Essex experts set principles for Syria reconstruction

  • Date

    Wed 3 Oct 18

With over 12 million people displaced inside and outside of Syria and accusations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, the Syrian conflict is an ever-present crisis for the international community. As the conflict continues our experts are joining the push for reconstruction efforts.


Researchers from our School of Law and Human Rights Centre were at the heart of an initiative last week to outline international obligations pertinent to any reconstruction efforts.

Dr Tara Van Ho helped draft an open statement by eminent jurists calling on the international community to ensure any reconstruction efforts or assistance abides by international human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law standards. The letter is an effort by jurists to ensure the conditions within Syria provide for a long-term, stable peace built on international law and lessons from past conflicts.

The letter outlines ten principles for reconstruction and assistance, each reflecting an accepted standard in international human rights, international humanitarian, or international criminal law.

Dr Van Ho explains: "The purpose was not to try to invent international law, or to set unrealistic expectations for Syria, but to restate existing international obligations in a simple and accessible manner so as to remind states, the international community, and businesses of their existing commitments.

"These obligations really represent lessons learned from earlier conflicts. Post-conflict reconstruction has undergone several 'stages' in the past decades. The most recent is an approach that puts development and reconstruction at the centre and hopes that will facilitate reconciliation and transitions in post-conflict societies. It doesn’t work. We’ve seen it not work in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

"International law, on the other hand, provides for a sustainable approach because the laws applicable in these circumstances have been specifically developed for them. International human rights law and international humanitarian law are designed with the complexity and difficulties facing post-conflict states in mind."

Dr Van Ho was approached by the non-governmental organisation Crisis Action to take a lead on drafting the letter.

"It builds on work I have done, and research I have undertaken, for the past ten years," she added.

"It has also been an area that both the Essex Business and Human Rights Project and the Essex Transitional Justice Network have engaged in. That doesn’t mean it was easy to draft, but it was perhaps easier for me to start the process quickly because I have written on many of these issues already."

Dr Tara Van Ho
"International law provides for a sustainable approach because international human rights law and international humanitarian law are designed with the complexity and difficulties facing post-conflict states in mind."
Dr Tara Van Ho school of law and human rights centre

Crisis Action pulled together a small group of scholars and lawyers to comment and give feedback to the initial drafts, with some helping to further sculpt individual sections of the statement. Dr Van Ho was also able to rely on the feedback and insight from her colleagues.

"The added benefit of being based at Essex – one of the largest human rights centres in the world, if not the largest – meant that if I did run into problems or questions, I was able to email others in the Department to solicit feedback quickly."

Professors Geoff GilbertSabine Michalowski, and Clara Sandoval joined Dr Van Ho in signing the statement, making the University of Essex the largest block of signatories.

The statement has attracted prominent support from international human rights leaders, including Navi Pillay, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and current President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pablo de Greiff, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and Sir Geoffrey Nice SC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Law academics from beyond Essex have also signed the letter supporting its call to remind the international community of the centrality of their human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law obligations in this area.

Dr Van Ho hopes the principles will encourage states and international or multilateral organisations like the EU, the UN, and the World Bank to reconsider the rush to support reconstruction efforts.

“I think it’s actually too early to be discussing reconstruction in Syria. The conflict is still on, there has not yet been a political transition, which the UN Security Council has recognised is needed, and those who have organised and perpetrated widespread and systematic violations of international law are still in power. But if members of the international community are going to push for reconstruction assistance, then it’s important for us to remind them of what their existing international legal obligations require. I think that when they reflect on their own commitments, standards, and lessons learned they will realise that a lot more needs to happen before reconstruction assistance can begin.”