Syrian Human Rights Defenders Losing Hope with International Community as Human Rights Violations Continue Unabated



The stories of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Syria demonstrate some of the terrifying outcomes of the conflict in Syria of the last five years. “Blood has become so normal to see now, and the same way we overcame the scene of blood we need to overcome the challenges to survive and help others survive,” said Mohammad Khoder, a journalist working with Sound and Picture. With widespread insecurity, constant fear, and the normalisation of violence, carrying the responsibilities of providing hope and lobbying for justice during the biggest crisis of our time makes Syrian HRDs’ lives extremely hard and inevitably prone to high risk. But it does not deter their commitment to protect people’s rights from all sides of the conflict.

Lawyers face mayhem in non-existent judicial procedures, journalists face restrictions on telling the truths in a chaotic media sector, and humanitarian workers face difficulties due to the lack of access into areas in dire need. Each region in Syria has its own story and its own escalation of events, and eventually its own controlling faction. Experiences of HRDs vary from region to region based on local context, but they all aim for a minimum level of respect for civilians who have no say in this imposed war and who take no part in the conflict, but who many of them at this stage are trying to survive and work during the conflict. Their collective goal is a set of human rights that were internationally adopted and should be respected nationally even at times of war. Lawyers demand the just treatment of prisoners in detention and document violations to be used in court someday. Journalists lead the exercise of freedom of expression and tell the world what is happening in Syria. Humanitarian workers carry kits and supplies through checkpoints and dangerous roads to make sure fellow Syrians don’t die of starvation, they pull survivors from the rubble of attacks, treat wounded and physically affected population and provide safe passages for those in need for intensive medical care.

The Syrian war is no longer an internal conflict, it now involves international actors with varying political interests, thus increases the risk HRDs face in and outside Syria. With Russia, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, each playing a role, plus others involved in the alliance against the so-called Islamic State (Da’esh), regional geopolitics play a major role in the conflict and HRDs find themselves in limbo with no protection mechanisms or an end to the conflict in sight.

While there was hope for some kind of reconciliation through the United Nations with the initiation of peace talks in February 2016, further setbacks have damaged prospects for UN resolution 2254 (2015) to achieve a lasting settlement. The obstacles are severe, such as: HRDs being targeted by all sides in this ongoing war, including by the Syrian government and armed groups in addition to other stakeholders; reprisals against those who cooperate with international mechanisms including the UN system; and restrictions including judicial harassment in state-controlled areas. Those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity should stand trial, the Syrian opposition is split and has so far been unable to unite a Syrian opposition front that includes all Syrian people, and the presence of Da’esh is aggravating the situation. Despite this context, HRDs continue to sustain efforts to promote human rights.

Recognising the importance of the work of HRDs in the region and specifically in Syria, GCHR has since 2012 documented their work and repeatedly called on all those involved in the conflict in Syria to respect and protect them.

Many of the defenders with which GCHR has worked are in detention, have been disappeared, or are on trial before military and anti-terrorism courts. Despite an overall difficult picture there have been some individual successes. For instance, in 2015 human rights organisations including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) succeeded in their calls to member states of the UN Security Council and elsewhere to help release HRD Mazen Darwish, and his colleagues Hani Al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of [removed]SCM), although the fate of others like Bassel Khartabil remain unknown. Some HRDs remain missing and forcibly disappeared in both government prisons or in detention by armed groups.  Since 2013, human rights defender and lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, head of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC), has been missing, presumed kidnapped by extremist militias with human rights defenders Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wa’el Hamada, who are collectively known as the “Douma Four”.  The same unknown fate applies to lawyer and HRD Khalil Ma’touq, whom former detainees report to have seen in government detention, and since 2012 continues to be held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. Abdulhadi Sheikh Awad, director of the Syrian Democratic Institute, and HRDs Abdalaziz Al-Khayyir, Iyas Ayash, Maher Tahan and many others also remain missing. Some HRDs, according to the citizen group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), have been reportedly caught by Da’esh, tortured and kept in custody or killed for being “opponents of the caliphate.”

These cases and others were the main drive behind GCHR’s documentation mission in late 2015 to meet with Syrian HRDs who provided their own detailed stories and suggestions for what the international community should do. Some keep working despite the hardships, but others are starting to lose hope, and they are in urgent need of support and encouragement. This report highlights three different groups of HRDs the GCHR has identified as being the most targeted in and outside Syrian borders: journalists, lawyers and humanitarian workers. This report provides a general overview of their situation, including their accounts and some recommendations they wish to deliver through this report to the international community.

For the full Annual Report Click above on "Download File". It is also available in Arabic.