Syrian Transitional Justice – the Re-election of President al-Assad
On May 26, 2021, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected president for the fourth time resulting in further difficulties in creating and maintaining initiatives that seek truth, justice, and reconciliation for the Syrian people. Through the targeting of medical facilities, schools, and homes, the Assad regime has greatly contributed to the UN confirmed 350,209 deaths, with the estimated total closer to 500,000, the displacement of 11 million people, and deprivation of education and medical assistance. The pursuit of transitional justice in Syria will not look like that in South America, South Africa, Rwanda, or the former Yugoslavia as the authoritarian regime still holds power of most of the country, specifically in the northeastern and northwestern regions of the country.
Although there was much debate concerning the legitimacy of the elections, al-Assad will remain in power. This could be due, in part, to nearly a third of the population located in the northwestern and northeastern regions of Syria not taking part in the election. With no end in sight, regardless of the crimes against humanity or the destruction of the country and its people, how can the pursuit of truth, justice, and reconciliation happen in a country that is still engaged in conflict?
Under different circumstances, there would be three avenues of justice taken to hold high-level officials in Assad’s regime accountable: through domestic judicial systems, the International Criminal Court (ICC), or the creation of an ad-hoc international criminal tribunal, however these are highly unlikely to succeed. Due to instability and the increasing control of the Syrian government, the domestic judicial system has little to no chance of successful prosecution, as leadership in the Assad regime will not allow themselves to be tried in court and convicted of crimes. Syria has yet to ratify the Rome Statute, meaning the ICC has no jurisdiction to investigate or prosecute anyone for crimes that fall within the statute. The UN Security Council (UNSC) could refer the case to the ICC but Syrian ties to China and Russia have made any attempts null and void as it would go against their strategic interests that benefit from relations with President Assad. Lastly, the UNSC would have to approve of an ad hoc criminal tribunal, but this has little potential as, again, China and Russia are likely to veto such attempts.
With the Assad regime still in power and no hope for the aforementioned justice seeking processes, there are alternative transitional justice mechanisms that need to be pursued to force the Assad regime to be held accountable for its action. In place of such futile attempts of criminal prosecution, efforts can be made in transitional justice mechanisms, such as truth-seeking. NGOs and IGOs can establish quasi-truth commissions within the areas they are working, specifically in the northeast and northwest regions outside of President Assad. Being facilitated by NGOs and IGOs and implemented by civil society and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), a substantial record of human rights violations that had occurred since the onset of the war could be created. Such a record could then be disseminated in the international community and within the country, although efforts within the country may be limited due to potential censorship. Members of opposing ethnic or religious groups can find a common ground and begin dialogue to address the ramifications of what they have done to one another and what is being done to them by the Assad regime.
Civil society within and those who are displaced, can also use writings, photos, and videos to showcase their experiences as a truth-telling mechanism and evidence and reminders of the horrors they faced. It is important that in seeking the truth, individuals from all over Syria take part, including those in government-held regions. Truth-telling mechanisms, such as creating videos and photographic evidence can set the stage for future post-conflict justice-seeking goals. An example of such documentation are the photos taken by the Syrian defector who goes by the codename “Caesar”. Caesar was able to smuggle more than 50,000 photos from detention centers and military hospitals where he worked as a forensic photographer before he left the country. These photos made it possible for the international community to see the kinds of horrors that many Syrian prisoners face. This collection of photographic evidence is only a fraction of the potential documentation that could be collected to preserve the memory of those who have lost so much, as well as help those who lost someone discover what had happened to them. Continuation of such efforts is important in the collection of evidence for future transitional justice efforts in Syria.
Although a transition of power, or accountability, from the current authoritarian regime is not feasible at this time, there is still a possibility for recordkeeping and truth-telling, so that when the time comes, justice can be sought, the truths of the conflict can be pieced together, and reconciliation can begin. Until then, there needs to be a greater push for documentation of people’s experiences as IDPs, refugees, defectors, or civil society members. Truth-telling can provide a greater sense of community as individuals can look to one another to understand that they are not alone in their suffering and loss and must work together to keep their memories alive.
Abigail Sommers is a second year M.A. candidate at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, specializing in the Middle East and International Law and Human Rights. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations and this is her first published piece. Abigail completed my bachelor’s degree at Purdue University in Russian Studies and Political Science.