Q and A: Can There Be Justice for Syria’s HLP Rights Abuses?

In 2012, towards the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, opposition figures like Mutasem Syoufi had hoped that one day, a transitional government could take over from the Assad regime and pave the way for justice after decades of human rights abuses.

That was the same year that Syrian civil society organisation The Day After (TDA), began gathering records of ownership documents at risk of destruction or loss due to the war. Their hope: to hand over those documents to a new Syrian government in future, thereby helping preserve Syrians’ housing, land and property rights despite the conflict.

“But that was in 2012”, says Mutasem Syoufi, TDA’s executive director. “Now we are in 2021, and there is no transitional government in place”.

A decade into Syria’s war, what are the biggest HLP issues still faced by everyday Syrians? And what can justice actually look like, as the Assad regime remains in place?

Can you briefly introduce some of the work that TDA has done related to HLP rights in Syria?

The first thing that TDA worked on in relation to HLP rights was to safeguard official documents. In Syria, many buildings, including official buildings, have been destroyed, including those where property records were stored. These documents might be lost forever, or destroyed. In addition, if they are scanned and electronically archived, the owner is the regime itself, and nobody else. We were concerned that the regime might misuse the documents it possesses in its favour, for demographic change, or for punishing certain communities, individuals or opponents. So TDA secured funding to keep electronic copies of these documents to preserve them from destruction, looting and loss.

Has the archive been used yet to help people regain their properties?

Not yet, because the decision was that once a transitional government was in place in Damascus then we’d give that government these electronic documents, because that government would be responsible for any transitional justice. But that was in 2012. Now we are in 2021, and there is no transitional government in place.

Broadly speaking, if you could name the most important HLP issues that everyday Syrians are now facing, what would they be?

First of all, the regime has been issuing laws during the war that are changing both property rights and the landscape of real estate development in Syria.

There are neighbourhoods in Syria that were completely destroyed, such as Yarmouk camp in Damascus and Baba Amro in Homs and other places. We’re not yet at the phase of reconciliation and transition where owners of properties in these neighbourhoods, or their representatives, can prove their ownership. This issue is exacerbated and made more complicated when we take into consideration that large parts of these neighbourhoods are informal settlements. People invested a lot of money in building and buying these apartments, houses and shops, and then they were destroyed without ever having received proper proof of ownership.

That’s because, from the beginning, many of these properties weren’t legally licensed.

Yes. It is a pre-conflict problem that was complicated and exacerbated by the war.

Another problem is happening in areas outside of the control of the government, in Aleppo and Idlib governorates. There are buildings being constructed, neighbourhoods, housing complexes, lands being used, and armed groups putting their hands on certain properties and building on them.

Who is the authority that is legitimizing this construction? It’s local authorities, and these local authorities are recognised by whom? By no one. In the post-conflict era, we’re going to deal with these challenges, and the issues of verifying documents as well as verifying the ownership of the properties of displaced people from informal settlements that have been destroyed.

TDA has also focused heavily on Law No. 10 of 2018 in its publications on HLP rights. Why should people focusing on HLP rights in Syria be concerned about this law?

Law No. 10, first of all, it was issued during the conflict. It gives the local administrative authorities and the Minister of Local Administration the power to rezone any area even if it was previously planned, and even if it was a formal settlement and not an informal one.

Before I left Syria in 2010, there was an area called Araqiyat outside Damascus, on the road down to Quneitra. And it was empty. The area was zoned and divided into real estate properties. After that, housing cooperatives bought properties to prepare them for construction.

So by Law No. 10, the Minister of Local Administration, or the local administrative authority, has the power to start this process over again. The second problem is that after they decide to replan or re-organise certain zones, they form a committee. And if you look at the structure of that committee, it pulls representatives from the government, and they are not neutral. They are biased. That committee has the right to prepare a record or a list of the properties of that area based on the records they have on hand, and based on consulting with the representatives of the residents, in the case it is an informal settlement and there are no documents that can prove ownership.

This means that if I was displaced from Yarmouk camp to Idlib, and in the camp I was living in informal housing, there are not enough records with the government to prove my property. I am unable to elect my representatives in the committee. And if I have an objection to the new zoning plans as a property owner, then I have only a limited time to present that objection before that committee. I have to be present in person to authorise or give power of attorney to a relative from the fourth degree. So if I am in Idlib, and I am wanted by the security apparatus, I would not dare to go to represent myself. And who is going to decide on my objections? It’s the same government, the same regime. There is no guarantee that our objections and appeals are going to be treated fairly.

What might justice look like for people who have been deprived of their HLP rights over the course of the war?

First of all, I know that in areas that are destroyed, no one imagines that neighbourhoods can be rebuilt exactly as they were before the war--especially when we speak about informal settlements.

Second, people whose homes were destroyed should be given equivalent or proper housing.  Third, they should be given compensation for the years of displacement they suffered. And fourth, there should be a policy to address the consequences of displacement. Displacement is not only about depriving people of access to a house. It’s everything else: they lose their homes, they are displaced, their children cannot access school. They lose their jobs, their shops, etc.

Who should be responsible for providing this compensation and alternative housing?

The future Syrian state. The official government post-political agreement. It should be something to be recognised and addressed by the state.

Can we trust the current Syrian state to do that though?

Absolutely not. I’m speaking about a new regime, a new government.

Do you think these goals can be achieved easily, or in the short term?

Given the current conditions, in the post-conflict era I don’t think it will be an easy mission at all. It’s complicated on the legal level, it’s complicated on the practical level. And who is going to pay for all of this?

In addition, all lessons in history tell us that when you trade justice for so-called ‘stability’, all these grievances will explode.