September 30, 2022
Reparations Beyond The State
Reparations are a key mechanism to redress violations of international law. They are mostly conceived within state-like frameworks and related to measures administered by states. Yet, violence has increasingly shifted away from states to non-state actors such as armed groups. In a new Justice Visions podcast episode, we talk with Katharine Fortin (Netherlands Institute of Human Rights) and Luke Moffett (Queen’s University) about the need to broaden the conversation about engaging armed groups and encouraging them to remedy the harm they have caused.
Currently, around 60 to 80 million people are living under the control of armed groups. In their practices, armed groups are increasingly taking on public ‘semi-government’ functions, using the law and employing judicial processes. These practices pose new challenges and questions for the International Criminal Court, as Katharine argues: “Is armed group law, law? Are armed group courts, courts?” and if they are, “should the international community be asking armed groups to investigate if a particular violation has taken place?” Yet, within the human rights framework it is still controversial to engage with armed groups. Can we somehow hold them accountable through the mechanisms they employ, and broaden the conversation about how to deal with the violence and harm they cause?
These are crucial questions, as the existence of armed groups is part of the reality in many post-conflict societies. Using the example of Northern-Ireland, Luke points to the ongoing existence of armed groups, even 25 years after the peace process. In Northern Ireland about 13.000 people, amounting to one out of a hundred adults, are currently members of armed groups. Yet, Luke posits that armed actors could also be approached as potential community leaders and peace-builders, with a view to protecting civilians. “It comes down to how do people act and interact as victims, civil society and armed groups in these situations. Where in transitional justice we are often are looking at post-conflict cases and post-authoritarian governments, in these situations it’s protracted conflict, it’s re-emerging conflicts, fragile societies where there is real insecurity for victims to come out and speak out. How do we better protect and allow people to access some sort of remedy without causing disadvantages for them?”
August 30, 2022
Bridging Syrian and international justice efforts
The Syrian conflict has underlined some of the weaknesses of the international justice system: the lack of formal justice avenues has left victims of international crimes largely in the cold. Conversely, this stalemate has also led to a transnational justice scene, arising from creative and innovative Syrian and international justice initiatives. This last Syria podcast episode sheds a light on some of the pitfalls and achievements that could inform justice actors in other conflicts.
While local civil society’s efforts to document crimes and collect evidence are remarkable, Mohammad Al Abdallah, director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) is pessimistic about their outcome. Mr. Al Abadallah fears that as long as there are no domestic justice processes, accountability would fail to achieve its goals. Nonetheless, he is adamant about the importance of credible, authentic documentation: “to help justice processes in the future to start on the right footing. The second thing is to take any available interim steps and use them to the extent possible.”
Within this context, the work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM), is vital. Its head, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, argues that a two-way communication with Syrian civil society actors is key for this UN entity that acts as a repository and conducts structural investigations into crimes. Ms. Marchi-Uhel interprets the mandate of this justice catalyst “as encompassing support to forms of justice broader than criminal justice. And the search for missing persons is an obvious component of that.”
The rich and stimulating conversations we had through this podcast mini-series on justice efforts for Syria remind us that transitional justice concepts and initiatives cannot work without innovation and creativity. Justice Visions and Impunity Watch hope that these conversations will inspire justice actors in other contexts and encourage them to think outside of the so-called “toolbox”.
Mohammad Al Abdallah is the founding Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre. Prior to 2011, Mohammad has been active as a Syrian human rights and democracy researcher, among other at Human Rights Watch. Mohammad is a former prisoner and survivor of torture who was imprisoned twice in Syria for his work on human rights and political reform. At SJAC he is directly involved in transitional justice projects and the missing persons portfolio.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel is the head of the IIIM since 2017. Prior to joining the IIIM, she was the Ombudsperson for the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions concerning ISIL/Da’esh, Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities. Previously a judge in France, Catherine served in the same capacity with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
July 14, 2022
Syrian Victim and Survivor Groups at Forefront of Justice Efforts
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.
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