Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1196, (8-14 May 2014)
Wednesday,26 September, 2018
Issue 1196, (8-14 May 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Murdering with impunity?

A way must be found to bring suspected Syrian war criminals to trial if the country is ever to enjoy lasting reconciliation, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nearly 200,000 people are believed to have perished in the conflict in Syria, and just as many have gone missing. Nearly half the population have been forced from their homes, and half of those again have left the country. But the war criminals in high places who have triggered this conflict and kept it going are still playing for time and hope to get away with murder.

Local and international groups monitoring the conflict are in agreement that the Syrian regime has committed crimes against humanity, including the use of heavy weapons and chemical weapons against civilians. The regime has also aided and abetted thousands of militiamen, mostly Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi, whose unbridled use of force against civilians has led to some 40 reported massacres.

The violence is part of a power game in which war criminals hope to grab enough power such that a post-war settlement may ignore their crimes for the sake of reconciliation. This hope, many Syrians say, must be nipped in the bud: criminals on all levels and from all sects, Syrian and foreign, must be brought to justice.

The problem is that the international community does not seem to have the will to do so. The regime in Damascus, led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, has powerful friends who do not only supply it with enough money to keep the killing going, but also protect it in international forums.

RUSSIAN COLLUSION: Repeated pleas for the end of human rights violations in Syria have issued from both UN officials and prominent human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. Rights activists in Syria and abroad have collected evidence and urged trials for the perpetrators of violations.

A UN fact-finding committee has prepared three reports on Syria, all of which have confirmed that war crimes have been committed. But the UN’s ability to take action such as referring senior Syrian officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC) has run into Russian opposition.

Syrian rights activist Abdel-Karim Rihawi, who runs the Syrian Association for Human Rights, an NGO, said that the UN was unable to act without Russian consent. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Rihawi commented that “to refer a case to the ICC you need a decision from the UN Security Council. But the hope of such a move is dim, considering the unabashed support of the Russian Federation for the criminal Al-Assad regime.”

“Thus far, the Russian government has vetoed three decisions denouncing the Syrian regime at the UN Security Council, and this has further emboldened Al-Assad.”

In early 2014, a Syrian dissident who used to work for the Syrian security services leaked documents about the actions of the regime. The dissident, who calls himself “Kaysar,” now lives in hiding outside Syria. He provided the resistance with 30,000 documents about events that took place in the first two years of the revolution, some of them involving torture and mass murder.

According to the evidence submitted by Kaysar, nearly 11,000 Syrians were tortured to death in detention during this period. The evidence he submitted includes photographs of the victims, some of whom have gouged-out eyes and some have signs of beatings and burnings, according to activists. In one photo, dozens of corpses seem to have been piled in a parking lot.

The authenticity of the photographs has been confirmed by independent international investigators and the UN is aware of this evidence, according to activists. However, the war crimes have not been confined to the regime: jihadists who have managed to get into the country (the opposition blames the regime for allowing them in) have also engaged in wanton killings.

The Syrian opposition now wishes to find the right mechanism to hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable. One suggestion is to form a mixed court, made up of Syrian and international judges, under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. Some members of the opposition also wish to prosecute members of the regime for crimes against humanity dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, including the infamous massacre against Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, in which 30,000 people were reportedly killed in Hama in the 1980s.

Rights activist Rihawi has vowed to press for the trial of all the war criminals in Syria.

In a comment to the Weekly, Rihawi said that “we will continue to seek justice. Those whose hands are dripping with the blood of the Syrian people will not escape judgement. We will do everything possible to bring the criminals to trial.”

A QUESTION OF RECONCILIATION: There is a growing conviction among the Syrian public that their country will need a system of transitional justice to make sure that the war criminals in the current conflict do not escape justice.  

Unless the murderers face trial, political reconciliation will be difficult to attain, activists say. Not only senior officials in the Al-Assad regime need to face justice, they add, but so too do members of the regime’s security forces and of the pro-government militia that has been recruited mainly from members of the president’s clan.

Lawyer Mohannad Al-Hosni, a former political detainee who now runs the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, an NGO, says that reconciliation is out of the question unless justice prevails.

Speaking to the Weekly, Al-Hosni said that “reconciliation was a top priority of the major powers in August 2012, when Lakhdar Brahimi replaced Kofi Annan as [UN] special envoy to Syria. Brahimi held talks both with the Syrian regime and the opposition, and he told the Western powers at the time that a handover of power was needed in Syria at the earliest possible opportunity. When we spoke to Brahimi, we told him that he must obtain a clear mandate from the UN to enforce no-fly zones and safe havens for Syrians affected by the conflict.”

