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2018 | Syrian Legal Development Programme, International Law and Reconstruction in Syria: a cautionary note for businesses.

This report provides a detailed description of the legal risks business actors may incur in participating in the reconstruction of Syria. It is a contribution to the emerging broader issue of business and corporate accountability in international criminal law (recent cases include Shell in Nigeria, Lafarge in North Syria, Chiquita in Colombia). 

Business actors participating in reconstruction in Syria risk criminal liability for complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as siege warfare and starvation as a weapon against civilians, indiscriminate bombing, targeting of protected persons and objects, use of chemical weapons, arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture, forced displacement and the right to return, pillage and expropriation of property.

Businesses can be held accountable for criminal liability by contributing to or by aiding and abetting the commission of crimes, e.g. by trading within the supply chain to perpetrators, by using abusive security services, or through financial support, the provision of services, goods, information or even encouragement to people involved in war crimes. This is of particular relevance in Syria, where many elite businessmen have participated directly or indirectly in war crimes.Moreover, providing financial aid for reconstruction purposes can be a risk for businesses, since the financial support may be used by the dictatorial regimefor harmfulpurposes rather than for development and reconstruction. The same can happen in case the regime were to use reconstruction funds to repay debts to Russia and Iran, and effectively thereby implicate such funds in the aiding and abetting war crimes. Engaging in corruption similarly risks involving businesses in violations of human rights, such as the right to adequate standards of living, housing, food and health

Businesses may be heldliable for complicity in pillage if they purchase or rebuild properties acquired through illegal means, such as unlawfully expropriated civilian property regulated by the latest property laws (Decree 10, enacted in 2018, and Decree 66, enacted in 2012). These laws, requiring Syrians to provide proof of ownership of property or otherwise risk government expropriation of it for reconstruction, particularly threatens groups who are already vulnerable due to not being listed as property owners, i.e. women, many of whom are not listed as the owners on property records, but whose husbands are no longer present, and refugees and displaced persons, who risk losing their properties if they do not return to their homes, where they also risk threats to their lives. ?Businesses further risk criminal liability by consolidating crimes already committed e.g. by reconstructing a crime scene, in order to hinder later accountability efforts. Moreover, by participating in reconstruction in areas targeted by Decree 10, businesses can be held accountable for enforcing forced displacement and violating the right of return of refugees and displaced persons. Finally, if business actors purchase or take advantage of abandoned properties, they risk being held accountable for land expropriation, unlawful seizure of properties and other violation of HLP rights.

This report explains all the above issues in detail drawing on hundreds of resources and conclusions by international and domestic courts. It also presents a list of recommendations for businesses, states, international actors, and Syrian civil society organizations that may be involved in Syria’s reconstruction.