Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice in Syria: Assessing the Role of INGOs

Posted by / 28th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

The Syrian situation

The major human rights violations in Syria have created a wave of concern within the community of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), and particularly among those INGOs that work on issues relating to human rights, transitional justice and reconciliation. This article aims at underlining the importance for INGOs to take into account the “lessons learned” from past (post) conflict situations. Indeed, over the last two years, many INGOs have developed programmes on peace building and transitional justice in Syria, but today many questions arise regarding the effectiveness and efficiency thereof. Do the INGOs take into account the particular needs of the Syrian civil society? Is there any coordination between the stakeholders present on the field? Are they willing to support initiatives that already exist on the ground? And, last but not least, do they develop mechanisms to empower the civil society in Syria?

While some INGOS establish programmes within a well-developed strategy, others just follow the “trend” to develop programmes on peace building and transitional justice without a clear objective and/or strategy. Three years after the beginning of the conflict, it is time to look at the way INGO’s are involved in the Syrian situation regarding peace building and transitional justice.

Peacebuilding, transitional justice and INGO’s

Past and recent experiences have demonstrated the challenges of post-conflict transitions. Peace building and transitional justice were firmly developed in the 1990’s, following conflicts such as the ones in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda or South Africa. Today, both peacebuilding and transitional justice are considered essential tools in post-conflicts situations.

Peacebuilding is a holistic concept that encompasses programmes designed to consolidate sustainable peace, prevent disputes from escalating, and avoid a relapse into violent conflict. Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that are implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses.

INGOs are often, if not always, involved in these processes of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. It is important to underline the core principles regarding peacebuilding and transitional justice that INGOs must take into account when operating in situations such as the one in Syria. INGO’s have often been criticised for the way they handle crisis situations, and those working in Syria and beyond should learn from criticisms the sector faced in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and South Sudan.

Empowerment, coordination and long term strategy

INGOs have a role to play in conflicts situations: their expertise in reconciliation, peace building and transitional justice can be meaningful to civil society. However, they cannot work in isolation. Instead, they need to work together and be interdependent with local actors. If INGOs can, and must, take initiatives the development of joint programmes based on grass root initiatives needs to be the preferred approach since it has already shown successes in various countries such as Libya and Tunisia.

If possible, peacebuilding and transitional justice priorities must be determined locally. On the one hand, local actors usually have a better knowledge of the situation and, on the other, it is more likely that peacebuilding and transitional justice initiatives will succeed if citizens and groups are involved in defining the problems and articulating the solutions. This local based approach leads to empowering the civil society. If local initiatives are the basis of programmes developed by INGO’s, it become more natural for internal actors to be the drivers, or owners, of their own national peacebuilding frameworks and transitional justice mechanisms. Developing the capacity of, and giving ownership to, the local government and civil society should thus be the main methodology of all INGO programmes.

Furthermore, the need for enhanced coordination between external actors (such as donor governments, United Nations Country Teams, INGOs) on the one hand- and internal actors (such as governments, local administrations and civil society) on the other, is essential. Without enhanced and deepened levels of coordination, peacebuilding and transitional activities will overlap, duplicate, and potentially have limited impact on the conflict systems they try to stop.

Over the last few years, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of peace building, the international community has understood that there was a need for guidelines and particularly regarding coordination of all stakeholders. In 2005, the Peacebuilding commission was established by resolution 60/180 of the United Nations Security Council, and resolution 1645 of the United Nations General Assembly. The Peacebuilding Commission is an inter-governmental advisory body that helps countries in peace building, recovery, reconstruction and development. It has defined a “peacebuilding architecture”, composed of roadmaps on action that should be taken in order to improve the effectiveness of peacebuilding. The Commission insisted on the necessity of a local based approach.

Finally, in order to have a real impact on the situation, it is necessary not only to involve local actors and to have a good coordination between all actors but also to develop long term programmes of actions with them. Indeed, it is essential to share knowledge and expertise between local and international actors but this must be done within a framework which allows long-term benefits for local civil society.

In Syria, it seems that while some INGOs understand the necessity of working with local actors, others have forgotten the overall goal of developing programmes on peace building and transitional justice. INGOs working there should keep in mind that their aim is to strengthen Syrian civil society capacities and outcomes, and not their own.

This article is part of the Polis Project, a ReSeT programme focused on connecting local needs to global resources.


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About the author
Isadora Loreto is a core team member at ReSeT. She specialises in humanitarian law, human rights, and peacebuilding.

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