Analysis: The beginnings of transitional justice in Syria

Published on IRIN, by ha/cb,  December 17,  2012.

  • Attempt to investigate war crimes in the midst of conflict
  • Training Syrian activists to do dangerous forensic work
  • Trying to avoid an exercise in victor’s justice
  • Need an inclusive dialogue on the way forward

ISTANBUL, 14 December 2012 (IRIN) – When Mohamed* first got involved in human rights work in Syria, his idea of documenting crimes was to visit a crime scene with a cell phone and post a shaky video on YouTube. 

But a few months ago, he found himself in an upscale hotel in Istanbul, learning the basic principles of international law from renowned experts in the field, such as how to take GPS coordinates and how to interview witnesses.

He is part of a push to systematically and forensically gather evidence about potential war crimes in Syria, with the aim of eventually taking alleged war criminals to court. Those behind the effort say it is the first significant attempt to do so in the midst of an ongoing conflict.

But as investigators try to lay the groundwork for accountability and transitional justice in Syria under extremely difficult circumstances, experts are already warning the process must avoid the pitfalls experienced in Iraq, Rwanda and other post-conflict scenarios.

Several initiatives – from the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in Syria to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria – are trying to document developments in Syria for potential use in future prosecutions. But they face unprecedented challenges.

“To do it in the middle of conflict is extremely difficult,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd, a commissioner with the Commission of Inquiry. “It’s a first for all of us,” she told IRIN.

One of the challenges is access. The Syrian government has not granted the Commission permission to enter Syria, for example. As such, its reports rely mostly on interviews with Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, but also on information gleaned from a variety of sources on the ground, including a new outfit calling itself the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability (SCJA).

A non-profit organization registered in The Hague but based mostly in Istanbul, the SCJA recently started training Syrian activists to professionalize their amateur investigations. Its seed funding came from the British government, but it is seeking more diverse and sustained sources.

Led by a Canadian investigator who has worked with the International Criminal Court, and transitional justice mechanisms in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Rwanda, the SCJA has helped smuggle Mohamed and other activists out of Syria for five- and 10-day courses on, among other things, what legally constitutes individual criminal responsibility and how to determine the distance from which a rocket was fired, based on the size of its crater. Then, it sends them back into Syria with investigation kits to gather evidence.

They also try to obtain documents showing military chains of command, interview regime soldiers taken prisoner by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and smuggle that information out of Syria.

“We are preparing the groundwork; gathering the evidence, so that we have files with which to prosecute people later,” said Hassan Alaswad, formerly an independent lawyer in Syria and now chairman of the Commission in Istanbul.

“Criminal trials are long, complex, and ultimately, the population loses interest,” added the group’s Canadian mentor, who requested anonymity for his safety when inside Syria. “We need to be ready to hit the ground running at the moment fair trials can be assured in Syria.”

It can be a risky business … //

… Masses of evidence:

Al-Abdallah now heads a new US-funded initiative called the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), intended to be a clearing house for all information on human rights violations and potential war crimes – an important step in trying to preserve and catalogue the plethora of information that is becoming accessible.

While many evidence-rich videos are appearing on YouTube, the International Centre for Transitional Justice’s Cordone said, many of them fail to make note of crucial basic information, like when the film was taken, where and by whom.

Similarly, the FSA often unknowingly destroys much potential evidence, the SCJA’s mentor said, by burning down captured police stations without first removing any relevant government documents. (The SCJA is trying to raise awareness about this within the FSA.)

The SJAC aims to create a database in which information gathered from different groups can be consolidated in one place.

“The information is all scattered everywhere online. There is no coordination,” Al-Abdallah told IRIN. “We will play this role.”

The centre is also collecting lists of the dead, to be used as a basis for collective or individual compensation.

One of its main goals is to “keep what’s happened in the memory of the nation to prevent a repeat,” he told IRIN, and to raise public awareness about the concept of transitional justice.

“When you say reconciliation, people in Syria act very defensive. They understand reconciliation as an amnesty. ‘Nothing happens, they get amnesty, and we move on’,” Al-Abdallah said. “To educate the public, at an early stage, before the collapse of a regime, is important.”
(full longer text).


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