Syria: No justice without return of displaced people

Syrian refugees relocating to Germany in first wave of temporary resettlement program. Syrian refugees relocating to Germany in first wave of temporary resettlement program. © BLOGS.CANOE.COM

According to the International Center of Transitional Justice (ICTJ) report on Syria, it is now time to create the circumstances for the eventual return of displaced persons (DP’s) to the country.


In the 2014 elections, labelled a "farce" by Syria's opposition, President Bashar al-Assad's Baath movement and its allies ran under the "National Unity" coalition and won. Assad says he might consider choosing some opponents for government positions but that a government of national unity is out of the question.

Meanwhile the refugee crisis fueled by the Syrian conflict continues in all its harrowing inhumanity, with thousands of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and the conditions in refugee camps in Greece deteriorating. More than half of Syria’s population of 24 million has been uprooted, with four million no longer even in the country. Any lasting peace will need to address the plight of the internally and internationally displaced.

The priorities are to stop the exodus at its source and to begin to create the circumstances for the eventual return of DP’s. Addressing displacement and how to resolve it is in the interests of those who seek to remove Assad from power and want to see him facing justice.

The US and the UK have chopped and changed their views on whether Assad should stay and, if so, for how long. The US Congress, on 1 march 2016, passed a resolution, calling for the creation of a Tribunal to try those accused of serious crimes but, like many others, they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

By now it has become clear that Assad has committed large-scale war crimes and crimes against humanity. That he and his colleagues in the Syrian High Command, among others, should face justice ought to be unquestionable. But instead of considering practical steps that make peace and justice likely, there is a tendency to descend into disingenuous posturing that fills the void of inaction.
We need to remember that justice also means making Syria a safe place to live, where all its citizens enjoy the respect and protection of the state. Sadly current prospects for holding Assad to account for his crimes are limited.
The focus should be on taking steps to facilitate the return of DP’s now, rather than on implausible calls for prosecutions. There are three important steps that should be taken now to ensure that a post-conflict Syria has a chance of a better future than many other post-conflict zones.

The first is to exercise meaningful consultation with exiled and displaced populations. Efforts can begin to discuss and document the plight of people considering return. Where did they come from? Who controls the territory now? What options do they have and which of the viable options do they prefer? Of course this will be a painful and fraught process but if this process begins now, DP’s will be able to begin to rebuild their lives sooner rather than later. The process of registering land and property should also facilitate the abilitieys of people to organize and to vote sooner rather than later after their return.

A second task is to help those displaced to locate their family members, many of whom have been disappeared or killed. An important step will be to assist these efforts by establishing a DNA databank to facilitate identification of human remains in due course. This will enable family members to lay to rest their loved ones with some dignity and closure.

Third, the mass of documentation that has been gathered in recent years from Syrian conflict zones should be synthesized and analyzed. It may even be possible to hold public hearings (in safe locations obviously) where victims are able to tell their stories directly, unmediated by journalists or other forms of reporting. This is not justice, but it has some real benefits. It would allow victims to feel a sense of agency in influencing the broader context in which negotiations take place, helping to ensure that compromises for peace are informed by an element of principle.

Assad depends on a number of things for his continued survival: some form of Russian support, continued conflict with Daesh and a lack of massive well-organized opposition focused on democracy. Facilitating the return of half the population to their homes is the shortest route to undermining his stability and of ultimately provoking a shift in Russian support.

As unpalatable as it may sound, political posturing which reduces the discussion of justice to Assad being removed or tried today is not helpful. A stable ceasefire is the only possible means of helping displaced Syrians return home. That process will be an enormous undertaking. Yet it is much more likely to promote a peaceful outcome for Syria (and perhaps Europe) in the next five to twenty years than any other.

To read the full report:

Read 9375 times