Editor’s note: This is part of 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.

At present, the United States and many European countries are effectively profiting off violations of international law in Syria. While there are very limited avenues to try perpetrators for their war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria—whether committed by militaries, armed groups, or designated terrorist groups, allied with the Assad regime or against it—States have taken measures to ensure some form of accountability and limit harm. Such measures include prosecuting companies and private actors for their links to violations in Syria, as well as enacting sanctions to limit support to warring parties and imposing fines and penalties on those who violate such sanctions. These measures have produced large monetary judgments and fines. But by and large, the proceeds from these cases are not benefiting the victims of the underlying violations in Syria. Instead, most of these funds are going into States’ treasuries, to be used for other purposes.

Our team at the Atlantic Council Strategic Litigation Project is working with Syrian civil society to explore how this financial recovery could benefit victims of international law violations in Syria. The concept is to establish an intergovernmental Syria victims fund, where monetary recovery linked to violations in Syria can be pooled and directed to better support victims. This concept raises big and challenging questions. But through broad consultations with Syrian civil society and examination of related efforts in other contexts, it is possible to identify potential solutions. Just as the international community is working with Ukrainian victims to explore options for their recovery, the international community should work with Syrian victims to develop creative solutions for their support and recovery.

Sources of Funding for a Syria Victims Fund

While most Syrian victims generally cannot recover compensation or restitution through litigation or universal jurisdiction cases, States are conducting separate legal actions related to violations in Syria that have and are continuing to generate substantial financial recovery. Our preliminary mapping has identified over $1 billion of Syria-linked funds that the Belgian, British, Danish, French, U.S., and other governments have obtained through legal proceedings. This money is not the sanctioned or frozen assets of individuals, companies, or the Syrian state but rather has been collected through legal actions against individuals and companies under existing laws and deposited into government bank accounts, most often mixed into treasuries or other public funds.

Rather than enriching treasuries, these funds should instead be redirected to victims of the underlying violations. It is immoral for governments to profit off violations in Syria, especially while victims of these violations have limited support in their recovery and States are encouraged to support recovery where parties liable for the harm are unable or unwilling to meet their obligations of ensuring recovery. We have identified four potential sources of Syria-linked funds, which could be directed to a victims fund through policy or legislative action.

First, a Syria victims fund could receive damages, fines, and forfeitures ordered in domestic court cases for violations in Syria or against Syrians. This includes the forfeiture of $687 million to the U.S. government by French cement company Lafarge for paying and materially supporting designated terrorist organizations in Syria. The U.S. Attorney General has discretion over the use of the forfeited assets and can direct them to benefit Syrian victims. In another case where funds have yet to be directed to victims, French authorities seized €90 million of domestic assets belonging to Rifaat al Assad, uncle of current President Bashar al Assad, for corruption and financial crimes. According to French law, the seized corrupt assets were illicitly obtained by Rifaat al Assad and stolen from the Syrian people, and should be returned “as close as possible to the deprived population.” International conventions, guidelines, and principles also recommend that such illicitly obtained assets be returned to victims or otherwise be used to remedy harm. The Assad regime’s violations and corruption, and France’s lack of diplomatic ties with Syria or development operations in Syria, mean that France cannot easily direct the funds back to Syrians through State channels. France instead needs a creative solution to return the assets, for example through a victims fund.

Next, a victims fund could receive monetary penalties for violations of Syria-specific sanctions, which are not currently being directed to Syrian victims. For example, Danish fuel supplier Dan-Bunkering and a subsidiary were convicted of breaching EU sanctions on Syria by selling jet fuel to Russian companies and were ordered to pay more than $7 million in fines and forfeiture. Danish and other authorities collecting similar penalties should direct proceeds to Syrian victims.

Third, the fund could also receive money collected from Syrian sources via asset seizure tools developed after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For example, Canada amended its targeted sanctions legislation in June 2022 to allow seizure and repurposing of the frozen assets of designated persons and initiated a test case against Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in December 2022, which is ongoing. Should this case prove successful, Canada could initiate similar efforts to seize and repurpose assets of designated persons responsible for violations in Syria. In addition, Belgium plans to divert the taxes paid on the interest collected from frozen Russian central bank assets toward reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. Belgium and other countries could take similar action for Syria, directing taxes paid on interest from frozen funds to a Syria victims fund.

Finally, Canada and the Netherlands’ case against Syria before the International Court of Justice for violations of the Conventions against Torture includes a claim for victims to receive “full reparation, including compensation and rehabilitation.” While this case will take years to conclude and any reparations award is purely speculative at this point, it is possible that a victims fund could assist Canada and the Netherlands in administering a reparations award to victims of underlying violations in the case.

Models for a Syria Victims Fund

The question of how to direct these Syria-linked funds to support victims of international law violations in Syria remains open. Given that funds are spread across many countries, as is the Syrian victim population, no single country can solve this issue on its own. There is a need for a centralized, intergovernmental solution.

