Introduction: Unveiling the truth during or after a conflict is contentious. Officials, lawyers, journalists and human rights activists attempt at reporting, understanding and explaining events, but they inevitably face limits in their endeavour. When the parties are, additionally, characterised by a perplexing relationship with truth, the task is even harder, to the detriment of victims.
Syria became independent in 1946, with the French effectively withdrawing in 1946, and experienced different eras until Hafiz, and later on Bashar Al Assad, took on power. Apart from a few relatively open years between 1954 and 1958, the post-colonial era has been characterised by authoritarianism and a lack of freedom. Some periods stood out as giving more freedom to a civil society, but the state of emergency established in 1963 and revoked in 2011 only, systematically impeded the attempts of civil society to flourish. Syrian society was overwhelmed by regime propaganda relayed by media, and crippled by fear fuelled by testimonies of political prisoners telling their stories. The truth was therefore mostly hidden, and at times slightly unveiled to maintain fear among the society. The conflict that started in 2011 in Syria as a movement for more rights and freedom gave a new breathe to truth. Citizens had more space to express their rejection of the regime and slowly learned how to express their experiences. Social media became a tool to testify of the events taking place in Syria and the propaganda, still used by the regime, could be counter narrated by civilians who were no longer kept in the dark.
This paper will first give an overview of the place of truth in democracies, and in Syria, before considering the fluctuant meaning of the right to truth and the practical implications in conflict, and end with a study of the tools societies can use to unveil the truth.
- A long-feared truth
The space truth should be given in a political space is the topic of speculations. This section will briefly address the way philosophers and diplomats have reflected on the importance of truth to build a state and a democracy, before considering how, in Syria, the successive authoritarian regimes have left little to no space for truth to be cultivated or even investigated.
- Truth and democracy, a long and complicated relationship
Authors have long been inspired by the concept of truth and the merits of a tolerance for lies. Kant, a central figure of the Enlightenment, who trusted democracy to elevate human condition, firmly condemned any kind of lying, conceiving it as beneath human condition, and asserted that any lie would be an attempt to humanity as a whole. This, however, appears to be a a radical and quite marginal view. Famously, for Machiavel, lying would be permissible. It is less well-known, however, that the Italian diplomat did not promote lies as an end, but consented to it only if necessary. The German philosopher Hannah Arendt, who dedicated much of her work to understanding authoritarianism, pondered her view on truth in politics, noticing that “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues”, and even supporting that lies should be tolerated, as “they are often used as substitutes for more violent means, are apt to be considered relatively harmless tools in the arsenal of political action.”
The use of lies cannot be prevented ahead of its occurring, and might even well be useful sometimes. However, the fundamental issue lies in the right that media, sometimes considered as the fourth estate, remain in a capacity to investigate. The real risk for democracy arises when lies occupy the whole space and when the state silences those who work on unveiling the truth.
- Truth in post-colonial Syria
Syria’s post-colonial era is characterised by a deep reluctance towards truth. First marked by the First Arab-Israeli war, and a succession of military coups, before the fierce regime of Hafiz, and, subsequently, Bashar Al Assad, only a short period from 1954 to 1958 stands out as democratic.
Hafiz Al Assad, who took over power in 1971, had established an elaborated state apparatus aiming at controlling truth. In the 1980’s, the Assad’s regime reportedly killed 10,000 members of opposition, and jailed thousands more, relying on the Ba’ath party, the military, and security services. The truth was already a dismissed concept then, as an independent member of the Parliament told Lisa Weeden, in 1996:
“What the regime says is 180 degrees from the truth: they make a workers’ union against the workers, a women’s union against women, a Parliament against democracy. No one believes the things they say, and everyone knows that no one believes them.”
Lies were an active component of the cult surrounding Assad, presented as the “knight of war” and the “man of peace” at once, said to be pharmacist, doctor, lawyer.
When he assumed office, Bashar Al Assad perpetuated the tradition of lies, censorship and terror. He actually opened his inaugural speech with promises of openness to “creative thinking,” “constructive criticism,” “transparency,” and “democracy,” that were, evidently, never fulfilled.
