Five human rights priorities should be central to the discussions between the Syrian government and opposition delegations ahead of the opening of the first direct negotiations between the warring parties in Syria. The priorities should be justice, humanitarian aid access, rights-respecting treatment of detainees, security sector reform, and an end to the unlawful use of weapons.
Other parties participating in the Geneva II discussions on Syria should use their influence to encourage the Syrian delegations to take steps that would immediately ease civilian suffering by lifting the siege and banning indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
“The success of the Geneva II meetings will hinge on what they can deliver for Syrians suffering from the brutality of aid blockades, indiscriminate attacks and arbitrary detention and torture,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Any transition plan, if it is to be meaningful and durable, will need justice and respect for human rights at its core.”
Human Rights Watch also called on the delegations and other parties participating in Geneva II to work to ensure that the process is inclusive, and as such that Syrian women are represented and can fully participate in the peace negotiations on Syria and that the gender impact of the conflict is discussed. The effective participation of women and attention to women’s rights issues is a critical element to any effort to end the violence and promote a sustainable peace in Syria, Human Rights Watch said
A number of immediate measures can be taken by the delegations, supported by concerned governments, to support justice. Such measures should include an agreement by the Syrian government to grant unrestricted access for the UN Commission of Inquiry to Syria and for international monitors to detention facilities to conduct credible and impartial human rights investigations.
Negotiating parties should reject proposals to grant immunity to anyone implicated in serious violations. The parties should also make a commitment to review and amend any provision in Syrian law that grants immunity to security forces and to broader reforms to equip the country’s justice system to address serious crimes alongside other judicial mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court.
Broader truth-telling mechanisms, reparations, and vetting to bar rights abusers from official positions will also be needed as part of the process, Human Rights Watch said. In particular, in addition to criminal justice commitments, any agreement should include a commitment by the negotiating parties to a national commission with a mandate to reveal the fate of the disappeared and to investigate torture, executions, and other major human rights violations.
“Syria’s conflict began as a protest against its feared security services and their torture methods,” Houry said. “Syria needs to put an end to those practices, and bring those responsible to justice.”
Security Sector Reform and Release of Detainees
Since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, security forces have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities throughout the country. Those arrested include peaceful protesters and activists involved in organizing, filming, and reporting on protests as well as journalists, humanitarian assistance providers, lawyers, and doctors.
Any transitional plan needs to include a commitment to establish a vetting mechanism for current and potential security officials. Any against whom there is evidence suggesting their involvement in crimes under international law and other serious human rights abuses should be suspended from their positions or prevented from taking up new security positions pending a full investigation. Anyone responsible for international crimes should be prosecuted.
The list of suspended officials should include those identified in the sealed compilation by the UN Commission of Inquiry of names of officials about whom it has preliminary evidence that they may have been involved in grave crimes. Syria’s multiple security agencies should also be required to report to and be accountable to any transitional government. The parties should agree to institutional reforms aimed at ensuring that the human rights violations of the past will not be repeated.
A large number of peaceful protesters, political and humanitarian activists remain in incommunicado detention while others have faced trial, some of them before military and counterterrorism courts, for exercising their rights. Armed opposition groups, mainly in opposition-held territory in northern Syria, have also arbitrarily detained people, including journalists and humanitarian aid workers and activists who have been critical of them.
Any agreement should include a commitment to release political detainees as well as journalists, aid workers and human rights activists in their custody and to grant independent monitors access to their detention facilities, Human Rights Watch said. One effective way to ensure that will happen is to include in the agreement a commitment to set up an independent commission to review cases of those detained, monitor their treatment in detention, and ensure their release. To properly pursue its mission, the commission should be granted access to all detention facilities. The parties should also make a commitment to repeal or reform laws that criminalize legitimate peaceful opposition, including the July 2012 counter-terrorism law, which criminalizes nonviolent activism and opposition to the government.
On October 2, 2013, in a non-binding presidential statement, the UN Security Council called on all parties and “in particular the Syrian authorities” to promptly facilitate safe and unhindered access to those in need “through the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries.” In the ensuing three months, Syrian authorities have carried out a trickle of measures, including addressing a large backlog of visa requests for humanitarian workers. But these have not included key changes such as allowing access into besieged towns or allowing aid in from Turkey to reach those in need in northern Syria, and consequently have had little impact in alleviating the crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Armed opposition groups have also besieged an estimated 40,000 people in two Shi`a towns just north of the city of Aleppo, trapping civilians and restricting their access to aid.
Concerned governments should push both the Syrian and opposition delegations to make a commitment to allow all civilians who wish to leave besieged areas to do so and to allow immediate access for aid to come in. They should also agree to and facilitate safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all those in need by the most effective routes, both across conflict lines and across borders with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The UN Security Council should immediately adopt a resolution requiring these steps.
“We hope the desperation of people facing starvation in besieged towns in Syria will be a clarion call for action in faraway wealthy Geneva,” Houry said. “Breaking down obstacles to delivery of humanitarian aid could save countless lives.”
Unlawful Use of Weapons
Syrian troops have used ballistic missiles, rockets, artillery shells, cluster bombs, incendiary weapons, fuel-air explosives, barrel bombs repeated aerial bombardment, and chemical weapons to indiscriminately attack populated areas in opposition-held territory and sometimes to target functioning bakeries, medical facilities, and schools. Some armed opposition groups have also used car bombs and mortars in indiscriminate attacks.
Any agreement should include a commitment by government forces to immediately stop using inherently indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions and to end indiscriminate attacks on populated areas, including with “barrel bombs” and ballistic missiles. Opposition forces should also agree to end indiscriminate attacks, including with car bombs and mortar strikes, on civilian areas under government control.
In light of the government forces’ widespread and systematic abuses, including the unlawful use of weapons, all international parties to the negotiations should make a commitment to stop transferring weapons, logistical support, and funding to the Syrian government. Parties should also stop providing such support to armed opposition groups that have been found responsible for widespread or systematic human rights violations. Other countries should carry out effective measures to stop the transfer of weapons and support to these groups.