SyriaA dislodged and broken blackboard still shows lessons from a math class held at a secondary school in Atarib. Russian air forces bombed the school on Nov. 13, 2016 (SIJ)

Background:

The conflict in Syria began in March 2011 as a peaceful popular uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Protestors were met with brutal violence by the government and the uprising eventually evolved into a full-scale and complex civil war between the al-Assad regime and an armed opposition involving both state and non-state actors, as well as various allied international powers.

The root causes of the conflict date back decades. The repressive policies of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him created an authoritarian state. Tactics such as torture, political detention, and repression of civil liberties were common, facilitated by the emergency law enforced for nearly five decades. 

The conflict has been characterized by a disturbing disregard for international human rights and international humanitarian law. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and more have been forcibly disappeared or tortured. Flagrant attacks on communities, documented by civil society groups, have resulted in the destruction of over 1,200 schools, leaving one in three damaged, destroyed, or used for shelter. And more than half of Syria’s hospitals are no longer functioning.

Waiting for the Bus (Save Syrian Schools, 2018)

As the conflict nears an end, the human toll continues to rise, with millions of Syrians forcibly displaced, including millions who have been forced to flee the country. Children have experienced particular harms, including lasting trauma and disabilities, a lack of education, and the risk of radicalization.

The obstacles to pursuing formal redress and legal accountability have been a major source of frustration and fatigue among civil society. Interest in the role of transitional justice for the country, however, has not diminished.

ICTJ's Role:

Within this context, ICTJ has supported Syrians in finding innovative means of documenting ongoing abuses, acknowledging the violations experienced, and pursuing justice.

ICTJ convened the Save Syrian Schools project to demand justice for attacks on schools and an end to the killing of children in Syria. This collaboration, comprising 10 Syrian organizations based in Turkey and Lebanon, has worked to strengthen existing documentation efforts by developing collective strategies to uphold Syrians’ rights and prepare the groundwork for future transitional justice processes.

To advance efforts to expose the human impacts of the conflict—in particular, the suffering of victims, families, and communities as a result of the attacks on schools—ICTJ held a public hearing in Geneva to present the results of the working group’s analysis of the destruction of schools and bring attention to the voices of Syrians affected by such attacks, including survivors. At the event, Syrian victims were given the rare opportunity to share their experiences in front of a “panel of conscience,” a group of prominent voices and advocates for justice, as a testament to the impact of the destruction of schools.

 

The launch for the Save Syrian Schools report happened on September 10, 2018, at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut.

 

In September 2018, the Save Syrian Schools team released its report, “We Didn’t Think It Would Hit Us: Understanding the Impact of Attacks on Schools in Syria,” the result of collaborative data collection conducted by the group using innovative methodologies and expert analysis by ICTJ.

ICTJ continues to actively engage with the international community and relevant stakeholders to provide input on transitional justice processes and innovative approaches that go beyond the courtroom. Through policy briefs and attendance at high-level meetings, as well as regular research projects, ICTJ has been able to influence ongoing conversations related to human rights in Syria and sustainable solutions for the future. ICTJ also works to support victims and communities and to achieve lasting justice during and following the conflict.

Our work focuses on the following:

  • acknowledgment and reparative actions for victims
  • support for the documentation of human rights violations
  • advocacy for criminal accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for accountability beyond trials
  • technical guidance to international and Syrian stakeholders on transitional justice processes
  • awareness-raising to stop attacks on schools  and prevent violations of international humanitarian law
  • research on the justice needs of refugees and the necessary conditions for dignified return