The Syrian Institute for Justice – Communicating Hope in Lawless Times

Kristyan Benedict - @KreaseChan

It’s 9am, and in a small corner of a hotel in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, a group of Syrian activists are huddled together discussing their work in the war-torn city of Aleppo. 

This is not an uncommon scene in Gaziantep, a city playing host to thousands of Syrian refugees. What sets this group apart is the reason I’m here for the next week. Along with Amnesty UK’s chief Kate Allen, we’re working with these activists from the Syrian Institute for Justice (SIJ), trying to help them enhance how they communicate about themselves and the investigations they undertake in Syria. 

Saeed, the institute’s PR Director, has a warm smile as I approach. Up until today, all our communications had been virtual so it was lovely to finally meet him in person.  

Outlining their work to us, he tells us that the SIJ were established in Aleppo in 2011 by a group of lawyers specialising in human rights, investigations and criminal documentation.  

A number of the SIJ team have come all the way from Syria to attend this meeting, some walking for hours and choosing their routes with great care as they sought to avoid the most dangerous Syria-Turkey border crossing points. These incredibly brave, dedicated activists can go to places within Syria that Amnesty researchers and UN investigators are unable to access because of the perilous security situation. Saeed explains their work to us - he highlights their investigation into the horrendous Queiq River massacre in 2013. Initially they helped in pulling the bodies out of the river. However their core work was to ensure a forensic doctor and criminal evidence expert examined the bodies and that a detailed investigation was conducted into the atrocity. 

The training session we are here to deliver is part of Amnesty UK's Syria “Transition” work. We’re seeking to empower, equip and mobilise brave Syrian activists like these so they can help develop an independent civil society in Syria, taking human rights messages out to a wider audience and all the while being better enabled to use non-violent means to defend their own and others’ rights. 

For SIJ’s staff, they fully understand, at a professional and a personal level, that deep-seated impunity is one of the key drivers of the Syrian crisis. They understand that too many people in Syria, mainly - but not exclusively - in the Syrian government and armed groups like ISIS, literally feel they can get away with murder and torture on a mass scale. Who’s going to stop them? It’s the sense that someone must hold these war criminals to account that keeps SIJ going. 

As we introduce ourselves at the start of the training session, Abdulkader, the institute’s Executive Director, touches on this point and tells meThe institute has expertise and a lot of business, and we hope that we utilise it in the service of justice and respect for the law”. That “business” Abdulkader is referring to here is, of course, the daily human rights abuses that have blighted Syria for decades and for the past five years, at an almost unbearable level.

The staff and activists at SIJ are restless for change. They’re one of the comparatively rare Syrian groups fully and genuinely using human rights to fight back against lawlessness, against injustice and in support of a Syria where human rights are actually respected and protected.  

It’s an uphill task to say the least. SIJ’s core work involves investigating and documenting abuses on the ground in Syria, regardless of who has committed them. They’re also creating a database with official documents and records to support future prosecutions. They spend a lot of their time highlighting the need for human rights-based justice and accountability, pushing hard to have these included in local laws. This is not easy when faced by armed authoritarian groups with their own ideas of “justice”. It’s also very dangerous, but like most Syrian human rights activists they’re incredibly modest about how brave you have to be to do this work inside Syria. 

That modesty is coupled with an ambition to grow their organisation. Abdulkader tells me: We want to benefit from Amnesty International’s experience and its transition from a local organisation to an international one which has an active role in decision-making”.

As well as the communications training, Amnesty UK will be assisting SIJ with their strategy and structure so they can become more effective and continue their vital human rights investigations. This brave group of activists are putting all human rights abusers in Syria on notice - one day there will be no climate of impunity and people will face justice. This is a reality SIJ are working towards and we at Amnesty are proud to help support them in that work.

 

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