The Syrian war is the defining conflict of our time. Six years in, there is no single strategy to help the country towards peace and no single template from which it could subsequently be administered.
Regarding Syria’s legal infrastructure, there is only a vacuum. In its report “Surrender or Starve,” Amnesty International detailed the plight of approximately 6 million refugees with no record of birth, death or marriage.
With judges and lawyers in Syria subject to intimidation by the regime and jihadist groups and no clear consensus among the country’s foreign interventionists, agreement on a legal framework for an emergent Syrian state seems as elusive as ever.
“The current Assad regime is an authoritarian one that does not view an independent legal and judicial system in its favour,” Noha Aboueldahab of the Brookings Institution said via e-mail. “So, until a new, or transitional, government is in place, we will not be seeing much progress — if at all — in rebuilding Syria’s legal system.”
“If Syria does not receive an accountable justice system, the costs will be devastating,” Aboueldahab said. “Without accountability, without legal redress, without access to an independent legal and judicial system, social grievances and violations of civil and political rights will continue to be perpetrated without any consequences.”
A report by the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) delivered a clear assessment of how justice is being administered throughout Syria. Using interviews with more than 100 Syrian lawyers and civil society representatives gathered from within neighbouring countries, the report centres on a single recommendation. “It’s important not to start from zero,” said its author, Mikael Ekman, but to work with whatever legal system Syria has in place. What that legal system might look like is far from clear.
Syria’s legal system is essentially a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and, by extension, legal frameworks. Amid a general rise in lawlessness, what legal systems that exist in rebel-held areas are typically subject to a strict interpretation of sharia.
Discussing the ILAC report at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, British Judge Keith Raynor observed that “even in opposition-held areas where sharia law is administered, judges don’t possess the qualifications or training for sharia courts.”
Essentially, two legal systems have become conflated. Judges in opposition areas, trained in the dispensation of Syrian civil law, find themselves subject to the rule of the various rebel militias, pressuring them to administer religious edicts that both the judge and the group appear unclear about.
Conversely, in regime-held areas, Syrian President Bashar Assad may remove any judge with a decree, with no access to appeal. ILAC researchers interviewed judges in Gaziantep, Turkey, during 2016 who described the government’s increasing use of its executive arm as a form of intimidation. “I didn’t feel like I was a judge” was the main sentiment researchers reported among participating
Raynor described a case in which a group apparently connected to a state security agency threatened the judge in a case against them. The judge in question was subsequently forced to flee. Similar instances of intimidation, allied with the diminishing power of judges, contribute to a lessening of legal authority across Syria, Raynor noted.
While judges who remained loyal to the Assad regime remained in situ, those who resisted Damascus reported receiving threats to themselves and their families. Consequently, dozens of judges have left Syria.
The ILAC report also highlighted the status of women in the Syrian justice system, who, in the absence of official documentation, are in legal limbo. Denied the correct paperwork, the report noted the women’s inability to report crimes committed against them or secure official employment.
What official paperwork exists comes with a price tag. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said marriage and birth certificates cost $70 and a death certificate costs a bereaved family $160. Petitioners report officials asking for further payments, which they say will speed processing. Those who live in rebel-controlled areas are left with paperwork not accepted outside their own region.
Compounding the legal difficulties of women living outside of Syria’s bureaucracy are the problems in reporting sexual violence. Women talking with British lawmakers determining their response to Syria’s struggles told of a profound lack of trust in the legal system.
Syria’s legal system will need rebuilding after the hostilities end. How that can be achieved without documentation or faith remains to be seen.
Suddaf Chaudry is a journalist based between London and Islamabad focusing on the Middle East and South Asia.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.