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Justice for Syria

Srinivas Burra ( is with the South Asian University, New Delhi.

Bringing peace to war-ravaged Syrians needs a multipronged response.

Srinivas Burra writes:

The killing of civilians on 7 April, in an alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, has led to the building of momentum to begin another round of military strikes against the Bashar al-Assad-led government by the United States (US) and its allies. This is one of the incidents in which hundreds of thousands were killed or injured in a conflict that has entered its eighth year. The humanitarian consequences of this conflict are enormous. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since it began in 2011, more than 5.4 million people have fled Syria, taking shelter as refugees in different countries. In addition, 6.1 million people are internally displaced and large numbers of people are trapped in the middle of the conflict in different parts of the country.

The initial internal protests against the Assad government brought about the formation of non-state armed groups, leading to an internal armed conflict. Things became more complex when Russia entered the fray in support of the Syrian government, and the US and its allies intervened to fight the Islamic State (IS). The latter justified their intervention as self-defence, collective self-defence, and humanitarian intervention. While armed humanitarian intervention has no justification under international law, self-defence or collective self-defence are premised on dubious legality. Russia justifies its involvement as intervention by invitation, as it is fighting against non-state armed groups in support of the Syrian government. Thus, the involvement of multiple states and non-state actors has complicated the conflict. It is observed that the parties in the conflict are engaging in combat in utter disregard for the laws of armed conflict, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe. Any effort to prevent further deterioration of the conflict needs to start with a concerted effort premised on certain principles.

First, a constructive diplomatic effort should be initiated by the United Nations (UN), beginning with the disengagement of all foreign involvement in the form of military intervention and support. Often, this call is subject to the demand for a regime change. A diplomatic engagement with the Assad regime is possible if there is a semblance of mutual confidence and trust between the parties involved, and can be effective only with military disengagement. Such a move should not be seen as a concession to the Syrian government, but should be underlined as respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and its people. The UN continues to remain the primary multilateral forum for any such diplomatic engagement. Although states with veto power are using it to block decisions in the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly can be creatively used as a forum for any immediate engagement with the issue.

The second important measure is to address the humanitarian crisis. More than 11 million Syrians are in need of help. This includes refugees who crossed borders, internally displaced persons, and the people caught in the middle of the conflict. Although Western nations have created an uproar about the inflow of refugees, the reality is that neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have accommodated the majority of them. There is an urgent need to facilitate the return of these people to their homes. This will involve not just large-scale humanitarian measures, but also assuring the refugees that they will be safe if they return. Alongside this, economic and social measures will be needed to help them rebuild their lives in the post-conflict situation. This requires coordination between states and humanitarian organisations.

The other important measure is to address the gross violations that have taken place during the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports that the Syrian conflict is characterised by regular violations of international humanitarian law obligations by parties to the conflict. These include sieges, disproportionate attacks in urban areas, and targeting of civilians and civilian services like ambulances, water supply and markets. A recent report prepared by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic focuses on sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2016, the UN General Assembly also established the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes in Syria, which is mandated to collect and analyse evidence of mass atrocities and human rights violations for the purpose of facilitating future international criminal proceedings. Earlier attempts to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court failed. Past experiences in other conflict situations have shown that international criminal prosecutions are conducted selectively, and are allegedly influenced by power relations at the international level. Despite these limitations, victims view criminal proceedings as an important justice delivery mechanism in situations of mass atrocities. Thus, there should be measures to initiate criminal proceedings against all those who are accused of committing crimes under inter­national law. This can happen by way of establishing a criminal tribunal with local and international participation to make the process impartial and independent.

Any effort to bring in peace needs the participation of the ­affected people. If establishing peace needs change in the government, that should be left to the people of Syria to decide. Change of regime cannot be a precondition for initiating other measures.



Updated On : 18th Apr, 2018


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