Human rights in Syria

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The situation for human rights in Syria is considered exceptionally poor among international observers.[1][2] A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.[2]

From 1973–2012, Syria was a single-party state. The authorities have been accused of harassing and imprisoning human rights activists and other critics of the government.[3] Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are strictly controlled.[2][3] Women and ethnic minorities face discrimination.[2][3] According to Human Rights Watch, President Bashar al-Assad failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the first 10 years of his rule,[4] and Syria's human rights situation remained among the worst in the world.[5] According to Amnesty International, the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on "witness accounts of deaths in custody, [6][7] torture and arbitrary detention," during the crackdown against the 2011 uprising.[8]


French rule (1920–1946)

Three Syrian rebels hanged in Marjeh Square during Syrian Revolt of 1925–1927

From the early 1920s until 1946, Syria and Lebanon were under the control of a French Mandate, officially ratified by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923.[9] Human rights concerns during this period included the colonialist treatment of the Druze within their autonomous state in the southern portion of the mandate, as prisoners and peasants there were often used for forced labor.[10]

During the Great Syrian Revolt, French military forces sieged much of Damascus and the countryside,[11] killing at least 6,000 rebels and displacing over 100,000 civilians. Authorities would publicly display mutilated corpses in central squares within Damascus and villages throughout Syria as a means of intimidating opponents of the government.[12] In 1926, the Damascus military court executed 355 Syrians without any legal representation.[13] Hundreds of Syrians were sentenced to death in absentia, prison terms of various lengths, and life imprisonment with hard labor.

Additionally, it was during this period that Syrian Women's Rights groups began to assert themselves, led by individuals like Naziq al-Abid.

Ba'athist Rule

In 1982, President Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 55,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly during what became known as the Hama massacre.[14][15]

Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.[2]

For several years, the "watchdog organization" Freedom House has rated political rights in Syria as "7" — the "least free" rating on its scale of 1 to 7 — and given Syria a rating of "Not Free."[16]

According to the 2008 report on human rights by the U.S. State Department, the Syrian government's "respect for human rights worsened". Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in "lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention", and "tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees". The government imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption.[17] According to Arab Press Network, "despite a generally repressive political climate", there were "signs of positive change," during the 2007 elections.[18] According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, "Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison."[19]

In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties.[20] According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had "deteriorated further". Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parties were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.[1]

Judicial process

Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party.[3] Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned.[3] Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities.[3] The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria.[3] In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees.[2] Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.[2][3][21]

Political prisoners

Demonstration in Montreal in solidarity with the people of Syria. The sign reads: "Stop torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners in Syria!"

Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were:

Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.[14]

In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of "thousands" of political prisoners in Syria, "many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party." According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.[23]

August 2016, Amnesty International released a report tackling the issue of torture and ill-treatment in Syrian government prisons which amount to crimes against humanity. Since the crisis began in March 2011, the international organization estimated that 17,723 people have died in custody in Syria – an average rate of more than 300 deaths each month. According to the report, governmental forces have used torture to scare the opponents. But today, they use it as a part of systematic attack against opposition members. According to testimonies of some survivors, detainees were subjected to numerous kind of torture aiming at dehumanizing them, and in many cases killing them. Amnesty international said that those, who are responsible for these atrocities, must be brought to justice.[24]

Freedom of religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion.[25] However, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law,[26] is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State's "International Religious Freedom Report 2007", the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.[27] There is some concern among religious minorities that democratic reforms will result in oppression of religious minorities by Islamist movements that are now repressed.[28]

LGBT rights

Main article: LGBT rights in Syria

Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. "carnal relations against the order of nature", and provides for up to three-years imprisonment.[29]

In 2010 the Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.[30]

Freedom of movement

Syrians can not leave the country without an "exit visa" granted by the authorities.[14][31]

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides for the human right of Freedom of Movement as such “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.”[32]

Despite this universal human right travel within Syria is discouraged, by the government and the rebels, and Extremist groups and the government have imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement on the people of Syria. Bans have been said to have increased significantly since 2006, though exact statistics are hard to come by as secret security agencies are commonly the ones issuing the bans.

The Syrian Constitution, in Article 38(3), allows freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws of public health and safety.”[33] From 2011 to 2015, the last four years of the Syrian war, the freedom of movement has been most widely restricted in certain areas and on certain individuals. Restrictions vary between regions, partly because of continuous fighting in certain areas. In rebel held areas there are severe restrictions on the movement of government supporters (or people thought to be government supporters). Foreign diplomats are unable to visit a majority of Syria, and are often not allowed outside of Damascus (Syrian capital).

