POMED Notes: “The Human Rights Situation in Syria”
On Tuesday, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted members of the U.N. Human Rights independent international Commission of Inquiry for Syria to discuss the findings of their recently released report. Paulo Pinhiero, the chairman of the commission, along with commissioners Yakin Erturk and Karen AbuZayd provided an overview of their investigation and described the current human rights situation in Syria. Senior Brookings Fellow Ted Piccone, deputy director of Foreign Policy at Brookings, moderated the discussion.
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Paulo Pinhiero opened the discussion explaining the background and purpose of the Commission of Inquiry. The Commission of Inquiry, he said, investigates ongoing conflicts. He clarified that while the Commission had limited access to Syria, this did not change the fundamental aspects of the report, as the commission was privy to a multitude of different sources. The first of this series of reports focused on the situation of the victims of the unrest in Syria and “how life is behind the videos,” said Pinhiero. The second report, that was recently released, gave a clearer picture of the conflict as it had developed, focusing more heavily on the analysis of the Syrian armed forces and the shabiha militia. Pinhiero said that the second report was able to demonstrate the intricate organization of the armed forces, their chain of command, and their operations. He noted that the report also demonstrated the tremendous disparity between the armed troops and FSA/opposition forces, which he labeled more or less as neighborhood protectors. He said that the term “ceasefire” would not be an accurate condition, as a ceasefire implies “a certain balance between two warring factions,” which, Pinhiero concluded, “is clearly not the case in Syria.” The conclusions and observations of the report found that crimes against humanity and gross acts of violence had been committed by the Syrian armed forces and there existed an urgent humanitarian situation. Also, the report led to the conclusion that “arming the opposition will lead to a full fledged civil war,” and thus a military option is not an option. The report recommended a backing of Annan’s mission and, a negotiated settlement that includes the government of Syria and all of the opposition.
Karen AbuZayd discussed the refugee situation, first pointing out that Syria is no stranger to refugees. Syria, said AbuZayd, hosts approximately 1 million Iraqis and 450,000 Palestinians, in addition to those now displaced due to the violence. Socioeconomic conditions have greatly deteriorated for the Syrian people as the Syrian economy spirals downward. The refugee situation places great stress upon the neighbors of the region, noting Lebanon especially, who has preferred to refer to the influx of Syrians as “guests.” AbuZayd mentioned a mission of government forces, the Organization of Islamic Governance, and American constituencies that are to visit Idlib in the new future. She stressed the need to remember that there are many groups still “working more or less normally “throughout Syria, still bringing supplies into the country and that there is a need to consult with these agencies on how best to receive/deliver assistance. A surge of refugees into Turkey occurred recently as a result of the tightening grip of Assad’s effort to put down the rebellion. Refugees are truly becoming refugees, as they have nothing to go back to and thus “are in no hurry to head back.”
Yakin Erturk discussed the methodology employed by the Commission in writing the report and researching. While no visits were made to Syria, over 200 interviews were made with Syrians from all walks of life, witnesses, victims, and army defectors. The doctrines of reasonable doubt and verifiable evidence in order to process the human rights situation in the context of international human rights law. All reports cited were first-hand, stressing that the Commission did not rely on international organization such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International’s findings. The first report, according to Erturk, found that serious human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, had been committed. The second phase of the report identified those responsible for the violations by charting the chain of command, and the involvement of any non-state armed groups or organizations. The second report revealed recurring names of Syrian officials, and a command structure that can only be made available after a judicial body begins to investigate the matter, whereby the reports will serve as background information in the prosecution. Erturk mentioned that international bodies might only be utilized if it is determined that state mechanism is deemed incapable of bringing justice.
The panel opened up the subject to questions beginning with an inquiry from moderator Tom Piccone concerning any internal developments within the regime that show signs of accepting a dialogue and the next steps that international community could take to back up the proposed dialogue. Paulo Pinhiero responded that the report recommends such a dialogue, one that mirrors Anna’s proposal. He called the idea of an international solution to the conflict an illusion. He said that a lot of time has been wasted “looking at Syria and thinking about Libya.” “Intervention will not happen. It would be a disaster. The military option is not on the table with Syria,” said Pinhiero. Thus, according to Pinhiero, the only option is negotiation. The worst-case scenario is a standoff between Russia/China camps and GCC supporting the opposition. Karen AbuZayd noted that the Syrian government has stated that they are currently investigating 4700 cases of abuses committed by their own forces. Erturk added that the ICC should be a last a resort.
The next question concerned the ramifications of the precarious human rights situation could have on the “neighborhood” AbuZayd responded that the trends in neighboring countries are greatly understudies, and urged that international assistance will be necessary if the situation persists. Erutrk discussed Turkey, saying that Turkey has been divided on the issue. As refugees spill into Turkey, Sunni Syrians are mixing with Alawite Turks, so far with no hostility.
In the final series of questions, members of the audience inquired as to how a dialogue can take place with a government that has committed crimes against humanity, while in denial that violence is occurring. Pinhiero clarified that the chain of command remained intact, regardless of motivation, which very well could be fear. He explained that working in “a framework of contradictions” is the nature of humanitarian work, and thus a dialogue is necessary. Quite simply, said Pinhiero, the FSA and the opposition do not have the power to defeat the groups and it would be a struggle to balance the power with training and support from abroad. It was noted by the panel that not a single state contested the mandate of the commission to recommend a dialogue, and the panel concluded warning of underestimating the complexity of the conflict, especially of the elements that “don’t vest themselves visibly.”