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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

From Liberia to Syria: The Diaspora Project

Syrian refugees protesting. Photo taken by Freedom House.
Syrian refugees protesting. Photo taken by Freedom House.

There are many transitional justice mechanisms available but identifying the right one for Syria depends upon the needs of its people. The Liberian Diaspora Project was innovative because it was the first of its kind to include Liberians that were living outside of the state borders. Since over half of the Syrian population is currently residing in countries outside of Syria, it is important that their voices are heard in the decisions regarding justice. This comparative case study provides useful insights that will help assess the necessity of applying a similar project in Syria.

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was implemented after the successful lobbying of civil society. It was mandated to investigate violations of human rights law and humanitarian law, including massacres, sexual violations, murder, and other case-specific crimes like exploitation of natural resources. The TRC served as a forum for victims and perpetrators to share their experiences in order to formulate a common narrative to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation. The naming of responsible individuals and institutions of grave human rights violations and holding them accountable was seen as ending impunity in Liberia.

With hundreds of thousands of Liberians displaced internationally, the TRC was the first to incorporate the diaspora. By partnering with a US-based NGO, the TRC created The Diaspora Project where Liberians living abroad were given the opportunity to give statements about their experiences and attend public sessions to establish a shared understanding of the war. This project held public and private hearings outside of Liberia in countries that included the United States, the UK and Ghana. The project documented statements and contributed to the final reports that were issued with recommendations as part of the TRC. There were opportunities for people to come forward and confess anonymously to crimes they had committed or witnessed that could later be used to bring accountability. All participants, regardless of the reason why they had left Liberia, were welcomed. This ensured that the statements collected were inclusive and from multiple groups. However, The Diaspora Project also, “confronted many of the challenges that other TRCs have faced: an expansive mandate and short operational timeframe; logistical, staffing and fundraising difficulties; and external criticism and internal conflict”[1]. Extracting the lessons learned of the Diaspora Project could provide a framework for successful rebuilding in contexts that have large numbers of displaced populations.

A TRC established in post-conflict Syria could facilitate the creation of a common narrative among Syrians from different ethnicities and religions. By channeling conversations from victims of all sides, a strong common narrative can be produced. The TRC helps people see their common sufferings by making their ethnic or religious differences irrelevant and, in turn, allows for reconciliation. It allows for a safe space for people to explore root causes for tension and allow for a better understanding of the other side’s perspective. Overall, the TRC will need a transparent, narrowly defined mandate and timeframe in order for it to operate effectively. Similar to the Liberian TRC, developing mobile teams that travel to different areas in the country to document victims’ stories will greatly help reach all Syrians. If a prosecutorial dimension of the TRC is deemed necessary, then the findings and final report could be handed to the criminal justice systems in place to investigate the cases of the highlighted perpetrators to end impunity.

Truth and reconciliation commissions rely on victims for collecting information and could therefore produce well-designed reparations programs that directly address the needs of victims. “By engaging with recommendations that evolve from truth-seeking and potentially relating them to other mechanisms such as criminal justice and reform, truth commissions can look at repair and healing in a more holistic way than a body that is designing reparations alone, and with regard to a broader universe of victims than a court may be able to do”[2]. A positive impact of truth commissions is that they give rise for strong victims groups that can promote their role in the country’s political sphere which can, therefore,  re-establish trust in the governmental institutions. “In fact, participatory processes create an incentive for victim organizations to increase their strength and capacity”[3]. On the other hand, TRC recommendations are not binding and that could cause delays in the development and implementation of reparations programs. “Because truth commissions disappear once their mandate is complete, they are not in a good position to ensure follow-up, and often the mechanisms they do foresee for this purpose are not sufficiently powerful to guarantee results in the face of other political priorities and pressures”[4].

Mirroring a model like the Liberian Diaspora Project could prove very effective for Syria. With the majority of Syrians outside the country and the rest displaced internally, such a project would ensure that all Syrian voices are heard and not simply a handful of powerful elites. This approach will of course come with its complexities but it will maintain a level of inclusion where no group would feel excluded or marginalized. Including the diaspora will help in creating a common narrative among the entire population so that when Syrians return, the healing process could immediately begin. This process would empower the victims of the conflict and provide them with a degree of control on how best to move forward. The population, regardless of religion and ethnicity, can contribute to the recommendations that are produced from such a project and possibly prioritize which reparations to process first. The Diaspora Project was committed to the “right to know.” The Syrians living abroad have a right to know what happened to their family members, their homes, and their country. By including statements from Syrians inside and outside the country, it will help answer many questions that wouldn’t necessarily be sufficiently answered if only the people inside Syria were to respond.

Truth commissions are generally instituted once a peace accord is signed. However, when millions of citizens are accessible, it would not be logical to wait until a ceasefire. In the case of Syria where over four million refugees are outside of the borders, a Diaspora Project could be implemented immediately to capture and document the statements. Establishing a project now would allow for a thorough process of documentation that would later be used to create the necessary justice mechanisms. This will ensure that Syrians abroad have been given an opportunity to voice their concerns and demands for justice. Once a ceasefire is negotiated, the project can re-shift its focus to Syrians inside the state. Currently there is no initiation for such a project but as the situation evolves into greater complexity, the need for this mechanism becomes more dire.

Works Cited

[1] Young, Laura A., and Rosalyn Park. “Engaging Diasporas in Truth Commissions: Lessons from the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission Diaspora Project.” Engaging Diasporas in Truth Commissions: Lessons from the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission Diaspora Project. 2009. Accessed April 8, 2015. Page 2.

[2] Magarrell, Lisa. “Outreach to and Engagement of Victims on Reparations – Lessons Learned from Truth and Reconciliation

Processes.” March 1, 2007. Accessed April 8, 2015. Pages 1-2.

[3] Magarrell, Lisa. “Outreach to and Engagement of Victims on Reparations – Lessons Learned from Truth and Reconciliation

Processes.” March 1, 2007. Accessed April 8, 2015. Page 3.

[4] Magarrell, Lisa. “Outreach to and Engagement of Victims on Reparations – Lessons Learned from Truth and Reconciliation

Processes.” March 1, 2007. Accessed April 8, 2015. Page 2.