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Middle East

Accounting for the atrocities of war in Syria

Although the fighting in Syria rages on, accountability experts say now is the time to prepare the population of the war-torn state for the complexities of serving justice on a nationwide scale.

Where there is war, there are perpetrators, victims, blurred lines between the two, and areas of gray as expansive as the cities devastated by the conflicts played out within them. There is also a need for some sense of justice, for those who inflicted suffering to be made to pay for their crime. If not an eye for an eye, then at least a life behind bars for a life taken.

In the context of Syria, the hopes for what will happen when the killing does finally come to an end are high.

"People are expecting everyone who committed a crime or a violation of human rights to be held accountable, and they want everyone to be fully compensated for their loss - be it physical or emotional," Mohammad Al Abdallah, human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), told DW.

The reality, he asserts, however, will be very different. Quite apart from the practical issue of where thousands and thousands of people would be held while they served their sentence, there is the question of finance. War crimes trials take time and swallow vast sums of money. Since its establishment in 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has cost somewhere in the realm of $2 million. In almost two decades it has completed proceedings against less than 50 of those indicted.

Against that ratio backdrop, Al Abdallah stresses the importance of taking a pragmatic approach to accountability. As alternatives to expensive judicial proceedings, he suggests a truth commission geared up to request compensation for victims and apologies from perpetrators, as well as vetting mechanisms to keep war criminals and human rights vialators out of both public office and the polling station.

Building a future

A child stands alone

Building a future for Syrians requires reconciliation

Whatever route the country takes, the lawyer says it is imperative to be honest and up front with the Syrian people about possibilities and resource limitations, and to make it clear to them that the latter will determine the scope of the former.

"You have to prepare people by making them aware of the challenges ahead. You have to talk to the victims, to their relatives, to communities that were impacted, to those who were displaced, to the relatives of those killed on both sides, and whether you like it or not, to the militias," Al Abdallah said, adding that failure to engage people across the board could result in fresh violence.

Last year, the managing director of Public International Law and Policy Group, Michael Scharf, worked with former international tribunal prosecutors and judges to compile a discussion draft of a "Statute for a Syrian Extraordinary Tribunal to Prosecute Atrocity Crimes." He agrees that any accountability mechanism has to be created by the people whose lives were affected.

"From the beginning we took the position that it has to be a Syrian home-grown approach in order for the Syrian people to buy into it," Scharf told DW. "It cannot be imposed from the outside."

Minefield of variables

The draft statute, which was intended as a basis for discussion and which included footnotes about what has and has not worked in other countries in the past, has been revised, and Scharf says "embraced" by the Syrian opposition coalition. Whether it or its like is ever implemented, however, will depend in large part on the outcome of the conflict.

Refugee camp tents Photo: Flo Smith

SAJC says it is imperative to talk to displaced Syrians

If the opposition comes to power, there is the chance of some kind of national accountability, in a coalition government the more likely scenario is paralysis, while if there is a negotiated settlement, some perpetrators may be granted impunity. It is history waiting to be written.

Myriam Benraad, expert on Middle East politics and transitional justice and reconciliation at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says she is not sure accountability will be the priority of any future government, and that talking about it is probably premature.

"Preparing people and trying to increase awareness of accountability, transitional justice and reconciliation is good, but I don’t think it is the priority of the population right now," she told DW. "In the context of the chaos and barbarism which is playing out on a daily basis, I don't feel that people are as concerned as they could be with justice issues."

Besides which, Benraad says it will be hard to set anything up until there is some kind of political solution.

Deterrent characteristic

Yet the arguments in favor of sooner rather than later are convincing. True, it is not standard practice to draw up a draft statute in the middle of a war whose outcome is so far from decided, neither has it been common in the past to try and raise awareness of what could come next before the event. Both, however, have deterrent potential.

Islamist fighters

Rights groups want to make it hard to hide from the truth

"Our main objective was to get the Syrian opposition to buy into the idea of accountability as a signal to all Syrian fighters that they should realize their actions could be held to account," Scharf said, of the thinking behind the draft statute.

Al Abdallah, who is working with both Syrian and international rights groups to compile a database of violations, is determined that those committing crimes now be made aware that even in the absence of money for protracted criminal proceedings, their actions are not going unseen and will not go unpunished.

By the same token, he knows just how volatile his country is, and says time is of the essence if fresh violence is to be prevented once the war proper has run its course.

"Syrians will start to kill each other if they don’t see accountability mechanisms in place quickly," he said. "They need to be widely accepted and clearly able to bring justice to the population. If we don’t do that, we will be leading Syria to another armed conflict."

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