[Below is the latest from the United Nations Human Rights Council on Syria.]
Advanced Unedited Version
Report of the Fact-Findng Mission on Syria pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-16/1
1. The Fact-Finding Mission for Syria (“Mission”) was established pursuant to Resolution A/HRC/RES/S-16/1 adopted by the Human Rights Council (“Council”) on 29 April 2011.1 A special session of the Council was convened in light of widespread anti-government protests in Syria and the grave deterioration of the human rights situation.
2. The Human Rights Council resolution called on the Syrian Government to cooperate fully with the Mission, including by granting access to its staff. It also condemned “the use of lethal violence against peaceful protestors by the Syrian authorities” and urged, inter alia, that no reprisals be taken against those taking part in demonstrations, and that the Syrian Government “launch a credible and impartial investigation” and prosecute those responsible for attacks on peaceful protestors.
3. The Council requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) “to dispatch urgently a mission to the Syrian Arab Republic to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law and to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring full accountability”.
4. The High Commissioner for Human Rights (“High Commissioner”) was requested to provide a preliminary report and an oral update on the situation in Syria at the Council’s seventeenth session, which took place on 15 June 2011.2 She was also asked to submit a follow-up report to the Council at its eighteenth session and, during that session, to organize an interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Syria. The present report, covering events which began on 15 March 2011, is submitted in response to this request.
5. Following the Council’s special session, the High Commissioner established a Mission consisting of thirteen members and headed by the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Kyung-wha Kang.3 The Mission began its work on 23 May 2011.
2. Dialogue with the Syrian Government
6. Through a Note Verbale dated 6 May 2011, the High Commissioner formally requested the Syrian Government’s cooperation with the Mission. Having received no response from the Syrian Government on this matter, the High Commissioner reiterated her request for access to the country by a Note Verbale on 20 May 2011, in a meeting with the Syrian Government’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva on 7 June 2011, and by a letter to the Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar on 15 July 2011.
7. At the time of writing, the Syrian Government had not responded to our requests for access. OHCHR received five Note Verbales from the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations Office in Geneva, the contents of which are referred to in this report where relevant. On 5 August OHCHR received a letter from the Syrian Government in response to its letter to Prime Minister Safar. On 16 August, the Permanent Mission of Syria addressed a Note Verbale to the High Commissioner which has also been reflected in the present report where appropriate.
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C. Legal Framework
1. International human rights law
14. Syria is party to most of the core international human rights treaties, and has made international voluntary pledges, including to ‘continue working to raise promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Four of the international instruments ratified by Syria and which apply to the events described in this report are particularly relevant: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Syria is not a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, although it is bound by the provisions of the ICCPR which also prohibit enforced disappearances.
2. International criminal law
15. Syria signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court on 29 November 2000, but it has not ratified it as yet. The Rome Statute establishes four categories of international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression. In the present context, crimes against humanity are particularly relevant to the events in Syria since mid-March 2011, in particular provisions referring to murder, torture, enforced disappearances, persecution, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty, and other inhumane acts. Despite non-ratification, Syria is still obliged to refrain from acts that would ‘defeat the objects and purpose of [the] treaty’ according to the Vienna Convention, acceded to by Syria in 1970.
3. Domestic law
16. While the 1973 Constitution sets out basic freedoms that reflect international standards, Syrian domestic law cannot be adequately relied on because it violates constitutional guarantees and encourages impunity on two fronts:
17. First, the Penal Code13 sets out various crimes which are broadly defined and may result in the violation of freedom of expression and association, among others. These include ‘spreading false or exaggerated information with the aim of harming the state’, ‘publishing mendacious information liable to weaken the nation’s moral’, and ‘belonging to a secret society that aims to change the State’s political and social structure’. While the Code of Criminal Procedure required suspects to be brought before a judicial authority within 24 hours of arrest or released, on 21 April 2011 it was amended to allow for suspects to be held for up to seven days pending investigation and the interrogation of suspects for certain crimes, renewable for up to a maximum of 60 days.
18. Moreover, the State of Emergency Law (SEL) provided for the detention of suspects for crimes which are not defined either by this or other laws, including ‘crimes committed against the state security and public order’ and ‘crimes committed against public authorities’. The SEL enabled government agencies to ‘monitor all types of letters, phone calls, newspapers....and all forms of expression,’ ‘impose restrictions on the freedom of persons...[to hold] meetings’, ‘evacuate or isolate some areas’ and ‘seize any property or real estate’. It also enabled the security forces to hold suspects in preventive detention without judicial oversight for indefinite periods. It should be noted in this respect that on 21 April 2011 the Syrian authorities lifted the SEL and abolished the Supreme State Security Court, but the law itself remains in force.
19. Secondly, the security and intelligence agencies, responsible for reported atrocities committed over time and particularly since March 2011, continue to enjoy immunity from prosecution under laws which remain in force under Legislative Decrees 14/1969, and 69/2008.
D. Context of the protests in Syria: political and human rights background
20. The Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic confers to the executive authorities sweeping powers which cannot be challenged effectively by the legislature and the judiciary. The President of the Republic selects and dismisses ministers and the Prime Minister; appoints Supreme Court justices; higher civil servants, security and intelligence personnel; dissolves at will the unicameral People’s Assembly (parliament); and enjoys parallel legislative privileges allowing him to bypass parliament. The executive authorities control most other institutions including schools, universities, social and health services, student and trade unions, professional organizations and the media. Even though the Constitution reflects the predominance of some Ba’athist military and security officers and their families, members of the ruling group frequently sideline formal hierarchies through informal chains of command. The presidential family and most of the officers belong to the ‘Alawite minority which, prior to urbanization, was concentrated in the north west of the country.
