Justice in Syria Depends on Working with the Displaced Now, Says ICTJ Paper


NEW YORK, April 20, 2016 – As tens of thousands of people continue to flee the carnage in Syria and other countries every day, a new paper by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) argues that certain steps can be taken now, while conflicts are ongoing, that would support prospects for democracy and accountability.

“It is in the interests of the states hosting the millions who have fled in fear to use this time and the presence of the refugees to help develop solutions for safer futures,” said Paul Seils, ICTJ’s Vice President and co-author of the briefing paper. “For instance, in Syria, giving the displaced the chance for a just and dignified return must be part of any agreement to end the five-year conflict.”

The paper, titled “The Case for Action on Transitional Justice and Displacement: Strategies During and After Conflict,” challenges the belief that resolving issues related to mass displacement must wait for the end of a conflict. It argues that waiting for peace to begin addressing these issues can mean that governments miss opportunities to benefit refugees in the long term and to shape the political context in the short term.

From developing accurate and credible accounts of violations and property and land holdings to creating DNA databases, the paper suggests that there are concrete steps that can be taken now among displaced populations to fight impunity, protect human rights, and facilitate participation in the political life of the country.

These actions have several advantages: they save time, they can inform the political discourse in which peace processes and negotiations take place, and they allow victims of displacement to play a more active role in shaping their future and their country’s future.

“Expecting to deal with the massive nature of injustices only after the conflict has ended wastes time and opportunity,” said Roger Duthie, Senior Associate of ICTJ’s Research Unit. “In countries like Syria and Colombia, steps are being taken – and should be taken – during conflict to contribute to future redress and accountability measures, and make them more effective.”

The 6-page paper reflects on what can be done both during and after a conflict, providing examples from countries where massive displacement has been addressed through transitional justice processes, such as Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste.

The paper argues for a broad and plausible understanding of justice — beginning with a dignified return, security and safe participation in public life. Other aspects of justice, like criminal justice, remain imperative but require appropriate conditions and local ownership.

During situations of conflict, the paper points to priority steps that could be taken immediately. The first is to engage with exiled and displaced populations on the causes and impact of the conflict and their views on how to secure redress. This could make it more likely that the displaced can play a positive role in the future search for justice and democracy in their home countries.

Second, if security permits, public hearings, interviews, and other forms of inquiry could be held in safe locations where victims can tell their stories. “These need not be full-blown commissions, but they could have some real benefits, from cultivating the idea of truth as a social value to establishing objective narratives of the past to counter denial,” said Seils.

The paper stresses that while justice is essential, it must respond to local dynamics and ownership.

“In countries like Syria any efforts to secure lasting peace will need to address the plight of those who are displaced,” said Seils. “It does not mean they will get everything they want, but it should mean they have an integral voice and an active role. How and when justice is delivered depends on a critical mass being able to push for it. That requires people on the ground, free and able to take the lead and shape the justice process.”


Refik Hodzic, ICTJ Communications Director
E-mail: rhodzic@ictj.org Phone: +1 917-637-3853

PHOTO: Refugees gather at a registration camp near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija to board a train heading to the Serbian border. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)