In the areas of Jindires in Afrin, and Ras al Ayn, curfews where executed in 2012 and 2013 extremist groups put in place a curfew of 5pm, after which nobody could be seen in public. Then in December 2014 a travel ban was announced on Syrian men aged 18 to 42 (military age). The memorandum supposedly states that all Syrian males must have special permission to leave the country, obtained from army officials.[34]

An example of an individual travel ban is Louay Hussein, president of an opposition group in Syria (Building the Syrian State, or the BSS party), was unable to attend peace talks in Moscow in April 2015 because the regime refused to rid of his lifelong travel ban, however on the 26th April 2015 Hussein managed to evade his ban and flee to Spain.[35] Also Syrian human rights defenders are having their movement restrained by being held in arbitrary arrest. The human rights defenders Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zitani, and Hussein Gharir were arrested in February 2012 for ‘publicizing terrorist acts’. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly called for their release.[36]

Al-Furat University in the city of Deir ez-Zor has been facing movement restrictions by ISIS recently. In January 2015 circulars were issued to ISIS checkpoints in the area to scrutinize all university students passing. To encourage students to abandon their studies and join the ranks of ISIS, the rebels have been restricting the students from travelling between regime areas and ISIS held areas, preventing many students from entering or exiting the university grounds.[37]

Further from this there are certain restrictions on movement placed on Women, for example Syrian law now allows males to place restrictions on certain female relatives. Women over the age of 18 are entitled to travel outside of Syria, however a woman’s husband may file a request for his wife to be banned from leaving the country. From July 2013, in certain villages in Syria (namely Mosul, Raqqu and Deir el-Zour), ISIS no longer allow women to appear in public alone, they must be accompanied by a male relative/guardian known as a mahram.[38] Security checkpoints in civilian areas set up by the government and by ISIS have allowed them to monitor these restrictions. With the males of Syria often being involved in the fighting, no matter which side, this is leaving many Syrian women at home alone with the children, stranded and unable to leave to purchase food and supplies. Further, women in Tel Abyad and Idlib city have been banned from driving by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nursa.

Other countries have begun closing their borders to Syrian refugees. On October 7, 2013, Turkey built a two-meter wall on the Syrian border in the Nusaybin district where there was frequent fighting with the rebels. Then on March 9 Turkey closed a further two of its border crossings from Syria, Oncupinar and Cilvegozu, in response to the escalating violence and worries of a terrorist plot. Up until this date Turkey had accepted nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. Aid trucks are still welcome to cross the border, but it is strictly closed to individuals.[39]

The Syrian government continues its practice of issuing exit visas with strict requirements. They have also closed the Damascus airport frequently because of growing violence. Bans on travel are frequently used against human rights activists and their associates, often these people would not learn about their travel ban until they were prevented leaving the country. Usually no explanations are given for these travel restrictions. The government often bans members of the opposition and their families from travelling abroad, and they are targeted if they attempt to, causing opposition families to fear attempting to leave Syria for fear of being attacked at the airport or border crossing. Though this action is illegal under international law, Syrian courts have been known to decline to interfere in matters of national security.

Article 38(1) provides that “no citizen may be deported from the country, or prevented from returning to it”.[33] This, along with Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights creates a general legal right to travel internationally. As well as preventing citizens from leaving Syria, there have also been many instances of citizens being prevent from returning to Syria, whether they left illegally or not. A positive step in regards to this was taken on the 28th April 2015, when it was announced by Syrian authorities that citizens who had previously fled the war would be able to re-attain passports without a review by the intelligence service, or going though the Department of emigration and passports. These citizens had fled the country illegally and either not taken their passports, or lost them.[40]

Freedom of speech and the media

The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba'ath Party continues to maintain control of the press.[41] Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried.[4] In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.[42]

Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums.[43] Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked from 2008 to 2011.[44] Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009.[45] Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders' Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.[46]

In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens "for expressing their opinions or reporting information online." Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state's ambiguous grounds for arrest.[45][47]

The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.[41]

Syrian civil war

During the Syrian civil war, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being "gross violations of human rights".[48] The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two.[49] In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in the region. While Human Rights Watch doesn't rank offenders, many have characterized Syria's human rights report as among the worst in the world in 2010.[5]

While it is claimed that 'the majority of these violations have been committed by the Syrian government's forces',[50] Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that each side appeared to have committed war crimes.[51]

Human rights in ISIL-controlled territory

The state of human rights in territories controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has been criticised by many political, religious and other organisations and individuals. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has stated that ISIL "seeks to subjugate civilians under its control and dominate every aspect of their lives through terror, indoctrination, and the provision of services to those who obey".[52]

Human rights in Rojava

Kurds in Syria form the country's largest ethnic minority, traditionally inhabiting the northern region of Rojava. They were subject to multiple forms of discrimination and persecution unter the Baathist governments of Syria. In his report for the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council titled Persecution and Discrimination against Kurdish Citizens in Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held:[53]

Successive Syrian governments continued to adopt a policy of ethnic discrimination and national persecution against Kurds, completely depriving them of their national, democratic and human rights — an integral part of human existence. The government imposed ethnically-based programs, regulations and exclusionary measures on various aspects of Kurds’ lives — political, economic, social and cultural.

Measures against Kurds included depriving ethnic Kurdish citizens of their citizenship; suppressing Kurdish language and culture; discrimination against citizens based on Kurdish ethnicity; confiscation of Kurdish land and settlement by Arabs.[53][54][55]

In the course of the Syrian Civil War, the Rojava region gained de facto autonomy and under the political philosophy of Democratic Confederalism formed the polyethnic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, consisting of several autonomous cantons.

In a report "'We Had Nowhere Else to Go': Forced Displacement and Demolition in Northern Syria,” Amnesty International documented allegations of forced evictions of Arabs and Turkmens and the destruction of their homes. The report said that “in some cases, entire villages have been demolished”, and that villagers were "ordered to leave at gunpoint, their livestock shot at". Some persons claimed to Amnesty that “they told us we had to leave or they would tell the US coalition that we were terrorists and their planes would hit us and our families. Threats by the YPG of calling in US airstrikes against villagers were reported. Amnesty International concluded that “these instances of forced displacement constitute war crimes.” [56][57][58][59] Arabs and Turkmen claimed that YPG militias have stolen their homes and livestock, burned their personal documents and claimed the land as theirs, and that Turkmen “are losing lands where they have been living for centuries.”[60]

Human rights accomplishments in Rojava

According to the 2014 Constitution of Rojava,[61][62][63][64] the administration of the de facto autonomous region is committed to international law regarding human rights, explicitly incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other internationally recognized human rights conventions. It is extraordinary for the Middle East in its explicit affirmation of minority rights and gender equality and a form of direct democracy known as Democratic Confederalism. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which limits the concept of human rights and to which Syria is a signatory state, does not apply in Rojava. In July 2016, a draft for an updated constitution was presented, taking up the general progressive and democratic confereralist principles of the 2014 constitution, mentioning all ethnic groups living in Rojava, addressing their cultural, political and linguistic rights.[65]

The civil laws of Syria are valid in Rojava, as far as they do not conflict with the Constitution of Rojava. One notable example for amendment is the family law, where Rojava proclaims absolute equality of women under the law and a ban on polygamy.[66] There is affirmative action to give power to minority groups and ethnicities as a guiding principle. A new criminal justice approach has been implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution.[67] Prisons are operated by TEV-DEM, housing mostly those charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups.[68] The death penalty has been abolished.[69]

While under the regime of the Ba'ath Party school education consisted of only Arabic language public schools, supplemented by Assyrian private confessional schools,[70] the Rojava administration in 2015 (leaving the private schools untouched) introduced for public schools primary education in native language either Kurdish or Arabic and secondary education mandatory bilingual in Kurdish and Arabic for public schools (with English as a third language).[71][72][73]

Human rights issues in Rojava

Rojava has pursued a policy of open access to international media as well as international human rights organisations. Human Rights Watch after a visit in early 2014 reported "arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances" and made recommendations for government improvement.[74] The report documented the alleged cases of "arbitrary arrests" and "unfair trials" that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution in 2012.[75] Rojava officials claimed that the few proven instances of misconduct were isolated incidents and not tolerated.[74] In a separate report, Amnesty International criticised arbitrary long term detainment followed by unfair trials lasting minutes with no lawyers for the defendants accused of involvement with ISIL.[76] However, Fred Abrahams, special advisor to HRW who visited Rojava and drafted the report, noted that the Rojava institutions have taken solid steps to addressing the problems and had been receptive to criticism. He notes that they were currently in the process of political transitioning from the Syrian government, training a new police force and creating a new legal system.[77]

During the Syrian Civil War, the People's Protection Units (YPG), the largest of Rojava's self-defence militias under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, were accused of crimes against Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities. The allegations include kidnappings of suspected persons,[74] torture,[74][75] ethnic cleansing,[78][79] and expulsion.[74] In an October 2015 report, Amnesty International alleged cases of forced displacement, demolition of homes, and the seizure and destruction of property.[80][81] According to Amnesty International, some displaced people said that the YPG has targeted their villages on the pretext of supporting ISIS; some villagers revealed the existence of a small minority that might have sympathized with the group.[81][82] The YPG dismissed the charges.[82][83][84][85] A Syrian National Council (SNC) member who headed a delegation from the SNC to investigate allegations about the displacement of Arab civilians, said there was no evidence of Arabs or Turkmen having been displaced.[86] In an interview by Society for Threatened Peoples with the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdulrahman said that all "ethnic cleansing" allegations against YPG were nonsense. He also explained that these allegations were propaganda of Turkish and Syrian National Congress origin, because of their hostility towards Kurds.[87] In response to allegations of human rights violation from within its ranks, the YPG in fall 2015 asked for and received human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations for its forces.[88]

See also

References and footnotes

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    See also Freedom in the World 2006, List of indices of freedom
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