Syria has, thus, since its independence, been prevented from accessing the truth. Lies, coupled with authoritarian regime, have prevented citizens to engage politically and truth had eventually become too costly for regular citizens to seek.
- The importance of truth in conflict
Acknowledging the essential importance of truth for the sake of democracy, activists, legal scholars and practitioners have contributed to establish the principle of truth as a right. This section depicts in what way they have worked in this direction, sometimes to serve different purposes, before considering the challenge of unveiling truth in Syria’s conflict, and its promises for the future.
- The right to know the truth
International Humanitarian Law, International Criminal Law and International Human Rights Law all contribute to the establishment of a right to truth.
Article 32, 33 and 34 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions first established a right to know the fate of missing and dead relatives, but their application was limited to armed conflicts.
The Rome Statute, establishing in Article 68(3) of the Rome Statute a right for victims to participate, also takes part in the acknowledgment of a right to truth. In that regard, the Lubanga case was a remarkable first step for truth-telling in an international court.
Even more clear, the right to the truth is proclaimed in Article 24(2) of the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance: Each victim has the right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person.
Jurisprudence, and particularly the Interamerican Court for Human Rights, later on asserted the right. Among a range of decisions, Blanco-Romero v. Venezuela and Castillo-Piez v. Peru recognised an autonomous right to truth.
Because the right to truth is an evasive notion, the concept is mobilised to serve different greater causes, taking on subtle and fluctuant meanings, antagonist or complementary, that actors of international law stretch according to their views and objectives. Sometimes reinforcing, other times undermining each other, these different interpretations eventually all participate to the elaboration of the notion. Four causes have used the right to truth as a vehicle for their legal fights. The first to use the right to truth in support of their cause were organisations of victims of enforced disappearances in Latin America. First adopting the right to know the truth in its moral terms, they later on asserted a legal right to know the truth, that was recognised in 2007 by the adoption of the the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Opponents to blanket amnesties and massive amnesty laws -adopted as tools of peace making in 1970 to 1990’s- were the second actors to use the right to truth for their cause, leading to a proliferation of truth commissions in Latin America and Africa, and to demands to reopen criminal cases, in the name of truth. The third actors to stress the right to truth were practitioners and scholars who, in the early 2000’s, advocated for the institutionalisation of the new field that would become known as transitional justice. Finally, the right is also defended by supporters of a general right to information and transparency, especially non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Article 19 and Open Society Justice Initiative.
Although these entities all work towards truth, their objectives, principles and views differ, impacting the meaning they intend to give to the concept of truth, and how they conceive its unveiling, especially with regards to amnesties. Seen by some as a tool that, if used wisely, has a role to play in achieving the truth, amnesties are firmly repudiated by others, who see in accountability the continuation of the right to truth.
Therefore, it is essential for NGOs, institutions and actors to reflect on their mandate, and fathom the conception of the right to truth they adhere too, and the broader consequences attached to their posture.
- The challenge of establishing truth in Syria’s conflict
Syria’s conflict enters its eight year. Two concerns appear in the establishment of the truth: make sure to inform of the violations currently taking place, and conserve evidence for the prospect of future accountability. In these regards, different obstacles arise.
First, actors of the conflict use misinformation and propaganda as weapons of war. The regime, as it has for almost 50 years, consistently lies and uses media, including international ones, to disseminate allegations and deny the violations of International Humanitarian Law such as the use of chemical weapons, nonetheless widely documented by NGOs. The regime also works on his image to project the image of a leader supported by his people, when no one, in reality, is allowed to depart from the official speech. The regime is not the only actor of the conflict to significantly alter the truth. Armed groups use propaganda, with different aims, including recruiting fighters, deceiving enemies and claiming attacks.
A close concept to propaganda, the phrase fake news, first adopted by then candidate Trump, and although seemingly referring to a new trend, actually encapsulates a phenomenon that has a long history, and consists in the spreading of false information with the intent to deceive the public. Politico traces the first instance of fake news back to 1475 with the invention of the press as we know it now, with the diffusion of false stories inevitably accompanying that of news, with the invention of printing press in 1439. Leaders of Antiquity, however, had already mastered the art of spreading false news for military purposes, as Octavian did against his rival Mark Antony after the death of Julius Caesar. In Syria’s war, false reports are mostly spread on social media.
- Citizen and reporters
As the war became too dangerous for foreign reporters to cover, citizens became key to informing on the events taking place in Syria. Press outlets, such as AFP started training aspiring reporters to give them the basic principles of free media, such as impartiality and documentation. Their work, however, remains largely dependent on the internet. They converse with western redactions by email or applications requiring an internet connexion. Infrastructure were, inevitably, heavily damaged by hostilities. Citizens rely, depending on their area, on Turkish or satellite connections that might, themselves, present security challenges. In addition, communications are obstructed by actions taken by the government to limit access to the internet. The regime has long impeded the dissemination of information, and the conflict has increased the recourse to various methods, including:
- Mass surveillance, with the contracting of foreign companies allowing the interception of emails, internet and mobile phone communications;
- Blocking access to websites related to human rights or opposition;
- Requesting the removing of specific content hosted by third parties. Thus, Facebook, for instance, closed pages of local NGOs, local coordination committees, probably after these pages were massively reported as violating Facebook’s terms and conditions.
- Prosecution and detention of users.
- Destruction of video evidence
Youtube became a prominent platform in the conflict. Used by every party to spread their propaganda, but also by civilians, to testify of the abuses they were victims of, the website is a powerful tool to document the ongoing conflict, and is expected to play a part in the prosecutions of violations to international law. The company has, however, removed numbers of videos describing the conflict for their non compliance with Youtube’s terms and conditions. Thus, Qasioun News agency, Bellingcat and Syrians for Truth and Justice have seen important videos documenting the conflict removed by the platform, hampering the work aiming at ensuring accountability in the future.
- A society blaming the victims
In addition to the difficulty to access victims to collect testimonies, the abuses suffered by them are sometimes deeply traumatising and stigmatising, leading them to be reluctant to talk. This is especially the case with a particular type of violence that are sexual and gender-based violence. Women are particularly vulnerable to this string of abuses, that actually are twofold: not only do women experience the violence, they also live in a patriarchal society that prevents them from asserting themselves as survivors and tell the account of the events. The stigma associated with sexual violence in Syria, actually one of the fundamental rationale at the origins of the strategy to resort to sexual violence, impedes the work of researchers, lawyers and humanitarian aid workers to document the topic.
- A fluctuant concept
Finally, the fluctuant meaning encapsulated by the right to truth, and the divergent goals pursued by parties, victims, organisations, some of them prioritising truth, others accountability, might, at times, challenge activists, who will overcome these difficulties by reflecting on their main goals and the ways they choose to achieve them.
- The truth, an opportunity for the future
The Syrian movement finds its roots in the abuses and violations committed by the regime during the past decades. Citizens, paralysed by a constant fear to be imprisoned, integrated censorship and in Syria, the truth has been long dismissed to support the authoritarian dynasty, leading people to tacitly agree to pretend believing and agreeing with the government. Committing to truth and transparency, with regards to past events, but also for the future, will, therefore, undeniably be a clear departure from the current condition. A contrario, a government reluctant to dig in the past will likely cultivate a defiant relationship towards truth, ominous for the future, as is the case in Tunisia.
Establishing the truth, therefore, is the opportunity for the next government, to radically depart from a way to govern that can be traced back to the beginning of Hafiz Al Assad’s reign and characterises the entirety of the post-colonial era, and finally ensure that methods change.
- Unveiling the truth
A successful truth seeking endeavour must take into account the trauma victims of mass crimes go through and address ways to strengthen truth tellers. This section will examine this issue and reflect on two tools that can become platforms for truth, namely courts ad truth commissions.
