Syria: Human Rights, Minorities, and the Challenge of Accountability
December 7, 2012
Prepared Remarks before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) & International Religious Freedom Caucus (IRFC).
I would like to thank the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) and the International Religious Freedom Caucus (IRFC) for scheduling today’s important briefing on an “Update on the Status of Human Rights in Syria.”
I am a Senior Adviser for Middle East Initiatives at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), an institution created by Congress to prevent, mitigate, and resolve violent international conflict through nonviolent means. Since December 2011, I have directed the USIP-facilitated The Day After project that brought together some 45 Syrian opposition leaders to develop principles, goals, and recommendations for the transition to a post-Assad Syria. My views are informed by that process as well as over thirty years of following issues in Syria and the region. The views presented today are my own and not those of USIP, which does not take policy positions.
In March 2011, Syrians launched a peaceful protest movement calling for democratic reforms and an end to five decades of dictatorship. In response, the government of Bashar al-Assad unleashed a brutal campaign of repression that has killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians, injured almost 140,000, forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to become refugees in neighboring countries, and caused the internal displacement of more than two and half million people, more than ten percent of the country’s total population.
As peaceful protests have given way to armed conflict, Syrians have also been subjected to human rights violations on a massive scale. There is overwhelming evidence that the Assad regime, through its armed forces and loyalist militias, has committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of human rights, including mass murder, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, forced disappearances, the arbitrary detention of tens of thousands of civilians, attacks on hospitals, the use of medical facilities for military operations, as well as random mortar and artillery shelling and air assaults on densely populated urban areas. In recent months, credible evidence has emerged indicating that the Assad regime has used cluster bombs against civilian targets, including children.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has affirmed that responsibility for human rights violations in Syria rest disproportionately with the Assad government. There is also evidence of serious, sporadic abuses by opposition forces. Video materials and field-based inquires implicate opposition forces in summary executions, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners. The chair of the UNHCR Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Mr. Paulo Pinheiro, confirms that abuses have been committed by opposition fighters. However, Mr. Pinheiro has underscored the Assad regime’s responsibility for the vast majority of abuses committed over the past 20 months. Acting on this and other evidence, the U.N. General Assembly voted as recently as November 27 by an overwhelming majority strongly to condemn “the continuing violence, murder and heinous crimes committed by the Syrian authorities and its affiliated ‘shabbiha’ militias against Syrian civilians and the use of heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery and warplanes in its bombardment of populated neighbourhoods and villages, as well as arbitrary executions and enforced disappearances, in flagrant violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and called upon the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic to cease immediately and completely all forms of killing and violence against the Syrian people.”
Despite such appeals, and in the face of incontrovertible evidence, the Syrian government has persisted in rejecting responsibility for criminal acts. It has refused entry to U.N. human rights investigators. In contrast, opposition leaders, both military and civilian, have acknowledged abuses, called for investigations, and affirmed that perpetrators will be held accountable. Opposition leaders have also endorsed a battlefield code of conduct, although its implementation is uneven. The weakness of command and control among opposition forces and the presence of Jihadist elements operating outside the authority of the Free Syrian Army complicate opposition efforts to prevent violations of human rights, but cannot excuse or justify such acts when they occur.
The condition of religious minorities in Syria, including Christian minorities, warrant particular attention. Since the outbreak of protests in March 2011, the Assad regime has cynically exploited sectarianism to reinforce fears among Christians and other minorities about their fate should the government be overthrown. Regional trends, including the experience of Iraqi Christians and the rise to power of Islamist governments across North Africa have amplified these fears. No less troubling is the growing visibility of Jihadist and Salafist militants in Syria, as well as the increasingly Islamist tenor of the armed opposition more broadly.
The concerns of Syrian Christians are legitimate. Troubling reports have emerged of violence targeting Christians, of churches being looted, and of an atmosphere of hostility toward Christians in some of the areas under opposition control. To date, however, the scale of such incidents, though disturbing, is limited. The overall conduct of opposition forces toward Christian minorities has been appropriate: the Free Syrian Army has issued several statements expressing its commitment to the protection of minorities. Christians are active in the opposition including within the Free Syrian Army, if in small numbers.
