Justice in Syria Must Go Beyond the Courtroom, ICTJ Says


NEW YORK, February 6, 2018― The war in Syria rages on as the most documented in history, with thousands of photos, videos, and testimonies circulating in the public sphere and countless more otherwise accessible. This information holds enormous potential: it could offer paths to justice for victims and their communities through acknowledgement, the fulfillment of their right to truth, and of course through criminal justice proceedings. However, if this wealth of information is to be properly leveraged, those fighting for justice should broaden their focus beyond the courtroom and take concrete actions now.

A new paper released today by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) challenges the notion that criminal prosecution is the sole use for documentation of violations in Syria. The paper, titled Justice for Syrian Victims Beyond Trials,” urges the international community, human rights groups and Syrian civil society organizations to use the tools at their disposal to pursue overlooked avenues towards justice. These include the search for the truth, public acknowledgement of violations, and laying the foundation for future truth-seeking and truth-telling processes or reparations process.

The paper grew out of ICTJ’s involvement with the Save Syrian Schools project, an unprecedented collaboration between ICTJ and ten Syrian partner organizations documenting the destruction of schools in the conflict and aiming to expose their impact and long-term harms. The project will host a <a href="https://www.ictj.org/news/save-syria-schools-public-hearing-march-22-announcement"target="blank">public hearing-style event in Geneva on March 22 which will gather a global audience of activists, policy makers, international organizations, and more to hear the stories of those affected by the violations and affirm their dignity.

“The Save Syrian Schools project underlines the immediate utility of documentation,” says Fernando Travesí, ICTJ Executive Director and co-author of the paper. “Documentation does not have to be gathered solely for criminal proceedings that may or may not happen in the future. It can be used now to secure acknowledgement for victims and influence public dialogue about the war.”

Frustrated efforts by the international community

The paper examines the myriad commissions and mechanisms the international community has sought to use since the start of the war and how they have shaped the documentation process. These institutions, such as the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) and the International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, seek to document alleged violations, identify perpetrators, and hold them to account – ends that then become overemphasized by information gathering efforts. The paper contends that these goals should not be the limit of activists’ imaginations, urging them to collect and use information with other accountability aims in mind.

"Progress towards criminal prosecution has been slow and may not always represent the most effective path to justice for Syrians," says Nousha Kabawat, co-autor of the report. "We must imagine forms of justice that lie beyond the confines of these mechanisms and do work to support an array of efforts now."

The paper points out that many Syrian organizations are currently pursuing such alternate paths towards justice. These efforts may foreground the importance of acknowledgement of the crimes as a first step to alleviate victims’ suffering and open the door for them to participate in other transitional justice processes, which their experiences and opinions can inform.

How can documentation be used towards justice?

Acknowledgment is also not a step that has to wait for the wheels of criminal justice mechanisms to grind forward, but can happen now and pressure the international community to stand against the attacks.

Beyond acknowledgement, documentation collected now can support justice efforts in a post-conflict Syria. Information should be collected and shared more effectively among Syrian and international groups as a way to start advancing processes that will be crucial for the Syrian future such as the search for the disappeared and answer questions about property and civil status.

“We must not wait for peace to start the search for the disappeared," Travesí says. "We can use documentation now to map and protect burial places, empower families, coordinate national and international work, and provide psychological support to victims and their families.”

The paper reflects ICTJ’s ongoing involvement in the Save Syrian Schools project. The project will also issue a report on its findings on March 22. Stay tuned for more.


Sam McCann, Communications Associate E-mail: communications@ictj.org Tel: +1 917-637-3824

Photo: A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria. (Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue)