Can There Be Transitional Justice in Syria?


As the Syrian conflict drags on — with the prospect that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will retain power for some time — hopes for transitional justice have faded. But, writing for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Haid Haid quotes Mutasem al-Syoufi, the executive director of The Day After, “The debate now is not about establishing transitional justice or not. The concept is rooted in the hearts and minds of Syrians and cannot be ignored. The discussion right now is focusing on what type of transitional justice to implement, and how to make it as inclusive…as possible.”Haid concludes, “This study shows that there is a lot of room for development amongst the Syrian groups and practitioners working on transitional justice.”

The Summary of the report:

Accountability and justice have been among the first demands that triggered the popular Syrian revolution in March 2011. Syrian actors, as a result, have been preparing for a post-conflict transitional justice process for years.

Initially, the majority of these efforts focused on building capacity and raising awareness of locals on the importance of transitional justice. While others worked on documenting the violations committed and conducted consultations with locals to adapt the future process to their needs and demands. However, hopes for a quick and full transition in the near future started to fade away due to the changing political and military dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

Drawing notably on first-hand interviews with 15 Syrian organisations and practitioners working on transitional justice, this paper examines the current tactics used by these actors to turn their transitional justice efforts during the conflict into tangible actions. It also examines the strategies and gaps in dealing with the shifting political and military dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Finally, it provides Syrian and international actors as with a set of recommendations to better plan, prepare, and adapt their strategies and tactics to such limitations and challenges.

Realising these limitations and challenges, the majority of Syrian organisations are focusing on ensuring that future accountability is not foreclosed. Some actors have started changing their short-term strategies to look for pre-transition accountability, such as using the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute war criminals in Europe. Whilst others have started amending their tactics such as documentation to suit a long struggle for justice. There has also been a slight increase in the number of initiatives aimed at giving victims agency.

Despite these efforts, hopes for having a post-conflict government supportive of a comprehensive transitional justice process are fading away. There is a general feeling that war criminals, from different warring parties, will likely be part of the transitional period, which will complicate the political transition and undermine transitional justice efforts. Yet, only few organisations are working separately on an ad-hoc basis to address some of the expected issues while the rest are only focusing on what current needs and priorities are as it might be a waste of time and effort to work on strategies for an indefinable future.

However, the inability to predict the future is not only limited to the challenges that may come, but also to the forthcoming opportunities as well. There are many enabling factors (such as people’s desire for justice, the scale of violations, and the increasing attempts to hold actors accountable) that will likely assist Syrian organisations in their efforts to implement transitional justice when the right time comes.

This study also shows what Syrian and international actors can do to ensure that they are as effective and as influential as possible in shaping Syria’s future. It is important that Syrian actors manage expectations, be more inclusive, report transparently, give agency to victims, and work on collective plans to deal with the expected challenges in the midterm future. Likewise, international actors should provide long-term funds, offer tailored capacity building, keep the pressure on for justice and accountability and avoid the politicization of accountability efforts.