In addition, opposition groups, including the newly-formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the Syrian National Council, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Local Coordination Committees, and the leadership of military and civilian councils inside Syria, have uniformly and consistently rejected sectarianism. In March 2012 the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement indicating its support for a constitutional democracy and a civil state that guarantees freedom of religion. The election of George Sabra, a leading Christian opposition activist, as president of the Syrian National Council is further indication of the opposition’s recognition of the need to address the concerns and fears of the Syrian Christian minority. As violence has escalated, moreover, there is increasing evidence that Christians and other minorities are breaking with the Assad regime in growing numbers. This is a trend the U.S. should support, not least by clearly communicating our intent to hold the opposition accountable for its commitments when a new government is, eventually, established.
Such measures are welcome and should be acknowledged by the U.S. Yet many Syrian Christians remain skeptical of opposition intentions, fearful that Islamist groups will dominate a post-Assad Syria, and concerned about the current and future security of the Christian minority. As a result, many Syrian Christians continue to support the Assad regime, or to adopt a neutral position toward the opposition. Diplomatic efforts to reinforce the priority the U.S. attaches to the security of all Syrian minorities, their representation in opposition bodies, and their active participation in the transition to a post-Assad Syria should remain a cornerstone of U.S. engagement with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, and the leaders of local civilian and military councils. Such U.S. and international assurances may help reduce the sense of vulnerability that prevents some Syrian Christians from more active support for the overthrow of the Assad regime.
Despite overwhelming evidence of criminal conduct by the Assad regime, efforts to hold the regime accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of human rights have been ineffective. Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Thus, the ICC can only initiate an investigation of Syria through a resolution of the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called on the Security Council to issue a resolution referring Bashar al-Assad to the ICC, Russian and Chinese objections have prevented efforts to do so.
Such obstacles to accountability highlight the need to explore alternative channels for referring Syrian officials to the ICC. In the meantime, however, there are important steps that can be taken today to ensure that the Assad regime is held accountable for its criminal conduct.
- Expand support for organizations such as the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), dedicated to documenting human rights abuses and developing the evidence that will be needed to support the future prosecution of perpetrators.
- Encourage and support related efforts to protect and preserve the documentary record of the Assad regime’s criminal conduct, including the files of internal security and intelligence agencies, to ensure accountability for crimes committed not only during the current uprising but in the decades since the Ba`th Party seized power.
- Support efforts to establish mechanisms of transitional justice and rule of law in a post-Assad Syria as recommended in The Day After report, a transition plan developed by the Syrian opposition with support from USIP. Among other recommendations, The Day After plan calls for the creation of a preparatory commission on transitional justice. It also recommends moving quickly to establish agencies that will permit a new government promptly and effectively to undertake the vetting of officials of the Assad regime, members of the armed forces and security apparatus, and members of the Ba`th Party to identify perpetrators and initiate appropriate judicial proceedings, reform state institutions including the justice sector and the security sector, and ensure that a new Syrian government can provide security for all of its citizens and ensure the rule of law.
- Accelerate international and opposition efforts to improve command and control within the Free Syrian Army and ensure appropriate conduct by the armed units under FSA control.
- Continue to make clear to the Syrian National Coalition the necessity of addressing the concerns of all minorities in Syria, including not only Christians, but Alawites, Kurds, Druze, and others.
- Clearly affirm the intent of the U.S. to establish mechanisms to assess the compliance of a post-Assad government with U.S. and international human rights law.
The brutality of the Assad regime has created conditions that are all too likely to produce a cycle of violence, revenge, and retribution that could engulf Syria and threaten regional stability for years to come. Whether it is possible to avoid this grim fate will depend, in no small measure, on whether the perpetrators of human rights violations, from all sides, are quickly and fairly brought to justice. The recommendations I have presented today -- working to ensure that Bashar al-Assad and his collaborators are held accountable for their crimes; supporting efforts to put in place now the institutional foundations for transitional justice, rule of law, pluralism, and religious tolerance; improving the capacity of the opposition to monitor the conduct of its forces and prevent human rights abuses -- represent practical but important steps the U.S. can take to reduce the odds that the worst case scenario will occur, and improve the prospects for long term peace and stability in a post-Assad Syria.
The views expressed in this testimony are those of the author and not the U.S. Institute of Peace, which does not take policy positions.