Violence in Syria looks about to get even worse. Just as the United States and the EU announce they will supply arms to rebel groups, reports say Iran will send in 4,000 troops to support Al-Assad. Meanwhile, both the opposition and the regime (alongside Hezbollah) are preparing to wage a fierce battle for Aleppo, and last week’s killings in Hatla underscore the ongoing sectarian dimension of the conflict.
With all signs pointing to escalating violence, Syrians are even more likely to suffer human rights violations and greater incidence of other crimes. But other than human rights-focused groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, most large organizations and governments only condemn violations when it aligns with political ends. Russia, for instance, has downplayed the regime’s systematic brutality (including chemical weapons attacks) while those against the regime have waved off repeated rebel violations as “isolated incidents.” Simply put, geostrategic and military factors are of primary concern to most foreign actors. Clearly then, we must look elsewhere to advance effective human rights and transitional justice efforts.
Because, not despite, of the specter of escalation, now is a critical time to spread awareness about transitional justice mechanisms among Syrians. Accountability and justice are important deterrents for continued violence. They’re also fundamental for future peace building efforts as transitional justice processes help people rebuild their societies, deal with the past, and find ways to move forward.
Knowledge about transitional justice is quite limited, but it’s important for Syrians to know that crimes are not going undocumented and that mechanisms designed to facilitate peace and reconciliation exist and can be made use of as desired. Syrians who don’t know about truth-seeking, reparations, and possibilities for institutional reform, for instance, cannot demand them. For Syrians who have seen only the rule of violence in recent years, the importance of illuminating an alternate vision cannot be underestimated. Expectations can affect outcomes.
After education and awareness, mobilization will be key. How high profile, how much of a priority will accountability be? That can very much be determined by Syrians themselves, especially if they come together as individuals, groups, and communities to mobilize. Specific and persistent calls for accountability can ensure that the post-conflict environment need not be dictated solely by the most powerful actors. The more that Syrians demand a transition that fosters peace, stability, and unity, the more likely that future will come to pass.
Finally, continued documentation of violations and ongoing media pressureon all sides will be indispensable. As violence affects more and more Syrians, both the documentation and media attention should reflect the growing gravity of the situation. Documentation, often the precursor of useful evidence, is a first draft of history, while journalism can highlight those events and serve as a prime catalyst for accountability. Even if national governments only selectively engage with this documentation, it still usefully establishes a common global understanding of the scope and scale of the conflict’s crimes.
Subordinating today’s human rights to tomorrow’s political outcomes isn’t any model for transitional justice. It not only postpones any chance of justice, but also wastes too many opportunities for work that can and should be done now. The Syrians who are working today to document crimes and demand accountability help mitigate the violence, now and in the future. With nearly one hundred thousand already dead and violence likely to rise, the need for such undertakings has never been clearer.