Chatham House Hosts Seminar Highlighting ILAC’s Key Findings from 2017 Justice Sector Assessment in Syria

Chatham House and ILAC seminar on ILAC´s Syrian Assessment
Chatham House seminar on The Syrian Justice System

ILAC and Chatham House held a seminar based on ILAC’s 2017 Syria Rule of Law Assessment at Chatham House in London last Wednesday. The panel discussed non-state courts in Syria and their role in areas outside the Syrian government’s control.

Drawing on the assessment findings, ILAC´s Legal Adviser and report writer Mikael Ekman offered an outline of the judicial bodies across Syria and how they differ from the government justice system.

  No effort to build rule of law starts from zero,” said Ekman. “ILAC´s Syria report is an attempt to show what is there in terms of justice sector institutions in all parts of Syria. This is where the reconstruction of Syria will start, irrespective of what a future peace will look like.

Focusing on areas under the control of different opposition groups, the panellists described a pattern of vying visions and competition between lawyers and religious fanatics for the future control of justice in Syria.

  The struggle for control over the justice sector has been described as a dance, but we should never forget that this is a dance where one of the dancers is a lawyer and the other has an AK47,” said Laila Adolaat, a Syrian human rights lawyer at the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom. “One should also note that this is not a dance for everyone,” she continued. “There are no women participating in this dance, only men of a certain class and with the right connections. It is repeating a pattern that is at the heart of the original conflict in Syria.”

Judge Keith Raynor, an ILAC Syria Assessment expert, explained that armed groups resist the attempt of Syrian judges to try to keep justice institutions running.  Armed groups argue that accepting Syrian law would be the same as accepting President Assad’s rule.  At the same time, these armed groups push to control the administration of justice and to promote their own interpretations of Sharia law.

To promote the rule of law, Syrian judges and lawyers have compromised with religious scholars and armed groups to establish some justice institutions. Sareta Ashaph, barrister with the British Garden Court Chambers and formerly with the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria, highlighted that such a compromise is possible only because the armed groups’ legitimacy is linked with their ability to uphold a rule of law in areas under their control.

     Courts in opposition areas have made decisions that guide the lives of civilians in those areas. What will happen to the documents issued by these courts in the future? If documents are destroyed or discarded, what will happen to Syrians who rely on them?” questions Ashraph.

Since 2014 ILAC has been supporting civil documentation and registration centres outside of Syrian government control as part of a Sida-funded programme.

If courts are disbanded without taking previous judgements into account, Syrian women would be disproportionately affected, “Without documents proving marriage and the death of their husband, women heads of households are stuck in a legal no-man’s land without any chance to access their rights,” concluded Ashraph.

The 120-person audience included ILAC’s President, Elizabeth Howe, former European Court judge and ILAC Syria Assessment expert, Gönul Erönen as well as representatives from the UK Foreign Office, UK Ministry of Defence, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Beirut and several academics.

You can listen to the full seminar on Chatham House´s website.