Transitional Justice Alternatives: “We should all stay under the rule of law”

Nearly all respondents on both sides agreed that the rule of law and the justice system were the best mechanisms for bringing accountability and stability to Syria. Indeed, of the three options for justice presented during these interviews (trials, truth commissions, and compensation), trials were by far the most popular approach. The notion that “whoever governs Syria will need to establish rule of law” was the most popular idea discussed, with most respondents agreeing with it, many strongly. However, there were predictable divisions over whether the existing Syrian courts should preside over trials, and a more general hostility to an international component in transitional courts.

Compensation also was a popular mechanism for bringing justice to victims of the conflict. Many participants acknowledged that while some losses cannot be compensated, compensation is a good way to help people start to rebuild their lives. This, combined with court trials, was most respondents’ preferred approach to justice.

Most respondents were not familiar with truth commissions, though they were generally receptive to the concept after an explanation. However, the concept of amnesty in exchange for admissions of guilt was difficult for nearly all to accept. They did, however, respond positively to the idea of compensation and evidence collection aspects of the commission. Most, however, found it difficult to imagine a scenario in which a truth commission would be the only possible avenue of justice — where trials would not be part of a settlement process.

Rule of Law Above All Else

Respondents broadly embraced the idea that a justice system that treats everyone the same and with laws that apply equally to everyone is the best way to deal with the crimes of the war. Some respondents said such a system will be critical for allowing Syria to move forward, post conflict, and prevent crimes from recurring.

Syria needs laws that are applied to everyone, especially war criminals, because the country is in a mess today and it cannot move forward. When people know there is a fair law to judge them, they will not do criminal or destructive acts.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Aleppo

The guilty should be held accountable to make sure crimes and violations will not be repeated. We should all stay under the rule of law.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 32, al-Qamishli

I believe those who committed war crimes and human rights violations should be prosecuted. The best alternative is establishing the rule of law and state of citizens, and prosecuting criminals.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 42, Homs

The guilty should be held accountable to make sure these crimes will not be repeated, that is all to get Syria back on the forefront among the nations and lay down the rule of law of course.
— Christian man (pro-regime), 46, Damascus

There was some division between anti-regime respondents, who believed Syria’s courts do not offer the rule of law now, and many regime supporters, who thought it already exists.

For decades we have suffered from the Syrian courts and their systems established by the perished father and followed by his bloodthirsty son because of their injustice, tyranny, and bias. We thus do not trust such systems.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 30, Hamah

Syria does not need to establish the rule of law. Syria is capable of prosecuting criminals, and those who destroyed it should all be punished.
— Alawite woman (pro-regime), 43, Tartous

Strong Support for Prosecutions of Abusers

One of the most noteworthy findings of the research was the widespread support, on both sides of the political divide, for prosecuting in court those who abused human rights and committed war crimes during the conflict, whatever side they were on.

[For] any of the sides, whoever committed a crime should be held accountable. It should be through the judiciary. Anyone who committed a crime or knows they are guilty in this revolution should be held accountable through the judiciary. Everyone is supposed to be held accountable for what they did — there are rebels who should be held accountable, as well as regime figures and civilians.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 50, refugee, Jordan

Anybody who committed war crimes during this conflict from any party should be prosecuted.
— Christian woman (pro-regime), 45, Damascus

Little Agreement Over Who Should Conduct Trials

As supportive as most respondents were regarding court trials, there was little consensus on who should conduct them. Most respondents — including regime supporters and many opponents — were adamant that post-conflict trials be conducted by Syrian courts and Syrian judges. They regarded international involvement in transitional courts as unwanted foreign meddling in Syrian affairs.

I am with the idea of judging those who committed crimes and destruction, but in Syrian courts and on Syrian land with no Western intervention, because only in this way is justice fulfilled.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 27, Aleppo

We did not start the revolution to keep the judiciary of Hafez al-Assad, nor to bring a Western one. The revolution was to have free independent Syrian law.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 28, Aleppo

However, some regime supporters specified that by “Syrian courts” they mean the current court system.

[The Syrian court system] is a proven system. It has always been worthy, responsible, professional, and fair.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 25, Damascus

Others — primarily anti-regime respondents — argued that the current Syrian system is too corrupt to be entrusted with securing justice. Nevertheless, they expect Syrians to control it:

There will be a judiciary, a new regime, and a respected judiciary that will be neutral and we will not need help from another country, of course.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 38, Damascus

A few say international courts or neutral countries should take charge. “I don’t think there will be a power in the near future that can control the country and people. There should be international parties who would bring those guilty people [to trial] and judge them fairly,” said a Sunni man in Damascus. One IDP in Raqqah acknowledged the unpopularity of his view that international courts should be involved:. “If I said international courts you would say that I am a traitor.” But he stuck to it.

A few advocated a hybrid approach with both Syrian and international involvement. “I prefer Syrians because they know their country. But it’s ok to have some well-known international persons because it is too difficult to find a trusted person as this country is full of corruption,” said a Sunni woman IDP in Damascus.

Compensation a Popular Response to Loss

Compensation for losses suffered in the conflict was a universally popular approach on both sides. For many respondents, this, along with court trials, would be a step towards bringing justice to Syrians who have suffered in the war, even if only a partial one. Regime opponents and supporters tended to agree on this, though they differ somewhat on who deserves compensation.

Of course there should be compensations to victims; anyone who abused others should be held accountable and the ones who got abused should be compensated.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 40, Hama

Compensation is a good idea, and it will achieve justice fairly.
— Alawite man (pro-regime), 25, Damascus

Many respondents said those who had lost breadwinners, homes, or jobs should receive priority for compensation. Some suggested that employers who lost shops or factories also should have priority, to help rebuild the economy. Redressing economic losses was implicitly the purpose of compensation.

The most important ones to be compensated should be the orphans, families [where] the breadwinner has been killed and left a wife and children.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 25, refugee in Turkey

If there are priorities, I wish those with the limited income whose only supporter is God be compensated first, and [also] there are people who had workshops that were damaged or lost them.
— Sunni woman (pro-regime), 58, Damascus

This category of people should be compensated: [those] who lost their houses, commercial shops, companies, and factories because of these battles, as these people are the ones who support the country’s economy.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 45, Raqqah

However, regime supporters strongly opposed compensating those who were involved in the fighting on the anti-government side, particularly those affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and foreign fighters:

Those who were the cause of chaos and supported terrorists such as Jabhat al-Nusra, foreigners and those who supported them shouldn’t be compensated.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 32, Hama

Remarkably, quite a few respondents, even refugees and IDPs, believed that others were far more deserving of compensation than they. “I cannot say that I do not deserve it because I have suffered from damages, but there are many affected and damaged people. They shall be considered, so compensation should be distributed fairly,” said a Sunni woman IDP in Damascus.

The sense that some losses — such as sons or husbands — cannot be compensated produces a deep sense of bitterness among some respondents. While economic damages can be compensated, money is not a replacement for the loss of loved ones. This was why respondents said accountability must accompany compensation. As an anti-regime Sunni woman, 37, in Qamishli put it, “Blood is not so cheap to be sold for some money! Compensation is necessary but the court and penalty are more important than all the world’s treasure. Syrian blood and souls are so expensive.”

Truth Commissions Little Known But Favourably Received

The idea of a non-judicial truth commission as a form of transitional justice was novel but attractive to most respondents. Very few had heard of truth commissions, though a few Christian respondents were familiar with the concept, and the interviewees had neither thought about nor previously discussed this possibility. Most on both sides of the conflict considered the pros and cons carefully and were receptive, particularly to the evidence gathering and compensation components.

When all the facts are clarified it will solidify our faith in the country. And enhance the harmony of the Syrians, especially when it is clearer that some of what happened was caused by outside interference in Syria.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 33, Aleppo

Having a truth commission would restore the rights that were extorted, and the compensations would help those who lost to move on with their lives and live with dignity.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 30, Hamah

A few respondents confused truth commissions with prior discredited commissions:

If you want to bury something, form a commission around it. Bashar knows this game very well. Whatever happens, they form a commission for it: the Reconciliation Commission and the Daraa Events Investigation Commission.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 47, IDP in Raqqah

No, because it’s not credible. Every two days they have a commission and eventually they will deny it, ignore its reports, and forge whatever they want.
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 32, Hama

A few questioned a truth commission’s value if “everyone already knows” who is responsible for crimes, with much of it documented on mobile phones or committed in small, tight-knit communities. “In Syria there are a lot of people who have mobile phones and they have photographed everything. The names of people are known. Even the little kid knows who killed and stole, so I don’t think we need that,” said a Sunni man in Damascus

Amnesty for Truth Difficult to Accept

Offering amnesty in return for confessions of wrongdoing, as South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was very difficult for most respondents to accept, whether pro- or anti-regime. They cannot imagine a scenario in which the guilty are not held to account. Many rejected outright a truth commission that would provide amnesty in exchange for admission of guilt.

And you are telling me it’s a truth commission! Just because they confessed they are set free? How do you expect me to trust such a commission with a black history of releasing the unjust who destroyed the country just because they confessed with their crimes? This is totally unacceptable!
— Sunni man (pro-regime), 38, Raqqah

You mean that those who confess will be released? This looks like it is to allow Bashar and his cronies to depart. Actually I do not agree. I do not accept that a confession is enough for those who killed hundreds of people. I insist that they must punished.
— Sunni woman (anti-regime), 28, IDP in Damascus

Compensation Function Builds Truth Commission Support

Including the provision of compensation as part of the role of a truth commission is likely to increase its support, judging by the reactions of participants in the study. As noted above, compensation is seen as offering partial justice and easing suffering, so affording it to victims via a truth commission which recognizes their suffering is an important positive.

It [compensation] won’t grant them complete justice but something is better than nothing. In time, they may forgive and clear their hearts,, but regarding justice, they didn’t get it.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 34, Damascus

Excellent. It [compensation] eases the pain. However, it lets the offenders get away.
— Sunni man (anti-regime), 47, IDP in Raqqah

However, the notion that a truth commission might offer a form of justice if trials prove impossible after a negotiated settlement was difficult for respondents to consider at this stage. Given their strong support for trials and the complete lack of substance regarding the terms of a possible settlement, respondents were not able even to consider the possibility that trials may not occur. Another finding in this research is the broad agreement among Syrians in the opposing camps of the need for the rule of law in their country after the war and their support for the prosecution of those who committed abuses, whatever their side. Of course, beneath this there is division over the legitimacy of the existing judicial system, but there is also a striking desire for a Syrian justice process and substantial rejection of external involvement in transitional courts on both sides. Compensation of victims also elicits a large consensus of support and sympathy on both sides, albeit one qualified by political differences. Truth commissions, too, though unfamiliar, are attractive because they offer the possibilities of impartial fact-finding and the dispensation of compensation. (The strong demand for accountability and punishment, however, would militate against the idea of offering amnesty in exchange for confessions to a truth commission.)

What all this underlines is that despite the intensity and brutality of the conflict, people on both sides see themselves as part of the same national community and are thinking in terms of the same moral universe.

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He Who Did Wrong Should Be Accountable: Syrian Perspectives on Transitional Justice Copyright © 2014 by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license). All Rights Reserved.

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