Our team has consulted with dozens of Syrian civil society organizations and victim/survivor associations on the concept of a Syria victims fund, receiving diverse feedback on what a fund could look like and how it could be structured. These consultations helped identify three potential design elements of a fund and various options for each element, outlined below. We are not recommending any particular option or suggesting that these are the only options. Instead, we present a range of options to help facilitate further, more concrete conversations around the potential design of a victims fund. Any decisions regarding a fund should only be made after further consultation with a broader cross-section of affected communities, with victims and survivors at the center of the decision-making process. Moreover, victims, survivors, and other impacted communities should play a central role in any fund’s oversight, leadership, and operation.

The first design element is what type of support to provide: individual, collective, or hybrid. Individual support could include individual payments to victims, who could be identified through a register of damages or claims commission. This is the model being developed for Ukraine, where the Council of Europe established a register of damage to identify victims and process claims, to be paid out in the future through an attached compensation mechanism. Collective support could entail programming or grantmaking to support scholarship funds, housing assistance, medical and mental health care, and other necessary services for survivors, as well as memorialization efforts. An example of this model is the BOTA Foundation, which returned corrupt assets to underserved Kazakh populations through programming focused on health, education, and social welfare. A hybrid model would combine both individual and collective support, similar to how the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims provides court-ordered reparations to individual victims as well as collective support to victim communities through programming and services.

The second design element is when to provide support: in the near term, far term, or both. Near-term support would provide victims interim reparative measures, independent from and prior to a broader transitional justice process. The Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison and Global Survivors Fund may offer lessons learned on this model, as they are currently working with survivors of sexual violence in Syria to administer interim reparative measures. Far-term support would entail preserving the funds in a trust until there has been a political solution to the conflict in Syria, a new constitution, and free and fair elections, in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. At that point, a future free Syrian state could use the preserved funds to support transitional justice efforts. A fund could also take a hybrid approach, using some funds to provide near-term interim support, while preserving the remaining funds in a trust until a true transitional justice process is in place. This hybrid model could draw inspiration from the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund, which provided scholarships and other interim support to former residents of Bikini Atoll displaced after U.S. nuclear testing, while seeking to preserve the remainder of the funds to support the island’s resettlement after it was sufficiently rehabilitated.

The third design element is how to establish a victims fund: through an international organization or an intergovernmental agreement. The U.N. General Assembly could establish a fund through a resolution, just as it established the U.N. Fund for Victims of Torture. The European Union (EU) could establish and host a fund through a decision of the European Commission, just as it established the Madad Fund providing humanitarian aid to Syria. Non-EU Member States could also join an EU-established fund. A fund could also be established outside of an international organization, through multi-lateral agreements between states. The United States and Switzerland did this to establish the BOTA Foundation, and Germany, the United Arab Emirates, and United States also did this to establish the Syria Recovery Trust Fund, which assists recovery initiatives in Syria.

The options discussed above are wide-ranging, and much more consultation is required to determine what specific design would meet the needs of victims and survivors, complement existing accountability and victim support initiatives, and be politically achievable. However, the diverse range of examples cited show that all of these options should be viable, and there are many past and present examples to look to and draw lessons from.

Making a Syria Victims Fund a Reality

The problem is clear: States have at their disposal over $1 billion that is derived from violations in Syria. Rather than retaining this money and using it for unrelated purposes, States should use this money to better support victims of international law violations in Syria, who have limited avenues to recovery.

While this concept is new and creative, it is attainable. The idea of a Syria victims fund is supported by similar calls from Syrian and international NGOs, a recommendation from the European Parliament to establish a fund for victims of crimes against humanity in Syria (which is expected to be echoed in a Parliament report issued in March), and similar efforts to ensure recovery for Ukrainian victims.

Of course, there are still many questions to figure out. Which victims should receive support through the fund? How should they be identified? How can victims inside Syria receive support? What victim needs should the fund address—for example, should it address medical, housing, educational, legal, or other needs that result from violations? How can States contribute to a fund? Can contributions be made under existing domestic laws, or would some States be required to make domestic legal changes?

The next step in this process should be additional consultations with and discussions among Syrian civil society, and victims and survivors in particular, to help narrow down the path forward for a victims fund. This is in line with international principles, which recommend that States in possession of illicit funds “should allocate returned assets in an accountable, transparent and participatory manner.” It is the Syrian community that should answer key questions about any fund’s design and purpose, including the victim class it serves, the type of support it provides, when it provides it, and how a fund should be established. States and international organizations should support these consultation efforts and engage with Syrian civil society about preferences and parameters for a victims fund. States and international organizations can also support these efforts by exploring pathways to establish a fund, identifying funds within their jurisdictions that are derived from violations in Syria, and committing to directing such money to support victims. There are many questions to be resolved, but the only barrier to getting started is political will.

IMAGE: This picture taken on May 4, 2020 during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan shows members of the displaced Syrian family of Tareq Abu Ziad, from the town of Ariha in the southern countryside of the Idlib province, breaking their fast together for the sunset iftar meal, in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home upon their return to the town for one day after fleeing during the previous military assault. (Photo by AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images)