Overcoming the Justice Impasse in Syria

Ms. Brigitte Herremans

Syria is one of the few countries where local and international actors are testing and advancing certain elements of the transitional justice (TJ) toolkit while the abuses of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are ongoing. Before 2013, anticipating the fall of the regime, Syrian civil society organisations (CSOs) conceptualized a comprehensive approach towards TJ, insisting on accountability, remedy and reconciliation. As prospects for a transition faded away after 2013, Syrian CSOs were compelled to focus primarily on fact-finding and the documentation of breaches of international law. The documentation efforts have laid the groundwork for the preparation of criminal cases, turning criminal prosecution into the dominant TJ mechanism.

Applying TJ tools during ongoing conflicts involves additional predicaments regarding the aims and sequencing of interventions and challenges such as scarcity of robust empirical evidence. This has been the case in Syria where the implementation of TJ mechanisms is marred by difficulties due to the transformation of the conflict. While documentation has been vital, it does pose problems due to differing methods of data-collection and the underutilisation of evidence. Moreover, the persecution of activists and the absence of local remedies have undermined the nascent community of Syrian TJ entrepreneurs. This has pushed them to increasingly cooperate with international actors, to rely on outside remedies such as universal jurisdiction, and to continue justice efforts in the diaspora, thus establishing a transnational TJ community.

In this paper I will argue, on the basis of a literature review and interviews, that applying elements of the TJ toolkit has kept (partial) justice in Syria on the international agenda. TJ efforts in Syria have advanced the need for redress for victims and countered the erasure of evidence and victims’ experiences. Yet, there is scope to reinforce existing efforts and to test other instruments of the TJ toolkit such as truth-telling. Firstly, cooperation between Syrian and international actors could be further refined by strengthening the methods of data-collection. Secondly, artistic practices could play a role in the development of complementary, innovative strategies, addressing avenues for justice for Syrians beyond criminal proceedings.