Justice Committees: Opening the dialogue on Truth Commissions

By Ryan Lewis 

On the 24th of March, Aberaid, a charity who aims to home Syrian refugees fleeing the bloodshed and heartache of their home country, hosted their successful ‘Mid-Wales meets the Middle East’ event in the university town of Aberystwyth. The event brought the unlikely pairing of Welsh and Syrian culture in a blending that seemed harmonious in its goal for peace and friendship. The music and laughter could almost make you forget the tragedies and suffering that linger beyond the event.

The warm smiles of volunteers, refugees and supporters all covered the frustrations and disappointment at not only the government but the international community. the feeling that the government were not doing enough was common. Considering that Britain took in 200,000 refugees at the start of the first world war, Britain today has only taken over 10,000 Syrian refugees. While debates are ongoing as to whether the UK can cope with more refugees or if the UK is simply neglecting its responsibilities as a first world nation. There are other issues at play: one being overlooked-justice.

It can be hard to think of justice so early. After all, justice is served after the crime has been committed, and the crimes in Syria are still continuing seven years after conflict broke out. With no sign of peace, it might even feel wrong to begin considering justice when more immediate concerns need to be dealt with like shelter and food for the people forced to flee their homes. But it’s our duty as people, and as a country as privileged as Wales to think of the past, present and future. Not just for our own country but for other countries too. justice, and post-conflict intervention should be considered now for a more well-developed plan for the survivability of Syria. In the past the international community has been underprepared and become overwhelmed in handling post-conflict states, particularly in its delivery of justice. It cannot be argued that courts are a fundamental mechanism for justice; justice goes far beyond a court room. The International Criminal Tribunals of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (ICTR and ICTY) are both examples of the international community’s active response to bring justice for post-conflict states and no doubt a similar court will be set up for Syria, but more needs to be done.

One approach overlooked by the international communities is Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. Truth Commissions are established to create dialog between all sides, while still allowing accountability for crimes to be recognised. Offenders can come forward to tell their stories, not just their crimes which allow for the victims to gain better understanding of the experiences they were put through. Some say truth commissions trade justice for truth, that only courts can deliver true justice, but this is not the case. Punishment can create order, but I question if it brings justice wholeheartedly. While the international community might be satisfied, what about the victims? Studies have shown that truth commissions have provided better satisfaction for justice and healing than courts for victims (Waldof, 2006). Truth commissions allow for dialog. They allow for those most affected the opportunity to talk about their suffering and experiences and to form a singular ‘memory’ of events. These break down the ‘them vs. us’ mentality that lingers after post-conflict. This allows tensions between the opposing sides to continue. In turn a higher risk of conflict to break out again occurs. Truth commissions focus on the victims, not the offenders and this approach has provided the comfort of truth needed to heal. truth allows victims to understand why crimes against them and their loved ones were committed, it allows them to understand the other side. This was the case for Jean-Baptiste Ntakirutimana. He visited his mother’s killer, to understand why anyone would kill his mother. Turikunkiko explained that he did her because no one else dares. She was too nice to kill even in a genocide. Except Turikunkiko wanted to loot her. He went into detail in how he killed her while the grieving son listened on. The prisoner thought Ntakirutamana wanted to kill him as justice for his mother. To his surprise Ntakirutimana extended forgiveness. Both men were given the opportunity to heal because of truth. Courts focus on the crimes, which is exactly what they should do, but a true narrative could never be given in the way truth commissions allow.

While at the event in Aberystwyth and seeing the refugees smile I wondered what they want, and it seemed what they wanted was not international courts. They want truth. They want to go back home and find their families or bury their loved ones. Most importantly they want an end to the war. it is something we should be planning. Syria needs to be rebuilt. Cities upon cities destroyed by one of the most brutal civil wars in history. Whole families killed and many more ripped apart, fleeing in any direction they can. The Syrian people, who have seen more suffering than we can even imagine only want to go home and rebuild. Most do not seek retribution but restoration. It’s probably hard for an observer to imagine not wanting revenge if the shoe was on the other foot but is what many refugees want.

Europe forgets this. Europe will respond with an International Criminal Tribunal of Syria and it will do good. But Europe needs to see retribution and restorative justice as equals and one cannot succeed as well without the other. Large-scale crimes need a large-scale approach with multiple responses by the courts, truth commissions and by traditional justice approaches from Syrian culture. In Rwanda, the truth commission, called the Gacaca Courts, were only implemented because the backlog for the ICTR became overwhelming. It was a secondary response despite its evident success for conviction rates compared to the ICTR, who after years of trials only 93 people were indicted.

It is time that the international community’s responses are planned and well-thought out, catering to the needs of not just the international community’s desire for retributive justice and order, but for the victims needs for healing and rebuilding. To victims, justice can be found in truth, but more importantly they want to go home. Wales has generally shown a positive response to refugees and the bonds created between Syrian refugees and the locals of Wales will resonate when the Syrian people find stability in their homeland. The Syrian victims will need a voice when conflict ends as to what they need in terms of justice, rebuilding and recovery. Wales can be that voice. Wales can be the voice to fight for truth commissions along with courts. Wales has a responsibility to speak for the interests of the Syrian population within its borders and beyond. With no money or position, Syrian refugees have no voice. They talk through those who help them such as charities. It is the responsibility of states who are able to help to do just that. The chaotic period after conflict will not help refugees who want to return to Syria to rebuild if Wales and other countries to stand behind Syrian refugees in their goal for stability. Refugees do not want to wait two years for international courts to take its first case like The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. A planned response is needed now, and it needs to be inclusive to the victims.

Seeing Syrian refugees express their culture and wanting to share this with the locals of Aberystwyth made me see just how vibrant and joyful life can be and why we should be doing more for refugees in Wales and across the world. But more importantly, the event made me realise just how ordinary refugees are in the sense that they want exactly what everyone else wants: To go home at the end of the day to their loved ones. This process is only going to be delayed unless the international community plans for post-conflict Syria now.

References:
Economics Help: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/7/trade/the-rise-of-globalisation/
International Center for Transitional Justice: https://www.ictj.org/gallery-items/truth-commissions
International Encyclopaedia of the First World War: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/refugees_belgium
Refugee Council: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/20facts
United Nations Mechanisms for Criminal Tribunals: http://unictr.unmict.org/en/tribunal
Waldorf, L, (2006), Mass Justice for Mass Atrocity: Rethinking Local Justice as Transitional Justice, Temple Law Review, 79 (1), pp. 1-88

 

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