Consensus is Key: New Justice System in Rojava

YPJ fighters

After the revolution in Rojava began in July 2012, the Syrian justice system was rendered obsolete. Obviously the people, and the political movement that stood behind them, rejected the security apparatus, the political state representatives, and the intelligence agencies, but they also rejected the representative of justice and ousted them from office.


Equally important as removing the dictatorial Baath regime’s personnal was, however, the question of what the new form of justice would look like. In any society that is not yet entirely free of domination, not yet wholly emancipated or liberated socially and along gender lines, so-called crimes—even at a low level—take place, especially against the background of war—conflicts, violence, theft, and robbery—with which the city must grapple.


The foundation of the new justice system that was constructed has the Peace and Consensus Committees. Some of them had previously been formed in the 1990s by left Kurdish political activists in Syrian cities with supportive Kurdish majorities. Even today they perform the tasks of ensuring social peace in their district or locality and of taking action against criminality and social injustice. Under the [Baath] regime these early committees operated underground—the state saw them as a threat to its monopoly over justice, so they operated in parallel to the existing justice system. Despite the increased repression after 2000 and especially after 2004, they continued to exist, albeit in smaller numbers and without reaching the majority of the Kurdish population. 


After the localities of Rojava were liberated in the summer of 2012, the places that had already had this experience with the Peace and Consensus Committees underwent no “chaos” or confusion when it came to settling differences in civil and criminal cases. The existing committees were now the go-to places for matters of justice, and where they were absent, they were quickly constructed according to the already existing model.


The Structure of the Justice System


To describe the structure of the justice system in Rojava, we must study the structure that has developed over the past two years. Once the cities and villages were liberated on July 19, 2012, regional justice councils (in Kurdish, diwana adalet) were constructed in the various regions. They emerged at the initiative of the TEV-DEM [the Movement of the Democratic Society], which organized executive bodies of the West Kurdistan People’s Council, or MGRK, throughout Rojava; the MGRK–people’s council system was the decisive force that drove the revolution. The justice councils engaged judges, lawyers, prosecutors, jurists, and others who had broken with the ruling system. Moreover the people’s councils were also members of the Peace and Consensus Committees and elected and appointed further persons.  These justice councils have since been crucial for the construction of a new justice system.


The three majority-Kurdish-settled regions were recently were named cantons; the largest of the three is Cizîre. Its justice council, which has eleven members, comprises several district councils; the justice councils in Afrîn and Kobanê have seven each. (Apparently not many people sit on these important committees.) These justice councils coordinate with the people’s councils and are accountable to them; after wide-ranging discussions in the people’s councils, they founded the new justice system. 


At the lowest level of the new justice system, created in the villages, districts, and even sometimes streets, are the Peace and Consensus Committees. They resolve cases on the basis of consensus. If it turns out that they can’t do so, the case is taken up to the next level. Difficult cases like murder, it must be said, aren’t handled by the Peace and Consensus Committees but are taken directly to the higher levels. 


At the communal level the Peace and Consensus Committees have a dual structure. The general committees are responsible for conflicts and crimes; the women’s commissions are responsible for cases of patriarchal violence, forced marriage, plural marriage, and so on. They are directly attached to the women’s organization Yekitiya Star [the Star Union of Women]. 


At the next level up, in the big central city for each area, are the people’s courts (dadgeha gel), which were called into life by the justice councils. Their member judges (dadger) can be nominated by the justice councils or by anyone in the area. The people’s councils at the regional level (like Serê Kaniyê, Qamişlo, Amude, Dêrik, Heseke, Afrîn, Kobanê) advise on the nominations, and from them seven people are elected for each area. The nominees do not have to be jurists; in the contrary, unlike in other justice systems, some of those chosen have no judicial background at all. It’s considered far more important that the people nominated for justices are those who can represent the interests of the society.


The remaining levels of Rojava’s justice system are much like those in other states.


At the close of a proceeding in the people’s court, one of the parties may enter an objection and bring the case to the appeals court (dadgeha istinaf). Rojava has only four of three courts, two in Cizîre and one each in Kobanê and Afrîn. At this level the judges must be jurists. 


At the next level, those who wish to bring a suit have at their disposal the regional court (dadgeha neqit); there is only one to cover all three cantons.


Finally there is a constitutional court (dadgeha hevpeyman), whose seven justices decided that the social contract—which was adopted at the beginning of the year instead of a constitution—and other important laws would be observed in the proceedings and other decisions of the government. In each region people’s court attorneys (dizgeri) as well as other prosecutors work in the public interest.


At the summit of the legal system is the justice parliament (meclisa adalet); each of the three cantons has one. Each justice parliament consists of 23 people: three representatives of the justice ministry, newly founded in January 2014; eleven from the justice councils; seven from the constitutional court; and two from the bar association. One member of justice parliament speaks publicly. This setup contains an even more important difference from typical justice systems, for with only three representatives, the new transitional government has little legal influence.


The justice parliaments have the responsibility to ensure that the legal system accommodates the needs of this fast-changing and democratizing society. Their top priority is the ongoing reconstruction of the justice system. It’s still only skeletal, and many details and practices have not been talked out or decided upon. The legal system faces the huge imperative to work out the new legal foundations (above all the social contract), but it must also refer to existing Syrian laws, since the new laws don’t yet cover everything. Still, new laws don’t have to be worked out in every area. 


Every law, regulation, and guideline is newly analyzed; the undemocratic elements are struck out and replaced with new ones, and new parts added on as necessary. The three cantons understand themselves as part of the Syrian state, but as a democratic one. Should a democratic transformation not be possible, a completely new law for the affected area will be created.


Furthermore the justice parliaments advise on pending technical and administrative questions. The problems and demands of the bar are also discussed there, and common solutions are developed.