21. Since the 1990s in particular, the Government entered into an alliance of sorts with businesses that were among the principal beneficiaries of economic reforms which emphasized private sector growth. Economic liberalization and growth led to a growing gap between rich and poor despite the rhetoric about a ‘social market economy’. This was compounded by cuts in social services and subsidies, several severe droughts, the rise in global food prices, and the negative effects of the recent global financial crisis on remittances received from Syrians working abroad. Structural shortcomings of the economy were never seriously addressed by the Government.
22. For over four decades, the situation in Syria has been characterized by gross human rights violations under the cloak of emergency legislation in force since 1963. Syrians suffered arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions, prolonged detention without trial or after unfair trials before exceptional or military courts, torture and ill-treatment resulting in deaths in custody, forced disappearances and summary executions. The rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly have been systematically violated. The brutality of the country’s security forces is notorious, and a number of the security and intelligence agencies act as independent entities and remain involved in matters beyond their official functions. They enjoy immunity from prosecution by law.
23. Upon succeeding his father as president in July 2000, hopes were raised that a series of reforms outlined in Bashar al-Assad’s inaugural speech may result in greater political freedoms and civil rights. Debate on possible reforms was tolerated to a limited extent, but this was short-lived and the crackdown on political and human rights activists resumed. Promised reforms did not materialise over the next decade. A number of these proposals were resurrected after the protests which erupted in March 2011 galvanised anti-government sentiment nationally and developed into a significant threat to the state.
24. Economic grievances were particularly strong in traditionally poor areas including north-eastern and border areas such as Dar’a. They also reinforced long standing issues of discrimination and neglect suffered by specific ethnic and religious groups, notably the Kurds who inhabit the north-east and who, until March 2011, were deprived of basic civil, economic and social rights. Sunnis often consider themselves marginalized by rulers who are overwhelmingly ‘Alawites. Various alliances between the rulers and Sunni entrepreneurs and local notables notwithstanding, resentment is all the stronger as Sunnis account for some 70-75 percent of the population compared to some 10 percent of ‘Alawites.
25. Initial protests in Dar’a and elsewhere were local responses to specific abuses of power by Syrian officials against the general backdrop of growing economic and political discontent. The partly successful uprisings in other countries in the Middle East provided inspiration and hope, but the non-participatory and highly repressive nature of the Syrian Government made it that much harder for people to voice their grievances. Syrians still remember the shelling of Hama in 1982 by security forces that led to the killing of an estimated 5-10,000 people. In the absence of legalized opposition parties and independent organizations, discontent was channeled through informal networks and in semi-private contexts. Electronic means of communication and social media also played an important role despite the authorities’ efforts to shut them down. Opposition conferences held in June and July 2011 in Antalya and Istanbul revealed tensions between different groups inside and outside the country. The convening of another conference by key opposition figures in Damascus in late June 2011, tolerated by the authorities, was contested by some of the younger activists within local coordination committees.
26. Over several weeks, cautious protests which began in marginalised regions developed into a countrywide uprising. The generalization of protests and their growing demands - for dignity and reforms and then for the departure of the president – seemed to reflect the failure of a policy combining harsh repression with tardy political concessions.
27. The lifting of the state emergency was immediately followed by the shooting of peaceful protestors, which continued even as the Government-sponsored National Dialogue Conference was held in July 2011, and thus was boycotted by the opposition.
E. Military and security forces implicated in human rights violations since mid-March 2011
28. Both the armed forces and the security forces are involved in the suppression of peaceful protests and related violations across Syria. The civilian police has also been deployed in urban areas for crowd control purposes. In addition, an Alawite civilian militia known as Shabbiha participated in the commission of abuses against civilians. According to multiple accounts obtained by the Mission, foreign fighters were said to have been present and active during operations in several locations.
1. The armed forces
29. The Syrian army’s three corps were all said to have been deployed as support to the security forces in quelling protests since mid-March 2011, and to have participated in attacks on anti-government protests. Witness accounts indicate that the armed forces actively participated in the killing of unarmed civilians, in imposing sieges on cities or towns, and were complicit in the commission of collective punishments.
2. The security forces
30. The agencies identified by the majority of witnesses interviewed by the mission as having played the key role in suppressing peaceful protests since mid-March 2011, are: the General Security Directorate34; the Political Security Branch;35 the Military Intelligence Branch; and the Air Force Intelligence Branch. Security and intelligence agencies are pervasive and are present at all administrative levels of the state. Typically, each agency has a branch in each governorate and a division in each city; some also have units in villages or smaller towns. Many of the victims and witnesses interviewed by the mission identified the heads of the security and intelligence branches in their governorates or cities as having ordered the commission of human rights abuses, including summary executions, arbitrary arrests and torture.
3. The National Police Force
31. The Ministry of Interior’s civil police personnel are divided into several forces, including riot police which was deployed during the quelling of protests and demonstrations. They were often on the front lines, usually equipped with shields and helmets with visors and armed with Kalashnikovs, batons and tear gas canisters. During some of the earlier protests, riot police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds.
4. Civilian militias
32. The Shabbiha participated in operations against civilian protestors led by the security forces. These are members of the Alawite minority in Syria and are closely linked to the ruling al-Assad family, many of them having belonged to the earlier Defence Brigades (Saraya al-Difa’). Numerous victims or witnesses stated that Shabbiha elements took part in the crackdown against unarmed civilians in locations including Dar’a, Damascus, Aleppo, Banias, Jisr al-Shughour and Ma’arrat al- Nu’man, and in widespread looting of homes and commercial property.
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[Click here to download the full UNHRC Fact-Fnding Mission to Syria Report.]