Syrian victim and survivor groups have been increasingly active in informal transitional justice processes. They assert their political agency and demonstrate that survivors and victims are the key stakeholders in justice initiatives. This episode zooms in on the origin of victims’ activism and some main break-throughs.
Victims and their families felt that international efforts were almost nonexistent or failed to meet their demands. Christalla Yakinthou, a scholar of transitional justice at Birmingham university, argues that in response to this stalemate, Syrian victims’ groups started to emerge around 2016. “In that dual context of the escalation of violence and the feeling that the international community wasn’t going to do anything, there was this emerging sense of what can we do for ourselves?.” The moment was ripe for the establishment of groups that assist victims and propose concrete solutions to their justice needs, such as finding out the fate of the disappeared and the missing.
Within this context, in 2021 five victim groups launched the Truth and Justice Charter, in which they set out their short-term and long-term justice perspectives. Yasmen Almashan, of the Caesar Families Association -one of the Charter groups- explains: “justice paths are usually long. But there are urgent needs and necessities for us as families that must be prioritized. These are an immediate halt to torture, inhuman treatment, and sexual crimes in detention centers and prisons, revealing the fate of the forcibly disappeared, and returning the remains of those killed.”
These efforts have not gone unnoticed internationally. Riyad Avlar of the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison upholds that victim groups proved to the international community that victims have the potential to propose and lead initiatives that meet their needs. “The most important issue that we are currently working on as victims’ groups is a mechanism for missing persons in Syria. The mechanism must be international, this is crucial.”
Even if victim groups managed to create their own spaces for activism and impose their participation, they carry a huge burden on their shoulders. Agency comes with a cost, as Hiba al-Hamed of the Coalition of Families of persons Kidnapped by ISIS explains. “It is not easy, remembering every time these sad stories, talking about our beloved ones and mentioning personal details.” Their struggle and the realization that the road is long, weighs heavy. “But our voices at least are heard and nothing is imposed on us,” Hiba argues.