fair trials. There are already several organizations that have launched initiatives to help the Syrian people document these crimes. The UK-funded Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability (SCJA) has been smuggling Syrian activists out of the country for a few days at a time to attend training courses in order to improve their investigate techniques. The activists are then sent back to Syria with investigation kits provided by the SCJA. The Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), which is largely funded by the U.S., is working to create a database in which all the gathered information can be compiled and made accessible.

The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry into Syria’s human rights violations is also attempting to document the continuing human rights abuses but there are many challenges to documenting current crimes as President al-Assad is still in power and there are ongoing violent clashes between the government and opposition forces. Contributing to this difficulty is the fact that the Syrian government has not allowed the UN Commission access to Syria, meaning it must rely on reports from organizations on the ground, like the SCJA and interviews with Syrian refugees who have fled to nearby countries.

With the growing strength of the Syrian opposition forces and international recognition of those forces as the legitimate voice of the Syrian people, President al-Assad’s control over Syria is tenuous. While the Public International Law and Policy Group’s report provides suggestions and recommendations for the implementation of transitional justice in a post-Assad Syria, the authors acknowledged that the recommendations will need to be considered in light of how the transition actually happens. Until that transition is effectuated, Syrian opposition and the international community supporting the opposition can only continue to gather evidence and plan, in the hopes that preparation will facilitate the creation of effective transitional justice mechanisms that provide truth and justice to the Syrian people.

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