- Strengthening people to tell their truth
Whatever the cause served by truth seeking – fighting enforced disappearances, challenging amnesties, strengthening the field of transitional justice, or advocating for more transparency – and the framework of truth seeking – accountability or amnesty – it is necessary to put the people who wish so at the centre of the process. They are the ones who went through the abuses and their account of the event is undoubtedly relevant. Truth telling can also be a tool to bring community together, by sharing similar stories, trauma, and instilling a trust within the society damaged by decades of censorship and spying. Civilians have expressed their desire to tell their story during the war: dozens of Twitter accounts, Facebook profiles or YouTube videos tell the fate of civilians trapped in conflict areas. Civilians became reporters, survivors testified to tell their truth, all laying the foundations of truth telling.
To strengthen civilians to take on this role, NGOs and institutions must accompany them. Documentation NGOs must listen to their testimonies and, in order to give their voice a large echo, stick to international standards of investigation and interviewing in the hope that these testimonies will later on be used for accountability or truth telling processes. Humanitarian NGOs must reach to victims and witnesses and inform them of their rights and opportunities to testify before courts, investigation teams and possibly, later on, truth seeking bodies.
Local NGOs, because of their network and their implementation within Syria, have a significant role to play. They are part of the community, are more likely to employ local staff, have lower financial needs and have a more permanent position to implement change. They can, however, enhance their role by taking advantage of the experience of international NGOs as well as UN agencies that have been working on these topics and developed sets of best practice, on a range of topics such as the documentation of war crimes, the investigation of sexual and gender-based violence, the establishment of a truth commission, or the best ways to achieve accountability.
- Courts and truth commissions
Depending on the cause they promote to mobilise the right to truth, activists, scholars, practitioners or officials will support courts and truth commissions more or less fervently.
- The contribution of courts to the unveiling of truth
The role of courts in telling the truth has long been regarded with skepticism. First, courts address the culpability or innocence of individuals, neglecting, consequently, broader issues, such as the root causes of the conflict or the political aspects of the cases. Second, courts tend to be oriented more towards the perpetrators, their culpability or innocence, than victim-oriented.
The ICC, however, has departed from this dichotomy to include victims in its proceedings. In this regard, the Lubanga case, including the participation of 129 individuals, addressed victims’ truth through the lens of the harms suffered, personally and by their family, delivering a detailed account of their experience.
Supporters of determination of guilt as essential to the fulfilment of the right to truth will therefore primarily advocate for prosecutions with an emphasis on victims participation.
- Truth commissions for a restorative right to truth
On the other hand, truth commissions have a broader mandate. The body, first modelled in Latin America in the 1980s to deal with post dictatorship regimes and developed over the past decades in more than thirty instances, aims at giving a space for victims to tell their truth and contribute to reconciliation efforts within the society.
A truth commission is described as:
(1) focused on the past; (2) set up to investigate a pattern of abuses over a period of time, rather than a specific event; (3) a temporary body, with the intention to conclude with a public report; and (4) officially authorized or empowered by the state.
It is sensitive to assess the benefits of truth commissions. Their most palpable success might actually be found in the opportunities they opened and the progress made on the basis of the work conducted by the truth seeking mechanisms. Reparations were, thus, awarded to victims in several countries, such as in Morocco, and Truth Commissions originate reflections that sometimes come out as institutional reforms.
Truth commissions will, therefore, more likely find support from advocates of transitional justice, who might, in turn, diverge on the topic of the opportunity to grant amnesty.
Syria’s post-colonial era has been characterised by a perplexing relationship to truth. Propaganda, censorship, political imprisonment and cult of the personality were the norm until 2011 and the beginning of the conflict, impeding de facto any sense of democracy. Reestablishing a healthy relationship with truth and freedom to inform and be informed, to tell one’s story, is an opportunity future Syrian leaders should seize to depart radically from the authoritarian tradition and evolve towards a democratic future.
The fight for the truth, vehicle of many causes, could be a common point of cohesion in the future of a diverse Syria, both eth