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Summary

  • Following the territorial defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northeastern Syria, the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in the region is now grappling with the task of quickly dealing with thousands of the group’s detained members while bringing justice to their victims. To that end, local authorities are focusing on the use of counterterrorism laws and courts to charge captured ISIS members and determine their guilt accordingly.
  • The piecemeal approach to justice is deeply flawed, and raises particular concerns about due process. No precise instruments exist to determine the personal responsibility of ISIS individuals for specific crimes, or for their role in war crimes committed by the group. In any event, the scale of the crimes and the number of victims – as well as severe shortages of resources and workers – make dispensation of justice extremely difficult through the traditional legal system.
  • Not all detained ISIS members receive prison sentences. Individuals who did not hold senior roles in the group’s apparatus and are not accused of ‘major’ crimes (in practice, largely defined as fighting for ISIS and murder) are being released under limited reconciliation deals with tribal leaders. But the involvement of local community leaders in those efforts is not enough to ensure positive results. Many victims are upset at seeing ISIS members walk free without even admitting their guilt publicly or apologizing for the pain they caused.
  • To overcome the limitations of the current, counterterrorism-focused framework, a ‘transitional justice’ approach could provide judicial and non-judicial instruments to establish accountability for ISIS crimes and reduce community resistance to the reintegration of group members. A combination of non-judicial mechanisms such as truth commissions, missing persons’ committees, and reparations and victim-healing programmes could play a vital role in providing ISIS victims with a sense of justice while contributing to peacebuilding and stability.
  • Ignoring the urgency of developing a long-term plan to serve justice and contribute to community healing will almost certainly allow ISIS to continue to prevent the recovery and development of northeastern Syria. This, in turn, risks undermining the stability of the country and the region at large.