.الترجمة العربية لهذه المقالة متوفرة هنا  This Arabic translation of this article is available here.

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series discussing reparative measures for victims of international law violations in the conflict in Syria, through establishing an intergovernmental victims fund or other means. Links to all articles in the series are included at the bottom of this article, as they are published.

Two years ago, in the German city of Koblenz, the world saw the first successful judgment against members of the Assad regime for the crimes against humanity of murder, torture, and sexual violence. Together with my colleagues, I supported 19 survivors who served as complainants and witnesses in the trial. While appreciating that the Koblenz trial provided a path to justice and enabled Syrian victims to raise their voices before the court and the world, it is notable that the court did not award any financial compensation to help victims recover from the crimes they endured, and from which they still suffer severe physical and psychological harm. If these victims accessing justice through European courts cannot receive remedy or reparation, is there any hope for Syrian victims who do not have access to European courts?

While millions of Syrian victims have been living in worsening conditions over the past 13 years, States have been collecting hundreds of millions of euros linked to violations in Syria: fines, penalties, and forfeitures for sanctions violations, support to terrorist organizations, and financial crimes. Syrian victims have a moral right to these funds. States have the ability to fulfill this right. As the European Parliament is expected to recommend in a report to the European Commission in March, at the 13th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, States and international organizations should establish an intergovernmental fund to support reparative measures for victims of international law violations in Syria, funded by the proceeds of monetary judgments linked to violations in Syria. I am working with Syrian civil society and the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project to establish this Syria Victims Fund.

Since taking to the streets in March 2011 to demand freedom, dignity, and justice against the dictatorial regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian people have been subjected to countless violations and international crimes. These include, among others, killings, torture, enforced disappearances, forced displacement, and the use of prohibited chemical weapons and indiscriminate weapons. After 13 years of systematic and continuous violence by the regime, supported by Russia and Iran, as well as non-State armed groups, the numbers of victims of international crimes in Syria has reached millions.

A simple review of reports by the United Nations and international and Syrian human rights organizations reveals not only victims’ catastrophic current situations, especially for women and children, but also the anticipation of a worse future if their violations and harms are not remedied as required under international human rights and humanitarian law.

In addition to the material damage caused by bombing, shelling, and forced displacement, it is impossible to overlook the physical harm inflicted on millions of Syrians due to direct attacks on their bodies, such as torture and sexual violence, causing permanent disabilities for many. It is also impossible to overlook the immense psychological damage that millions of Syrians experience because of these crimes, which will accompany victims until they receive psychological, social, and economic support to help them overcome the catastrophic effects.

No fewer than 1.2 million individuals, including children and women, have undergone detention in Syrian regime prisons since March 2011. There is hardly a detainee who has not been subjected to one or more forms of torture systematically practiced in Assad’s prisons. Even if a detainee escapes physical torture by chance, the psychological torture, humiliation of human dignity, health neglect, and uncertainty of fate are sufficient to leave severe, long-lasting psychological effects on the detainee. Moreover, families of detainees endure their own psychological, social, and economic hardships during the absence of and search for their loved ones. These crimes are ongoing. Today, the fate of more than 135,000 individuals forcibly disappeared in Assad’s prisons, including women and children, remains completely unknown.

The Assad regime and its affiliated militias have systematically weaponized sexual violence and rape against women, children, and men since 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 11,541 incidents of sexual violence against women since 2011. I can confirm, based on my work investigating these crimes, that the numbers are much higher due to stigma and fear of social, psychological, and economic repercussions. Sexual violence occurs during ground operations, raids on homes to arrest protesters, at checkpoints, and in detention places. The Assad regime’s goal in using sexual violence as a weapon of war is to achieve immediate gains with a lasting impact on individuals and communities. On an individual level, sexual violence leaves deep physical and psychological damage and often permanent reproductive organ mutilation. On a societal level, its aim is revenge by humiliating communities supporting the revolution, forcing them to flee and abandon their homes, and dismantling and destroying communities’ social fabric.

Torture and sexual violence are two of the many crimes in Syria that demand accountability. But the Syrian government is responsible for the vast majority of violations and will not permit domestic accountability; in fact, the legal system in Syria is itself a source of violations. Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court and would likely also block the establishment of a special tribunal for Syria. This leaves European countries, led by Germany, to find alternative pathways to justice. This is through the principle of universal jurisdiction, where national courts can try grave international crimes that have no direct link to the country because the crime is so egregious, it represents a threat to the essence of humanity as a whole.

After years of structural investigations by Germany, the first worldwide trial on the torture practiced by the state in Syria began in April 2020 in Koblenz, Germany. Through my work at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, I had the opportunity to provide support to five female survivors. I accompanied the female complainants and witnesses during their testimonies in court, knowing the magnitude of the compounded psychological pressure women experience in these exceptionally challenging situations, especially for those of us coming from societies that discriminate against women on all fronts.

After 21 months of proceedings in the Koblenz Trial, the survivors received the court’s verdict with satisfaction and relief. The first mid-level Assad regime official was convicted of crimes against humanity.

Undoubtedly, this trial would not have been possible without the courage of the survivors. They had to dig into painful memories, repeatedly recounting their harsh experiences, directly confronting the accused in the courtroom, and bearing all the health and psychological consequences.

But at the end of the trial, these victims were not awarded any opportunity to more fully recover and repair the harms they suffered. They did not receive any financial compensation through the trial, and Germany’s crime victims fund does not provide support to foreign national victims of crimes committed abroad, thereby excluding virtually all victims of crimes committed in Syria. Many other European countries have similar limitations in their victims funds. If these victims who had their day in court could not recover, what about the millions of victims who cannot reach Europe? What about the millions of victims and their families in northern Syria, especially those who have been forcibly displaced, left to live with their previous suffering in an environment lacking the minimum conditions for recovery and basic necessities of life? What about the victims who fled to neighboring countries and those living in camps, facing harsh living conditions, in addition to racism and hate speech against them?

If we agree that the crimes committed against the Syrian people represent a threat to the essence of humanity as a whole and that Syrian victims have the right to justice and remedy, it becomes self-evident that something more must be done to enable these rights. In particular, States collecting financial judgments related to crimes in Syria could establish an intergovernmental Syria Victims Fund, where these funds are deposited for the benefit for Syrian victims. It is unjust for States to benefit from these funds—which are often deposited into treasuries or mixed into other general funds—while the victims, their families, and their communities continue to suffer immense harm.

Syrian victims continue to look forward with patience and hope to a fair political solution that ends the dictatorship, paves the way for transitional justice, allows the displaced to return to their homes voluntarily and safely, and ensures collective or individual reparations. The proposed Syria Victims Fund could serve as the nucleus for launching this phase.

The following articles are part of the series on reparative measures for Syrian victims, with more to be published in the coming weeks:

IMAGE: Syrians protest the Arab League’s invitation of President Bashar al-Assad to their summit in 2023, his first since the bloc suspended Syria in 2011 over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that led to civil war. (Photo by RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images)