According to Al-Hosni, nearly 2,782 people died in the 15 days that elapsed between Annan’s resignation as UN special envoy and Brahimi’s appointment – an average of 186 deaths per day. All of this, he pointed out, had happened before the global jihadists had come to Syria and at a time when the Al-Nosrah Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), both of them jihadist groups, had not been formed. The Lebanese group Hizbullah had not yet come to the aid of the Syrian regime either.

Many of the opposition groups were hoping to bring down the regime while maintaining a modicum of harmony and social peace in the country. However, this is no longer the case.

Al-Hosni, recently awarded the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, an important international human rights award, blames Brahimi for the international community’s failure to stop the killings.

“The reason Brahimi was chosen by the major powers as a mediator for Syria was that throughout his professional career he had favoured peace over justice. In every case he has worked on, the resulting peace has been fragile. This is as true of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia as it is of the Al-Taef Agreement for Lebanon” that put an end to the Lebanese Civil War.

It was Brahimi’s approach to the Syrian conflict that had caused it to drag on, Al-Hosni added.

Abdel-Razeq Eid, chairman of the National Council for the Damascus Declaration in Exile, a civil society group, said that attempts to redeem the Syrian regime were misguided. Speaking to the Weekly, Eid commented that “the murderous Al-Assad regime has torpedoed any opportunity for reconciliation, leaving nothing but disgrace for anyone wanting to include it in a future partnership. This is even more the case today, when Al-Assad is running for another term in office. Anyone who attempts reconciliation with this regime is condoning barbarism.”

Rights activist Rihawi blamed the current international legal system for the tardiness in bringing members of the regime to justice. “The major countries act according to their political interests. The failure of the international community to protect civilians in Syria shows how little the current system, which revolves around the UN, can accomplish. Immediate action is needed by all the free people in the world” to halt the killings in Syria.

A large part of the Syrian opposition believes that the war criminals will not be brought to trial unless the regime is brought down by force. Speaking to the Weekly, independent opposition activist Fawwaz Tallo said that “the Syrian people are left with one option, which is to bring down the regime militarily. In order to do so, [the opposition forces] must enter Alawite areas and collect the weapons that the regime has distributed there.”

Omar Moshawwah, who runs the media office of the Syria Muslim Brotherhood, said that “in order to achieve national reconciliation in Syria, the war criminals must be brought to trial. Otherwise, vendettas will rip the country apart.”

Rights activist Al-Hosni also believes that the Syrian regime is using the bloodshed as a bargaining chip. “The regime is following a scorched-earth policy on land that it has no hope of regaining. It is also encouraging the jihadists to carve out their own emirates, which is another of its bullying tactics. Ultimately, the regime hopes to divide Syria, something which would make Israel very happy.”

Al-Hosni emphasised that it was crucial that all those who had been involved in wanton murder, whether from the government or the opposition, were brought to justice.

RIGHTS GROUPS: Since the revolution began three years ago, the number of rights groups claiming to be working in Syria has grown many fold, something that some claim is not always helpful.

Rights activist Rihawi said that since 2000 local Syrian rights groups have made great achievements, one of them being breaking the barrier of fear. “The work of the rights organisations is an ethical one first of all. Since they started operating in 2000, these organisations have made clear progress… especially in breaking the barrier of fear and silence,” he stated.

“The international organisations working in the country are of two types. The first includes independent organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Association for the Prevention of Torture. These are non-governmental groups that have the respect and admiration of millions around the world. The second type includes organisations affiliated with the UN and its Human Rights Council. These are unfortunately highly politicised, and this explains why the UN has failed to refer the Syrian case to the ICC, despite our pleas.”

Rihawi said that there was more than enough evidence to refer suspected Syrian war criminals to trial. “The documentation of violations is the essence of human rights work, and human rights specialists play a major role in the documentation process which is the foundation for any step towards ending violations and bringing criminals to justice,” he added.

However, he was wary of the unprofessional manner in which some of the new groups had appeared on the scene.

“Dozens of bogus Syrian rights organisations appeared after the revolution, all of them operating outside the country and lacking the legal knowledge and expertise needed for this kind of work. This can be counterproductive,” Rihawi remarked.

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