SAT 15 - 12 - 2018
Feb 22, 2018
The Daily Star
For a sustainable peace, Syrians need justice in all its forms
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro & Karen Koning AbuZayd & Hanny Megally
The sight in recent weeks of Syrian delegations flying in and out of Geneva, Vienna, Astana and now Sochi to negotiate peace has fueled speculation that a political settlement to the Syrian conflict is in sight. The real question, however, is not will the fighting stop, but will justice be achieved. For nearly seven years Syrians have suffered grotesque human rights violations, and not just from the death and destruction brought on by a conflict where all parties have enjoyed total impunity. They have suffered from the agonies of not knowing the truth about missing relatives, of being held secretly or “disappeared,” of being tortured in detention and of being forcibly displaced, often a number of times. Unless the parties seeking a settlement seriously tackle the injustices that have been wrought upon the Syrian people one cannot hope for a sustainable peace.
Syria’s war began in March 2011 with peaceful protests, but quickly descended into a bitter non-international armed conflict. While the internal parties to the conflict continued to multiply, the military support and engagement of a variety of regional and international actors and sponsors has ensured the prolongation and escalation of the conflict rather than bringing it to an end.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, more than 6 million are internally displaced and 13 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 5.5 million Syrians have fled their country. Casualties of war have not been accidental, but rather the result of deliberate policies and actions specifically targeting civilians. Such tactics have tested not only the boundaries of international law, but also the very foundational principles of human rights and humanitarian norms. In so doing, it has shocked the conscience of the world.
In carrying out the mandate of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic over the past six years, we have made findings that detail the massive suffering that crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have inflicted on the Syrian people. Every one of the 6,000 individuals who has entrusted us with their stories did so hoping that it would spur the world into action to end the fighting, bring justice to the victims, and punish perpetrators.
We strongly advocated for the situation in Syria to be referred by the Security Council to the International Criminal Court. Despite the stalemate at the council, in December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly took welcome action to create a new and innovative mechanism – the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism – to preserve evidence of crimes committed in Syria and to prepare files to assist future efforts to prosecute perpetrators wherever they may be found. To achieve its goals this mechanism will need strong backing from U.N. member states and courts with jurisdiction to use its files.
While Syrian victims crave accountability for the crimes they have endured, they also need immediate and tangible forms of justice. That includes learning the whereabouts of their missing or disappeared loved ones, or receiving reparation for the horrific abuses endured in detention or being able to return home and reclaim their property confiscated after they fled. It includes an end to abductions and arbitrary arrests, to secret places of detention and to torture – including sexual and gender-based violence. The list of demands for these justice-based needs in no way lessens the call for criminal accountability, but if met they can provide real and practical remedies to some of the most crippling aspects of the conflict. These demands can and should be prioritized now as part of any peace talks.
Ongoing processes designed to bring conflicting parties to the peace table must address these issues. Political negotiations must include prisoner releases, a moratorium on executions, and an independent and impartial process for collecting information to help identify missing persons and the forcibly disappeared in order to build trust and confidence. To reinforce such commitments, all parties should ensure that places of detention and those being held are acknowledged and opened up to independent monitoring.
More than half of the Syrian population have fled their homes. All parties must make assurances that the rights of refugees and displaced persons will be fully respected, including their property and land rights, a right to their national identity and other critical entitlements essential to allow them to re-establish a normal life. The international community and those states supporting one or other side in the Syrian conflict should be prioritizing these victim-centered justice demands as part of their own diplomatic efforts to promote peace, to assist in rebuilding the country or to ease or lift economic sanctions.
Time and again, history has shown that advancing justice and accountability are crucial elements for achieving sustainable peace. As history has taught us, political negotiators should never award amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in order to reach a negotiated settlement.
The long and winding road to achieving justice for the Syrian people and accountability for those responsible for the heinous crimes that have been committed is the collective responsibility of the entire global community. It will not happen overnight or all at once. Goodwill gestures and confidence-building measures are needed and all parties to this conflict should begin today by immediately releasing women, children, the elderly and the disabled. We stand ready to assist the Syrian people to ensure they can once again live side by side in peace. We owe the victims – the survivors – no less.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd, and Hanny Megally are commissioners in the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx)
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 22, 2018, on page 7.
The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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