Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq

This text is a report from 12th International Symposium Czech Foreign Policy, October 8th, 2020

Source: Pixabay

There was a time when the Islamic State made headlines; the world anxiously followed the military developments in Iraq and Syria: the group of terror was the principal topic of discussion. Then, in 2017 came redemption: the local US-backed forces finally declared the Caliphate’s military defeat. However, the US-led coalition may have won a battle, but it certainly did not win the war yet. The terror group’s power seems indeed hard to gauge and the international community still has to confront serious challenges.

Undoubtedly, Daesh’s military defeat is not equal to the eradication of other extremist threats, which the Middle East brims with. The MENA area hosts a thick web of terrorist organizations among which al-Qaeda and ISIL are simply the most notorious. The unstoppable ascent of fundamentalism is the consequence of several structural factors that are not necessarily related to faith. First and foremost, there is a growing dissatisfaction with ruling elites, due to the spread of corruption, despotism and nepotism. In addition to that, infrastructures are inadequate and basic services are lacking. The foreign occupation, and the case of Palestine in particular, plays a big role in fueling dissatisfaction as well. Likewise, economic issues contribute to the proliferation of extremist ideas. Inter alia, high unemployment rates, high percentage of dislocation and displacement and low per capita incomes. Finally, social aspects need to be taken into consideration. Just to name a few, ethnic and sectarian differences may trigger collision among social groups and there is a remarkable growing perception of the West as a coloniser and a threat.

For all these reasons, in the last few decades the allure of fundamentalism and extremism has grown dramatically in the region. Thus, the real challenge for the international community is that of fostering stabilisation as a means to counter attack the mounting appeal of terrorism.

Therefore, the concept of stabilisation and reconstruction of troubled states such as Iraq and Syria was the pivot of discussion during the “Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq”. More specifically, a roundtable of academics and policy-makers were asked to shed light on one of the most problematic aspects of post-conflict transition: how is it possible to create stable and balanced systems in blood-soaked countries like Syria and Iraq? Notably, experts agreed on the significance of establishing a robust post-conflict justice system, which is crucial in defining the state’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy, or from a situation of war to peace.

Consequently, international organisations and European countries have assumed a leading role with regard to contributing to the process of stabilisation and democratisation of transitioning territories which were once occupied by the Islamic State. Lukáš Gjurič, Head of the Unit of the Arab Levant & Persian Gulf at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, opened the debate by exposing the main initiatives carried out by the Czech government in the Middle East. He declared: “although we do have contributions of military and police experts to the respective missions in Iraq, the main emphasis of our system is the

humanitarian and stabilization aid to the region as a whole”. Even so, Mr. Gjurič added that the Czech Republic allocates a considerable sum of money in the improvement of bureaucracy in Syria and Iraq, because of the political fallout and the rule of law crisis these two countries are currently experiencing.

Furthermore, the discussion tackled themes such as human rights and humanitarian aid. Tomáš Kocian, Regional Director for the Middle East at the Czech NGO People in Need, spoke on the difficulties of intervening in an environment such as the Syrian one, where war is still raging. Most importantly, he stressed the need of respecting the principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality when delivering humanitarian aid. However, because humanitarian organizations usually help only selected beneficiaries, he warned about the risk of triggering dissatisfaction and antagonism on the community level. Therefore he recommended: “humanitarian organizations have to really promote very actively and assertively the principles of humanitarian aid because that’s the only way to deliver humanitarian assistance on the ground to the right people”.

Nevertheless, peacebuilding and the implementation of solid post-conflict justice systems in Syria and Iraq are not the only imperatives Western powers are dealing with in current times. As the Czech Ministry of Defense employee Petra Ditrichová pointed out during the panel, de facto, the European Union is trying to solve the pressing issue of foreign terrorist fighters and returnees from Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the Caliphate recruited many European citizens who later returned to their homeland and therefore represent a potential threat to states’ national security. For all these reasons, the member countries have the legal and moral obligation of holding these people accountable for the atrocities they have committed, explained Mrs. Ditrichová.

However, the international community encountered significant hardships with regards to fulfilling this duty, due to the lack of consensus on the definition of foreign terrorist fighter. The main question was: how and where should perpetrators be brought to justice?

Mrs. Ditrichová explained that there are several options with respect to engaging a judiciary process against these criminals, but they all portray a series of structural flaws. For instance, despite having many advantages, the possibility of prosecution by national courts in Iraq and Syria might be in some cases rather inconvenient because “prosecuting a large number of people may be an impractical challenge for under resourced and not fully equipped judiciary systems”, commented Mrs. Ditrichová. On the contrary, prosecution by foreign national courts may be impractical because of the lack of access to battlefield evidence. Despite all these constraints, Mrs. Ditrichová left a glimmer of hope: “justice is possible, it’s done in practice, but there are a number of challenges mainly due to the existence of this new phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters” she concluded.

