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Event report: The Human Rights Situation in Syria

The Human Rights Situation in Syria: An Assessment by the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry
The Brookings Institution
March 20, 2012

This event took place on March 20th and was hosted by Managing Global Order and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Two commissioners and the chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Syria came together to discuss their research and a recently released report on the human rights crisis in Syria. Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, moderated the event.

Paulo Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry for Syria and former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, was the first panelist to speak. The commission currently has two reports in publication. The first report, which was released in December, was about human rights violations with a focus on the situation of the victims of the unrest in Syria. The purpose of this report was to demonstrate the “daily life, the sufferings, the hard work of the day-to-day life of Syrians in their position or neutral or sympathetic to the government because the lives of all Syrians are affected by the unrest.” Pinheiro described the second report, which was published this past month, as a more complete analysis of the armed forces, security forces, and militia. He emphasized the face that the Syrian armed forces are very organized and its members show a great loyalty to the chain of command. On the other hand, the Free Syrian Army and armed groups are loosely organized. The second report shows the great disparity between the armed forces and the Free Syrian Army and armed groups. Pinheiro emphasized that a ceasefire is not possible because such terminology would require that there be “two forces in a certain balance,” but there is not. Within both reports, Pinheiro described that there are three different tracks: one track concerns gross human rights violations; a second track is the humanitarian situation involving emigrants and refugees; the third track attempts to find the solutions for the unrest. With regards to solutions, Pinheiro stated that militarization would be a disaster. This would only lead to “full-fledged civil war,” which would make it even more difficult to find a solution than in the present situation. Pinheiro also emphasized the necessity for an “inclusive dialogue” – negotiation that includes the Syrian government and all parts of Syria involved in the unrest. Pinheiro supports diplomacy and abandoning any endeavors in military intervention and efforts with the protection of foreign armies. Lastly, Pinheiro asked for full support of Kofi Annan’s mission to find a political solution.

Karen AbuZayd, Commissioner of the Commission of Inquiry for Syria, and former Commission General of the UN Relief and Works Agency, elaborated on the humanitarian situation discussed in the reports. A combination of socioeconomic changes is currently taking place. The prices of basic foods and other basic items are rising, the value of the Syrian pound is decreasing, and foodstuffs, electricity, and water are all in short supply. These changes are having a negative impact on the state of the population and small businesses, which are not taking in revenue, due to a lack of tourists. Still, AbuZayd gave evidence of humanitarian agencies and UN agencies that still have a strong arm in Syria. These agencies are still accepting and delivering goods to the population everywhere except in the conflict zones. AbuZayd also talked about the refugee situation. Previously, many Syrians who left their country later returned. Presently, the UN is seeing many more “classic refugees,” who are not in a hurry to return to Syria because they have nothing to go back to. AbuZayd closed her statement with two messages: the first, to watch this refugee flow closely, and do so by using UN representatives who are stationed in neighboring countries to interview refugees about their motivations and needs. The second message AbuZayd delivered was to consult with the agencies that are inside Syria about how they are receiving and delivering aid within the country. AbuZayd also encouraged the inclusive dialogue that Pinheiro discussed, and hoped that a unity of the international community is forthcoming.

The last panelist, Yakin Ertürk, Commissioner of the Commission of Inquiry for Syria, and former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, discussed how the commission went about obtaining accounts of human rights violations, considering the commission was not given access to Syria. Fortunately, enough people who were victims and witnesses of human rights violations were residing in neighboring countries at the time the commission was mandated to produce their first report. After two phases of interviews with witnesses, victims, and army defectors, the commission had a total of 369 interviews, and because they used additional means to contact those still inside Syria, Ertürk was confident in the credibility of the information they had obtained. Also, because the commission spoke with people from different parts of Syria and from different walks of life, Ertürk was also confident in the variability of the information. The commission used additional secondary information, such as aerial photographs, to corroborate eyewitness accounts. In sum, the reports were based on consistent trends found in their interviews. The first report documented the human rights violations that the commission was aware of based on the interviews, while the second report emphasized the identity of the armed groups and their operations, focusing on not only individual responsibility, but command responsibility, involving the chain of command. Ertürk hoped that the background information provided in the reports will be supplemented with a “judicial mechanism in a competent court.” The report makes recommendations about how the Syrian government might reform in order to undertake the responsibility of investigating, prosecuting, and punishing for these human rights violations. In closing, Ertürk stressed the fact that the future of Syria has to be designed by the Syrians, and the international community has to support that process, but not dictate it. Before a future can be ensured, the states have to come to a common agreement to pressure the government to stop the violence.

The question and answer session reinforced the idea that the solution for the unrest must involve Syrian participation. Pinheiro sees the negotiation as the only option and, in order for that to happen, the international community must find a common voice and a unified position. In answer to a question about the torture of Syrian women and children, Pinheiro insisted that “we cannot continue losing time” and the international community must come to an agreement so that these tortures do not continue. One audience member challenged the commission’s “inclusive dialogue” stance. He stated that Bashar al-Assad will take it as a sign of weakness by the international community, and that the international community should see military intervention as a swift and viable option. Pinheiro countered this with the fact that the commission is not alone in the belief that military intervention is not possible; UN member states are in agreement. If the inclusive dialogue approach gains support, it is more likely to see success. Pinheiro stated that the commission respects the dissent opinions, but all solutions have been considered and military intervention has been found to be neither practical nor efficient.

Yakin Ertürk closed the panel with the acknowledgment that a dialogue will not be generated easily. However, external or internal military intervention will “have very heavy prices for the society forever to come.” Both justice and reconciliation are necessary to bring peace. Thus, the commission sees this conversation as the only way that once the violence ends, Syria will have any chance of reestablishing itself for a successful future.

A full video of the event can be found here:

Jaclyn Escudero
SPSSI Spring Intern

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