Up to now the work in the justice parliaments has developed through many discussions, but their members have not disagreed strongly, or at least so they say. Given the pressure to build a functioning judicial system relatively quickly, there has not been much time for discussions. The deep necessary discussions have mostly had to be postponed to the coming years, when peaceful times will hopefully prevail.


Education of Staff


In the mid-2013 in Qamişlo an academy for jurists of Rojava’s three cantons was founded. It was necessary because the new justice system requires at least several hundred professionals and staff. Each basic educational course of study lasts four months. In May 2014 two groups of three dozen people each completed the first unit. After passing exams at the end of four months, students can begin work in the new justice system. But their education doesn’t end there—they return to the academy at regular intervals for further education, for many months more. The junior jurists better and more comprehensively is under discussion, as the relatively short four-month period was instituted only because of the great need for professionals. 


Results of the New Legal System


It goes without saying that the new system abolished the death penalty. A penalty of life imprisonment (the maximum term is temporarily set at 20 years) can be imposed only in cases of murder, torture, or terror. Up to now that’s happened only twice in Cizîre: for a man who murdered a woman in a barbaric way, and for a man who tortured and murdered a member of the security forces (called Asayiş). 


In Rojava, arrest is considered the last resort. And according to the principles of the legal system, the arrested person is to be viewed not as a criminal but as someone to be rehabilitated. Prisons are understood to be educational institutions and once the means are available are to be transformed into rehabilitation centers; they will not be punitive institutions. Rojava’s legal commissions are especially concerned with the issue of the prison conditions, for as onejustice council member explained to us: “We have already deprived the prisoners of their freedom; we don’t want to punish them further with prison conditions.” 


In the past two years, as a result of the new justice system and especially the greater self-organization of the people in communes and councils, the number of crimes has declined slowly, although reliable figures are still hard to determine. They are concentrated at the urban peripheries. In South Kurdistan, so-called honor killings remain commonplace, but in Rojava, especially because of the work of the women’s movement, those crimes have noticeably declined. 


The Peace and Consensus Committees


The most basic difference between Rojava’s justice system and the justice systems in other kinds of states—capitalist, real-socialist, parliamentary, dictatorial—is the existence of the Peace and Consensus Committees at the local level and the roles they play in the council structure.


Members of the Peace and Consensus Committees are nominated by the people’s councils. At the level of the commune (the lowest organizational structure of the MGRK system, consisting of 30 to 150 households), all residents come to an assembly and elect the members. At the next highest organizational authority, the district or village community (around 7 to 10 villages), the Peace and Consensus Committees chosen when the people’s council meets with the delegates of the communes. The higher levels in the council system have no Peace and Consensus Committees.


The council system in Rojava was constructed at the beginning of the revolution in Syria three years ago; thereafter the Peace and Consensus Committees emerged at the district and village community levels. Starting in 2012, with the emergence of the communes, the Peace and Consensus Committees were elected at these lowest levels. Most of the communes don’t have authority over such committees.


As I mentioned earlier, the first Peace and Consensus Committees were built back in the 1990s, which benefits the MGRK structure. Without this long-standing experience, it would have been much harder to build these committees so quickly in other places. The fifteen-plus years of experience were very valuable.


Each Peace and Consensus Committee usually consists of five to nine people, with a gender quota of 40 percent. The people elected are usually those who are thought to have the ability to bring conflicting parties together in discussion. Most are over 40.


The committees’ procedures are not spelled out in writing in every detail or even in their entirety. Rules and principles have developed in practice over the years and to some extent are transmitted verbally.


Members of the Peace and Consensus Committees are not to be understood as traditional magistrates, since they are elected democratically and with gender parity. This is important, as the councils and the political movement that undergird the construction of the committees relate to the councils of elders of traditional society. The councils of elders hardly exist today—they were dispersed in the 1960s and 1970s. Rojava identified these traditional institutions but infused them with the values of its social contract: council democracy, gender liberation, and human rights. By incorporating and superseding the traditional councils of elders, they constitute s a bridge of understanding between tradition and revolution. 


The parallel structure of the women’s commissions and Yikitiya Star should guarantee that feudal structures have no jurisdiction in cases of patriarchal violence. In this context women are the driving force.


The goal Peace and Consensus Committees, when it comes to jurisprudence, is not to condemn one or both sides in a proceeding but rather to achieve a consensus between the conflicting parties. If possible, the accused is not ostracized though a punishment or locked away but rather is made to understand that his or her behavior has led to injustice, damage, and injury. If necessary, the matter is discussed for a long time. Reaching consensus among the parties is a result that will lead to a more lasting peace. 


Over the long term that is a great benefit for the local society, as it furthers a rapprochement among groups and individuals and promotes peace. Social solidarity and social cohesion grow in this soil; that has been the experience of two years of revolution in Rojava. Today in the communes and localities, if the bulk of the people behave in solidarity, are able to found cooperatives, and are able to make decisions together, it’s partly because the work of the Peace and Consensus Committees has been successful.


That the committees are accepted by the society and enjoy great respect is also shown in the fact that more and more people from other ethnic groups are turning to them with their problems. It should not be forgotten that a large number of Arabs live in some cities of Rojava.


Another indicator of the committees’ positive effects is the fact that where they are well-organized, quarrels and altercations between individuals, families, and groups are slowly declining; moreover crime, especially theft, is on the wane. 


Editorial Comment

This article was written by Ercan Ayboğa, and  was published in Kurdistan ReportSeptember-October 2014; Translated by Janet Biehl. A short version of this article appeared in August 2014 in TOA magazine, issue no. 4, published by the service bureau for Täter-Opfer-Ausgleich und Konfliktschlichtung;