Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Syria

Written by: Regina Paulose

As various parties in and out of Syria prepare for the January 22, 2014 “Geneva II” talks, it is important for the international community to remember that a successful long term peace and transition plan in Syria will require the genuine participation of minority groups in Syria of all backgrounds. While these ideas have been communicated to the parties that will be in attendance, it is important that legitimate mechanisms are in place to ensure the participation of all in the transition and that the participation of all people remains a non-negotiable item during the talks.

Women and children are large casualties of the conflict. Their perpetrators come from both government and anti-government sides.[1] Various war crimes have been and continue to be perpetrated against them, including rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. They are “deliberately” targeted because of “political issues and also because they are vulnerable victims.”[2]  Women and children are also targeted in refugee camps outside of Syria’s borders. Young girls face sexual exploitation because they are bought and sold into marriage, with some parents believing that it is better than the alternative – living in a refugee camp.[3] What is worse is that this is not a new problem for Syria. Trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women started long before the conflict.[4]  It is also important to mention that there are a small number of women who are fighting on the frontlines for the respective side they support.[5] Despite this and other forms of activism,[6] women are still underrepresented on both sides.

People with disabilities are also a large group that is forgotten in the Syrian dialogue. Many could not flee the violence because of their disabilities, and those who could, are unable to receive the special medical treatment needed at refugee camps and face deteriorating medical conditions.[7] It is a mistake to think that the disabled are a small group. It is estimated that the war will create somewhere between 200,000 to 300,000 “newly disabled” people, with 13,000 to 12,000 being children.[8] Prior to the conflict, people with disabilities in Syria faced “compounded challenges because of physical, communication, and attitudinal barriers, which are only exacerbated by the war.”[9]

Unfortunately, the list of persecuted groups in Syria goes on, with religious minorities facing death. Caught in between the two warring groups are the Syrian Christians who are also victims of systematic targeting. Syria’s Alawites, which have had leadership posts under Assad’s regime, have also been targeted by the opposition and have been punished for their loyalty to Assad.[10]

One could only conjecture what the outcome of the pending Geneva II talks will be. Whatever the result, all voices in Syria will need to play an integral part in Syria’s formation; otherwise, a peaceful transition could be doomed before it begins.[11] One of the most important roles for all of these groups to partake in is in reforming the rule of law. Subsumed in the broader framework of this reform is criminal justice reform.[12] The Syrian people must be active stakeholders in making these reforms so that a legal system is created that promotes and protects their human rights and affords them security, whatever their background may be.

Inevitably the question will arise as to how crimes perpetrated during the war should be addressed.  While some advocate for the ICC,[13] the international community could create a large disservice to the Syrian people, imposing upon them ideals of justice that taken as a whole the Syrian people may not want (or for that matter afford). Every conflict should not loan itself to a “one size fits all” formula of justice. Although the ICC is already established we must consider how we can aide communities to build justice systems that can work and fit their needs and social problems, especially in areas that are emerging from conflict. The Conference of the Syrian Opposition held in Cairo in 2012, envisions an ambitious transitional justice mechanism (GBAR), which aims to compensate victims and try perpetrators for war crimes. Syria will also need to tackle corruption and discrimination within their legal system, but the sooner these problems are tackled, the better.  Those who have been impacted by violence and have suffered as a result of the prolonged conflict are the ones with the answers to these questions.

It is also important to remind members of the U.N. Security Council that criminal amnesties should not be used as a negotiating tool for any side, because both sides are perpetrators of gross atrocities. This may be a request made by one side or both, and it is necessary for the Security Council to take this opportunity not to be selfish, and seek to benefit their interests. Victim interests should trump political ones.

In order for a new Syria not to regress into a state of conflict, respect for the rule of law and human rights will have to be at the top of its agenda. Incorporating minority voices[14] into the peace narrative will serve multiple purposes; including combatting and addressing the culture of violence, sexual exploitation, and gender, ethnic, and religious discrimination that many in Syria have faced for such a long time. Unfortunately at this juncture Geneva II is continuing the culture of silencing the those who have suffered enormously as a result of conflict.


[1] FIDH, “Violence against women in Syria: Breaking the Silence” Briefing Paper, December 2012, p.10, available at: http://fidh.org/IMG/pdf/syria_sexual_violence-web.pdf

[2] BBC News, “Syria Conflict: Women ‘targets’ of abuse and torture” November 26, 2013, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25100122

[3] Hassan Hassan, “Online Trafficking of Syrian women shames all involved” The National, September 10, 2012, available at: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/online-trafficking-of-syrian-women-shames-all-involved

[4] United States Department of State, 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report – Syria, 19 June 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/51c2f38518.html %5Baccessed 10 January 2014]

[5] Ammar Cheikhomar and Henry Austin, “They can’t succeed without us” Women take front-line role in conflict” NBC News, June 23, 2013, available at: http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/23/19076204-they-cant-succeed-without-us-women-take-front-line-role-in-syria-conflict?lite

[6] Dina Shahrokhi, “The Crucial Role of Women in the Syrian Uprising” Baker Institute Blog, July 3, 2013, available at: http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2013/07/the-crucial-role-of-women-in-the-syrian-uprising/

[7] Geoffrey Johnston, “People with disabilities trampled in Syrian war” thewhig.com, November 14, 2013, available at: http://www.thewhig.com/2013/11/14/people-with-disabilities-trampled-in-syrian-war

[8] Geoffrey Johnston, “People with disabilities trampled in Syrian war” thewhig.com, November 14, 2013, available at: http://www.thewhig.com/2013/11/14/people-with-disabilities-trampled-in-syrian-war

[9] Shantha Barriga, “Dispatches: Invisible Victims of the Syrian Conflict – People with Disabilities” Human Rights Watch, September 19, 2013, available at: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/19/dispatches-invisible-victims-syrian-conflict-people-disabilities

[10] Joshua Hersh, “The Dilemma of Syria’s Alawites” The New Yorker, October 18, 2013, available at: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/10/the-dilemma-of-syrias-alawites.html

[11] Peter Beaumont, “Syria’s defiant women risk all to protest against President Bashar al-Assad” The Guardian, May 21, 2011, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/21/syria-women-unrest-repression

[12] UNODC, “Criminal Justice Reform in Post Conflict States” 2011, p. 2, available at: http://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/11-83015_Ebook.pdf

[13] Human Rights Watch, “Criminal Justice for Serious Crimes under  International Law”  December 17, 2013, available at: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/17/syria-criminal-justice-serious-crimes-under-international-law

[14] Pope Francis and Kofi Annan offered different “six point” plans which have surfaced during the course of the first set of talks that incorporate vulnerable/minority groups. See Edward Pentin, “Pope Francis outlines Syria Peace Plan” National Catholic Register, September 6, 2013, available at: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/pope-francis-outlines-syria-peace-plan/. See also AlJazeera, “Kofi Annan’s six point plan for Syria” March 27, 2012, available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/03/2012327153111767387.html.

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