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P.R. Williams et al; The Peace vs Justice puzzle and the Syrian crisis, ILSA Journal of International & Comparative Law, Vol. 24:2





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This article focuses on the dilemma that frequently arises in peace negotiations between peace on the one hand and justice on the other, and its role in the Syrian crisis. After reviewing both positions – ‘peace first’ vs ‘justice first’ – the authors, who have themselves been involved in negotiations, argue for a ‘peace with justice approach’ for the Syrian case.

The ‘peace first’ approach prioritizes ending the conflict above all other interests that may impede immediate end to the violence. In this scenario, the pursuit of justice is generally set aside. The approach can bring several advantages: it may save lives, it will end the harm being done to environment and the destruction of properties, and it may encourage national and social reconciliation. The tools used for achieving peace may include minimizing the role of justice mechanisms and, above all, providing amnesties. South Africa is considered a sort of archetype of success for the peace first approach, given the transformative nature of its democratic transition and the use of truth commissions based on conditional amnesties to deal with the past.

By contrast, the ‘justice first’ approach advances the notion that accountability must be an integral aspect of any post-conflict plan, believing that durable peace cannot be achieved without justice. In this regard, pursuing justice promotes more peaceful and stable societies by establishing individual responsibility and denying collective guilt, promoting deterrence, establishing an accurate historical record, providing victim catharsis and delegitimizing implicated institutions and war criminals. The authors list a series of justice mechanisms deigned for the post-conflict setting, including the International Criminal Court, ad hoc tribunals, hybrid tribunals, domestic tribunals, universal jurisdiction cases in third-country national courts. Significant cases of the ‘justice first’ approach are the Former-Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

A middle way is the ‘peace with justice’ approach, in which peace and justice are not seen as mutually exclusive but as mutually reinforcing. The article addresses the question ‘how to successfully accommodate the desire for justice byartfully weaving tenets of accountability into a peace process, without undermining a peace process’. Supporters of this approach argue that pursuing justice can enable a society to transition from conflict to sustainable peace. Moreover, when peace is combined with justice, the emphasis can shift from retributive to restorative, transformative and reparative justice, such that states and citizens more effectively seek reconciliation. The authors consider the use of non-state justice mechanisms, reparations, truth-seeking mechanisms and the logic of sequencing transitional justice measures in order to pursue specific goals when new opportunities open. Significant case mentioned are Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia.

The authors argue that this last approach should be adopted for the Syrian case. While the peace-negotiations undertaken until now for Syria have largely pursued a ‘peace first’ approach, several accountability mechanisms and strategies have been employed alongside the negotiations, including universal jurisdiction cases before Europe courts, the creation of the IIIM  and various civil society initiatives. The authors conclude that ‘appeasement is unlikely to win the day in Syria, and although it is likely that a “justice-first” approach is no longer truly feasible in this challenging context, the menu of options for weaving justice into peace remain. It is possible that, through these, the long arm of justice will eventually reach the Syrian context).

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