Finally, Ulrich Garms, officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime intervened. Mr. Garms accounted for the initiatives undertaken by the United Nations with the purpose of preventing the diffusion of extremist and terrorist ideas. In particular, he highlighted “the link between reducing violence, delivering justice, countering corruption and terrorism and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies” as the main strategy of the UN. In addition to that, the United Nations developped a programme of reintegration not only for returnees from Syria and Iraq, but also for their respective families. On the contrary, at state level, the UN supports member countries in the development of a suitable counterterrorism agenda as well as in the creation of laws to guarantee the non-repetition of these acts, concluded Mr. Garms.

By way of conclusion, to understand the significance of the “Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq” panel, it is necessary to extrapolate the context it emerges from in order to clarify why the stability of the Middle East is important to Europe. We live indeed in an era in which the equilibrium between the West and the Islamic world is extremely precarious and the reasons for that are uncountable. Just to mention a few, in Europe we are currently witnessing the rise to power of xenophobe parties, which continue to stigmatise Islam and label the Islamic presence in Europe as unbearable. In addition to that, the European Union is urged to confront the issue of mass migration originated by the wars in Syria and Iraq. In these circumstances, terrorist attacks and the continuous threaths received by the so-called Islamic State have surely contributed to the diffusion of an increasing feeling of resentment and deep distrust towards Islam. Accordingly, experts argued that phenomena like the exodus of migrants towards European littorals and terrorist attacks against European cities and institutions are the corollary of the political and social downfall of the Middle East. Thus, because the real causes to extremism and fundamentalism have to be searched in the economic, political and social deficiencies of Middle Eastern countries, the mere dissolution of a terrorist group would be pointless if it is not accompanied by a structured process of reintegration and stabilisation of the area.

Thereby, the “Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq” panel was a means to educate the audience on part of the initiatives carried out by European Institutions, member states and NGOs to promote stability in the MENA region. However, the amount of measures undertaken by the EU for this purpose is way wider. There is indeed a variety of European policies aimed at the stabilisation of the Southern and Eastern Mediterrean and the New European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) is one of them. These policies range from the promotion of political and intercultural dialogue, to the support of civil society, to the attempt of democratisation of the area, inter alia. Moreover, the EU promotes economic measures aimed at privatisation and market growth in an attempt to support economic development and make the area more prosperous. Notably, in the last few decades a series of organs and institutions aimed at reinforcing cooperation and dialogue between the EU and the Middle East have emerged.

Since these topics are sometimes neglected and many are still unaware of all the initiatives and procedures undertaken by the European Union to promote stability in the Middle East, experts and academics are exhorted to spread conciousness and awareness on such themes. This was precisely the aim of the “Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq” panel. The panel was extremely fruitful and worthwhile for many reasons. It was fascinating seeing the importance of language and definitions when it comes to policy making and in particular how the lack of a clear definition of foreign terrorist fighter may have enormous consequences on politics and it can simply put institutions and governments in doubt. Besides, this is particularly meaningful when the subject in question is terrorism which is a rooted phenomenon that has existed for decades and still represents a colossal ambiguity to both the academia and political institutions. Moreover, experts succeeded in providing the audience with an unequivocal and structured explaination of the concrete initiatives of governments and international institutions with regard to the process of democratisation of the Middle East and the implementation of long-lasting solutions in countries that are suffering from political spillover. This is crucial especially in light of the constant critics the European Union faces in terms of its contribution to the Middle Eastern cause.

To sum up, the “Building a sustainable future for post-conflict areas in the European Neighbourhood: Transitional Justice and Reintegration in Syria and Iraq” panel addressed the topic of stabilisation and reintegration of Syria and Iraq. Therefore, the analysis included the initiatives of the EU and international organisations aimed at the economic and political development of the Middle East as a means to fight terrorism. Yet, there are still many points that need to be addressed and the issues confronted in this panel may be the perfect source of inspiration for the development of further topics of discussion. By way of example, it would be very interesting to delve further into the topic of counterterrorism. Notably, during the panel experts have mainly discussed about promoting stabilisation and reintegration as a consequence of terrorism, therefore they were mainly considering reactive and responsive measures to the threat of extremism in Europe. However, it is very important for states to carry out preventive and proactive initiatives as well in order to inhibit the proliferation of fundamentalism in Europe. Therefore, what are themeasures implemented by the European Union in order to contain the threat of terrorism? What are the initiatives aimed at preventing the radicalisation in Europe? And to what extent have such initiatives proved to be effective?

The discussion is available here: