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Seeking justice for Syria

Islamic State may be losing ground rapidly, but Syrian President Assad's position is gaining strength. His torture chambers and the battlefield are scenes of countless criminal acts. Will these crimes ever come to trial, at the International Criminal Court, for example?

It is a crucial scene in the Syria’s disappeared documentary. A Syrian refugee in the Netherlands talks about the terrible torture he suffered in one of President Assad's prisons. You can see the pain in his face as he relives his memories, followed by the tears. But when the interviewer asks him what should happen to his torturers, it is clear that there is no room in his heart for revenge through arms. 'I will never rest until they are brought to justice.'  

But how likely is it that there will be real justice in Syria? And is it possible to have the perpetrators tried before an international tribunal? These were the issues discussed on 14 July during a panel debate led by Carsten Stahn, Professor of International Criminal Law at Leiden University. The debate was part of the Human Rights and Transitional Justice Summer School, organised by the Grotius Centre. Dozens of students from the Netherlands and abroad took part in the summer course from 10 until 14 July. 

International Criminal Court

Stahn's opening words made it clear just how difficult it will be to bring the perpetrators to justice. The International Criminal Court in The Hague can, for example, only try offenders from countries that have accepted the Court's jurisdiction. Syria has never done that. The other option is a referral by the Security Council, which is very unlikely, so the likelihood of Syrian citizens having to account for their actions in The Hague is very slim. It also means Syrian President Assad himself can avoid having to face trial. 

All that can be done is to gather evidence of human rights violations in the hope that the perpetrators will eventually be brought to justice. There is certainly enough evidence. At the end of 2016 the United Nations therefore set up the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syria. This is a databank where evidence on the conflict in Syria is collected. The evidence comes, for example, from Syrian human rights organisations that have been monitoring the violence as precisely as possible for many years. The idea is that this evidence will be used in domestic jurisdictions willing to initiate prosecutions.

Recording violence

One of these organisations is The Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC), of which Husam Alkatlaby has been chairman since 2015. He knows better than anyone what it is like to live under a repressive regime. His predecessor was arrested in 2013, since when nothing further has been heard of him. In spite of the constant threats, Alkatlaby's organisation gathers photos and documents about war crimes and sends them abroad. He now sends his information to the IIIM.

‘Thanks to the IIIM, we can now finally concentrate on what we can do to speed up justice in Syria,' says Wieteke Theeuwen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. 'The two most important things are impartiality and independence. The IIIM gathers evidence of crimes by all the parties involved in the conflict, whether it's the Syrian army or Islamic State or the rebel groups.' 

Start-up problems

No matter how important justice is for the members of the panel and the summer school, the international community is as yet not too eager to contribute. This can be seen in the fact that seven months after its foundation IIIM is still not fully financed. Several European countries have each contributed a million euros, but the starting budget of thirty million has not yet been reached. That's embarrassing, says Lotte Leicht, director of the European branch of Human Rights Watch. 'And then we haven't even talked yet about structural funding for the coming years,' says Theeuwen.

Very slowly, part of the international community is taking the first cautious steps towards bringing the perpetrators of torture, chemical attacks and summary execution to justice.  At the same time, it is all too clear that this will not happen any time soon, and that many more people will die before the first offender is summoned to appear. 'As usual, the law is lagging behind the facts,' Stahn sighs. Until then, Alkatlaby and his colleagues continue tirelessly to document these horrific crimes. 

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