Syria Watch

Syria Justice and Accountability Project – The Question of Amnesty: Balancing Truth and Justice

Russia, UN, US Negotiations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov discuss political settlement for Syria in 2013

August 12, 2015

Last week marked a major shift in Russia’s position on the Syrian conflict. In a rare show of unity, Russia joined other members of the UN Security Council in adopting Resolution 2235 to form an international investigation unit for the purpose of identifying perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks, including chlorine gas attacks. During the same week, Iran announced that it will put forth a newly revisedpeace plan for Syria. As historically staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran’s recent actions may reflect a change in attitude with regard to Assad’s culpability.

As international attention shifts toward the possibility of a political settlement, the question of whether negotiations will include an amnesty deal looms large. Justice is often sidelined during peace negotiations under the rationale that an immediate end to bloodshed takes priority over accountability. Evidence from past conflicts, however, demonstrates that barring accountability may lead to renewed conflict and instability in the long-term. The below discussion looks at a variety of ways amnesty has been used in the past, with varying results.

     1. Blanket Amnesty – No Truth, No Justice

Parties in conflict sometimes agree to blanket amnesty in order to negotiate an immediate end to violence. Under blanket amnesty, perpetrators are granted legal immunity for their crimes, which is a quick-fix that requires few government resources. Lebanon, for example, grantedblanket amnesty to perpetrators who committed crimes during its 15-year-long civil war without any additional measures to address violations. While this served to end the conflict in the short term, Lebanon continued to experience violence, including the 2005 assassination of Rafik al Hariri. The United Nations established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to address the assassination, but did not mandate the Tribunal to examine past crimes. The conflict in neighboring Syria has exacerbated the already deep sectarian tensions in Lebanese communities that stem from the unresolved grievances of the civil war and continue to threaten the country’s stability.

     2. No Amnesty – Insufficient Truth, Insufficient Justice

Some conflict states opt to avoid the issue of amnesty altogether and instead focus on prosecutions because of the political backlash amnesty could cause. Since amnesty inherently precludes justice, doing away with it might seem like a positive outcome. However, holding each and every person accountable for their actions is sometimes impossible and could lead to an impunity gap. In Iraq, for example, the post-conflict government used a combination of prosecutions and lustration, or “De-Baathification.” However, due to the large number of Baathists in the government, an arbitrary decision was made to target only high ranking officials and rehire lower-ranking officials. As a result, the system was perceived as unfair and inefficient. Without a well-thought-out plan for amnesty in place, Iraq’s transitional justice program led to haphazard and imbalanced results that gave unintentional amnesty to many suspected perpetrators.

     3. Conditional Amnesty – Balancing Truth and Justice

Conditional amnesty occurs when a country grants perpetrators of atrocities immunity on the condition that they fulfill some other requirement, such as participation in a truth commission, monetary payments to victims, or testimony to help indict another, often higher-level, perpetrator. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is considered by many to be a successful example of conditional, or “smart amnesty”. Following the fall of the brutal apartheid regime in South Africa, the government gave perpetrators the opportunity to confess their crimes to the TRC in return for the possibility of amnesty if they met certain criteria. The TRC’s final report“named and shamed” individual perpetrators and also explained the structure of apartheid institutions and security apparatus. As a restorative justice model, the TRC aimed to balance the demand for truth and justice, butongoing violence in South Africa might indicate that the TRC was insufficient to fully address the trauma of apartheid.


In a conflict like Syria, where widespread atrocities implicate a large number of people, blanket amnesty may seem like an appealing way to hasten an end to the conflict; however, Syrians are likely to oppose such measures and peace may be short-lived as a result. Equally problematic is a solution that only contemplates prosecutions. Syria may not have the capacity or the infrastructure to conduct transparent and fair trials for a large number of perpetrators, leading to an impunity gap that could trigger renewed violence.

Parties to a conflict often view amnesty and accountability as mutually exclusive, presenting a false choice between peace and justice. Conditional amnesty presents a balanced option, but also has its drawbacks. Citizens may be reluctant to entertain the idea of amnesty in any form. Moreover, conditional amnesty, without the credible threat of prosecutions, will essentially be seen as another form of blanket amnesty, failing to create an atmosphere of deterrence. Despite such challenges, there is a need for truth in Syria — truth about missing persons, information about high-level perpetrators, and knowledge of the institutions that allowed atrocities to occur. A well-thought-out plan for conditional amnesty could help prosecute those most culpable while also providing the space for truth-telling and reconciliation, particularly if used in combination with reparations, institutional reform, and memorialization programs.

Examples from other conflicts demonstrate that justice cannot be politicized and sidelined in favor of peace, and amnesty will not be an effective quick-fix solution to the complex problems Syrian society faces. The parties involved in negotiating a peace plan for Syria will need to keep these considerations in mind if they have a hope of achieving long-term, sustainable peace.

For more information and to provide feedback, please email SJAC at

VDC: Job Vacancy

Violations Documentation Center in Syria – VDC

Dear all, VDC is looking for an Executive Director, please see the Terms of Reference:

The Executive Director (ED) is fully responsible for running the VDC on the basis of an annual plan approved by the Board of Directors. The ED responsible in front of the Board of Directors of the VDC and presents them with an annual report on the performance, achievements and challenges that the VDC faces. He/she is responsible for the daily management of the VDC, and for representing it externally with various stakeholders and the media.

 Responsibilities of the ED:

Design, implement and report on the progress of the VDC’s annual work plan;
Manage VDC staff, ensure smooth inter-department coordination.
More specifically, working under direct guidance from the Board on issues related to overall strategy and mandate, the ED will:
Set weekly, monthly and quarterly objectives that will ensure the implementation of the annual plan in close consultation with relevant sections chiefs;
Hold weekly meetings with Section Chiefs, to plan weekly operations of the VDC and ensure progress on set objectives;
Be responsible for the delivery of objectives as planned. Alternatively, and in consultation with the Board and with Section Chiefs, the ED might deviate from the plan in order to respond to outstanding developments that need immediate reaction/reporting from the VDC;
Represent the VDC at various forums and as requested by the Board, be able to defend the VDC’s mandate and budget, be able to account for changes in the plans that may have repercussions on the established budget;
Help Section Chiefs solve internal disagreements related to the running of the VDC operations:
Gradually take on the responsibility of meeting and briefing donors and potential donors on the VDC activities and budget proposals:
Liaise with the Board, on behalf of the VDC, on all issues related to the implementation of objectives and changes in plans.


Syrian national;
Established experience (10 years minimum) in the field of rights and advocacy;
Established experience (minimum7 years) of progressive responsibility of managing a team;
Ability to clearly and eloquently articulate in writing and verbally communication (public and internal) related to the VDC, human rights, formal positions that the VDC’s takes on specific developments;
Excellent command of Arabic and English, French is a plus;
Excellent communication and inter-personal skills to allow for external representation and internal management;
While he/she might not be a jurist by profession or training, the ED is well versed generally in the human rights and IHL discourse, closely follows developments in these two fields, is comfortable referring to their principles/invoking them when looking at developments in and around Syria.

To apply: please email your CV and motivation letter to: