June 30, 2022
The Syrian Gulag: Reality and Narratives about the Prison System
As a central institution of the Assad’s regime’s system of governance, the prison is aimed at destroying political subjects in Syria. Mass imprisonment has a devastating impact on Syrian society.
Despite its omnipresence, an overview of this gulag or system of prisons spread all over the country, was lacking so far. Determined to fill that gap, researchers Uğur Ümit Üngör and Jaber Baker published The Syrian Gulag, Assad’s Prisons, 1970-2020. They looked among others into the intelligence agencies that operate, according to Uğur, like a vacuum cleaner. “They penetrate into society and extract people from it. Then they process these human beings by subjecting them to violent treatment, to torture and other forms of interrogation, and keep them in these prisons for a while.” As Jaber highlights, this prison system has enormous physical, psychological, social and economic consequences. “There are hundreds of missing persons in the darkness of this gulag and no one knows anything about them. This breaks up families.”
Imprisonment is a national trauma that has left its traces in the cultural domain, generating a huge body of prison narratives. In her research project SYRASP, Anne-Marie McManus relates the functions of these narratives in the domain of among others literature, cinema and visual arts to different verbs: knowing, remembering and feeling; not only as a form of remembrance but also as political contestation. “I think actually one of the major goals of the prison field today is to articulate a new meaning, or a set of meanings around imprisonment and enforced disappearance.”
Artwork by Najah al-Bukai, Tadmor Prison
Poem Hikaya (Story) by Faraj Barayqdar, read by Jaber Baker
May 31, 2022
Truth-seeking and the Potential of Arts
Syrian NGOs and victim groups are increasingly turning to transitional justice initiatives such as truth-seeking, to address pressing justice needs. Truth-seeking is particularly relevant in the Syrian context because of the ongoing impunity but also because of the memory of past atrocities such as the Hama massacre in 1982. In the absence of an official truth-seeking mechanism, informal truth practices are of paramount importance.
Syrian human rights defender Sema Nassar constantly hears the same despairing question: “We want to know what happened. What is the fate of my son or daughter?” Currently, the families of over 100.000 forcibly missing and disappeared in Syria are deprived of that kind of information. Illustrating the case of the Douma Four human rights defenders, Sema insists that revealing the fate of the missing and disappeared is one of the priorities: “Whether they want to pursue accountability or if this truth satisfies them and they can reconcile with it one way or another, or even if they want to find compensation: the first step before anything is knowing the truth.”
Truth-seeking is a difficult endeavour in any case, and even more so in an ongoing conflict that is marked by uncertainty over facts and evidence. In contexts like these, artistic practices can offer more complex understandings of truth. Director of the Syria Campaign Laila Kiki, for example, believes that art and culture can reflect the diverse experiences of the survivors and victims. She gives the example of the Freedom Bus, a bus covered with pictures of missing loved ones that toured Europe, aiming to make their absence visible. It became also a symbol of comfort. “To many Syrians, it became a place for physical gathering in the diaspora, not only for the 100,000 families who have loved ones disappeared in Syria, but also for the movement for justice.”
Playwright Mohammad al-Attar considers arts as a parallel process to justice efforts, that allows to combine documentary with fiction, to start with real references and real protagonists, but to also appeal to the imagination. He believes that in a situation like in Syria, where the tragedy is still ongoing, arts can “create spaces where you can discuss these difficult topics with more ease, with more freedom, with less tension, with less polarization.”
The Freedom Bus
© Mohammad Abdullah
April 29, 2022
Criminal Accountability for Syrians and Beyond
In this new episode of this mini-series on justice efforts for Syrians by Justice Visions and Impunity Watch, we critically examine criminal accountability efforts. Since the start of the al-Khatib trial in April 2020, the first one involving Syrian state torture, criminal proceedings have dominated the justice debate. Patrick Krocker (ECCHR), Anwar al-Bunni (SCLSR), and Veronica Bellintani (SDLP) shed light on the impact of criminal accountability, the central role of victims, and the need to complement criminal proceedings by other efforts.
Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni insists that we cannot overestimate the importance of trials under universal jurisdiction, especially as the conflict is ongoing. “The most important thing is to send a message to the perpetrators that there is no room for impunity in Syria’s future, to prevent such crimes from happening in the future and not give perpetrators a sense of security that allows them to commit crimes, whether in Syria or elsewhere.” In this respect, the transnational cooperation between Syrian lawyers, civil society groups, and international NGOs was key: it demonstrated that while most avenues are closed and realpolitik reigns, justice is not impossible.
As a lawyer on behalf of the victim plaintiffs at the al-Khatib trial, Patrick Krocker witnessed first-hand how this trial created momentum for international justice. While the road ahead is long, he is cautiously optimistic: “there are a lot of prosecutors and investigators that have very deep knowledge of the situation in Syria, that have gathered tons of evidence. I think that the genuine motivation that this evidence is there and should be used is going to stay.”
