Syria: Conference urged not to trade sustainable solutions for short-term gain, ensure a focus on accountability

Gianluca Eramo*, Brussels, 5 April 2017

The chemical attack that hit the Syrian town of Khan Sheikun yesterday, killing dozens of Syrians including more than 20 children, is just the latest episode of a cruel conflict which over the past six years has produced hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. In view of important decisions to be taken by the international community, we believe that some essential elements need to be taken into consideration urgently to ensure a long-term vision and a sustainable solution aimed at ending the conflict.
While the UN Security Council will convene today to deliberate on a draft resolution submitted by France, the US and the UK - which condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and requires a clear identification of responsibility for this blatant violation of international law - the world leaders are gathering in Brussels to discuss possible strategies for the future of Syria and the region along three general guidelines: assessing implementation of the commitments made at the Supporting Syria and the region conference in London in February 2016 and any necessary additional efforts; reconfirming existing pledges and encourage additional support to people in need inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, as well as to the respective host communities; and highlighting the efforts of the international community to support a successful outcome of the intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the United Nations. The conference is also expected to start considering the prospects for “post agreement assistance”, namely the reconstruction efforts that will be required to rebuild a country devastated by years of prolonged and violent conflict.
This post agreement assistance appears to be something of a postscript and is billed as being conditional upon the commencement of a genuinely inclusive political transition. To be sure, this kind of reconstruction will be needed: Syria’s people and infrastructure have been decimated. Entire cities lie in rubbles, schools destroyed, hospitals unable to function and the public services needed to sustain everyday life have been damaged immeasurably, which incidentally are also violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. These all need to be addressed.
However, including this within talks designed to elicit support for humanitarian needs and the intra-Syrian talks seems to put the cart before the horse. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it puts reconstruction before recovery, in a sense putting bricks before human beings. The people of Syria can no longer afford for their needs and their rights to take a backseat, be it to geopolitical interests or construction. Second, it risks reconstruction efforts going the same route as humanitarian aid, which is simultaneously targeted and denied as a means to control the population, force displacement of the population and fuel the war. Putting the political solution and post-solution reconstruction into the same basket risks destabilising both and inadvertently supporting even more human rights and humanitarian law violations. Worse, pressure seems to be building towards not even waiting for a political solution, but instead pouring money into reconstruction efforts now. While understanding the impetus to provide relief, this would be a disaster. It may well provide short-term gain but would jeopardise prospects for sustainable peace, by supporting those involved in the repression of the Syrian people and guaranteeing prolongation of the conflict. Post agreement reconstruction planning is needed, but should be delinked from discussions on supporting the political process, to ensure a successful outcome for both.
Instead, what is missing from the conference but what really needs discussion now, is accountability. To be fair, this has been one of the issues mentioned by the EU and other members of the international community, including those who have supported a stable peaceful future for Syria. As is often the case, however, justice and redress for victims of the crimes being committed in Syria risks being undermined and overlooked in the name of pragmatism or, even worse, “real politic”. If those engaged in the peace talks do not want justice – afraid, perhaps, for their own skin – it is an issue easily swept under the carpet by using the argument that humanitarian aid is more important, or ending the conflict is more important, and that these issues can be addressed later. Let’s be clear on this: if accountability is not a central feature of a political solution, the chances of finding it later are remote at best.
There is no mention of accountability in the documents describing the conference, its thematic discussions or its background. There is no mention of redress for the crimes that have devastated the country, its people, its heritage and its infrastructure. There is no recognition that the Syrians who have suffered under this war and need humanitarian assistance also need redress and guarantees of non-repetition. There is no mention of the new accountability mechanism established by the UN General Assembly in December, the “International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011”, and the political and financial support that needs to play its role. Justice, redress and accountability puts people before bricks – and, incidentally, can be an important tool to ensure that those holding the reins of any post-conflict reconstruction are not those responsible for that need having arisen. This is a glaring omission that should be rectified by those discussing the future of Syria and the region in Brussels this week.
* Gianluca Eramo is Director of the Middle East and North Africa Democracy Program of No Peace Without Justice