Closely observing the criminal proceedings and the prominent role of victim groups, Veronica Bellintani notes that criminal accountability should not be seen as a superior form of justice and that victims’ perspectives should be central. “After the al-Khatib trial, there was a lot of conversation about which other perpetrators should we look for: high-level perpetrators, low-level perpetrators? Should we file more complaints? And I think that the conversation should have been more about: how can we make sure that our next justice efforts, our next litigation proceedings are done together with survivors?”
Anwar Al-Bunni is a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer and one of the founders of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research (2004). He was imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime before moving to Germany in 2014. There, he was part of the legal team that successfully brought Syrian defectors and former officers Anwar Raslan and Eyad al-Gharib to trial in Koblenz under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Veronica Bellintani is a human rights researcher and victims’ rights specialist, focusing on the Syrian conflict. She works as Legal Officer at the Syrian Legal Development Programme, focusing on capacity-building and training to Syrian civil society and associations of victims & survivors. She is also serving as Nonresident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Patrick Kroker works in the International Crimes and Accountability program where he is responsible for the European Center on Constitutional and Human Rights’ work on Syria. He is a registered lawyer and did a PhD on the subject of victims’ participation in international criminal proceedings. He previously worked as an assistant to Civil Party Lawyers at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, and as a research assistant at Universität Hamburg and the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
Listen to the Arabic interview with Anwar Al-Bunni
Photo on the left: Ⓒ Mohamed Badarne, ECCHR
March 29, 2022
Breaking the Syrian Justice Impasse
In this new mini-series, Justice Visions podcast teams up with Impunity Watch to tell the story of Syrian justice actors’ struggle to unlock the road to justice in four episodes. Through interviews with practitioners, Brigitte Herremans, Habib Nassar and Mohammed Abdullah will debate justice efforts for Syrians in the domain of accountability, documentation, victim’s activism, and truth-seeking.
“This is the moment to highlight how innovative approaches by NGOs and victim groups have changed the scene”, argues Habib Nassar. “The efforts of victims and family associations to advocate for the establishment of a process to search for over 100.000 missing and disappeared in Syria led the UN General Assembly in December 2021 to adopt a resolution requesting the Secretary General to conduct a study on how to address the issue of the missing.”
In this first episode, we bring to bear how justice actors challenged the justice impasse by readjusting and applying elements of the transitional justice toolkit. Our guests, Maria Al Abdeh and Mazen Darwish highlight some key achievements. “Syrian civil society actors have been playing a role on advocacy on keeping the narrative of victims alive, especially when some countries are speaking about normalization”, stresses Maria. “At the political level, I think that Syrians also succeeded in keeping the issue of justice and accountability on the table”, argues Mazen.
A key takeaway is the need to look beyond trials and criminal accountability. “It’s important to think about the limitation of criminal justice processes. We need to widen our thought about how many survivors would be able to participate, what justice means to different people, how we can really make justice something that impacts the everyday life of people, especially marginalised communities in Syria”, highlights Maria. The need to go beyond criminal accountability will be the theme of our next episode.
.استمع إلى المقابلة مع مازن درويش حول جهود العدالة للسوريين
Listen to the Arabic interview with Mazen Darwish on justice efforts for Syrians.
Photo on the left: International Day of the Disappeared Ⓒ Paul Wagner, The Syria Campaign
February 21, 2022
How do we talk about historical commissions as instances of transitional justice?
Historical commissions are not a new phenomenon. The rise and popularity of the historical commission model took place throughout the nineties and early two-thousands – coinciding with the end of the Cold War – when professional historians took a new interest in engaging with the politics of the past. However, they have been increasingly framed as instances of transitional justice; and this is new. This paradigm shift has been particularly noticeable within consolidated democracies, where post-colonial states are increasingly facing pressures to come to terms with the legacies of their violent pasts.
In this episode, Prof. Tine Destrooper speaks with Dr. Cira Palli-Aspero, postdoctoral research fellow with Justice Visions, and Dr. Alexander Karn, from Colgate University, to explore the link between historical commissions and transitional justice, when these operate in consolidated democracies. We take a conceptual approach to first talk about how these commissions operate and what are their normative objectives; and second, to explore what are the implications of framing these historical commissions in consolidated democracies as instances of transitional justice, and especially the implications for the field of transitional justice.
“…what the historical commissions may help the field of transitional justice to understand is that you do not have sort of hard and fast dates that can be used to cleanly bracket injustice. There needs to be a willingness to think about how the conditions of injustice evolved and what legacies the injustice leaves going forward” – Alexander Karn.
Alexander Karn is Associate Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University (NY, USA). He has worked extensively on the politics of history in contemporary societies, on understanding historical dialogue and justice in transitional regimes and established democracies, and on the role of historical commissions in conflict mediation and reconciliation. He is the author of Amending the Past: Europe’s Holocaust Commissions and the Right to History (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015) and co-editor (with Elazar Barkan) of Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation (Stanford University Press, 2006). Since 2014, he has been a member of the steering committee for the Historical Dialogues, Justice, and Memory Research Network (www.historicaldialogues.org).
Photo on the left: @ubahnverleih on Unsplash