The Human Rights Issue in Syria… An Interview with Fadel Abdul Ghany

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As the month of August dawns, it brings back traumatic memories for the Syrian people, who recall two of the horrific massacres committed by the Assad regime on the outskirts of the capital; one of these was inflicted through the regime’s bombing of the Eastern Ghouta and Mu’adamiya city in the western suburbs with chemical weapons in 2013, fatally asphyxiating more than 1,500 people were in the most horrific way; the other was the August 2012 massacre in Daraya city, in which Assad’s forces and shabiha used light and bladed weapons to slaughter more than 700 people after storming the city. Year after year, the question of why there has been no justice for these unspeakable crimes continues to blaze in the minds of the survivors and all the victims’ families.

Some Syrian organizations, including the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), continue working tirelessly to bring the Assad regime to justice legally and through recording crimes against human rights, documenting the violations the regime has committed for 11 years, and presenting this evidence to international bodies and the media.

In this interview, we host Mr. Fadel Abdul Ghany, the Syrian human rights defender and the director of SNHR, the most prominent Syrian human rights organization, discussing with him the prospects for the Syrian justice file and his organization’s efforts to prosecute the perpetrators and bring justice for the victims.

In June of 2011, Fadel Abdul Ghany founded the SNHR, which is concerned with documenting, analyzing, and issuing periodic reports on patterns of human rights violations in Syria. The SNHR has since established many partnerships with several United Nations bodies and international organizations, including Amnesty International (AI) and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in addition to being a primary source for a number of foreign ministries around the world and a wide range of international media.

 

During the period of the revolution, the month of August witnessed some of the most horrific massacres, the best known of which were the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta and the Daraya massacre in Western Ghouta. Is there an integrated file you are working on to document those massacres?

We have tried to document as many massacres as possible, which is the SNHR’s main task, as this work differs from that of the international institutions and organizations that work on one or more incidents. As for the SNHR, since we are a national organization that seeks to monitor events on a daily basis and have documented hundreds of massacres in Syria, our documentation has not been limited to major massacres, but we also work on documenting smaller incidents, starting with attacks that kill five people or more with regard to massacres, in addition to documenting other violations.

 

We’ve published reports on dozens of massacres, which account for only a small part of the information we have, but due to the lack of logistical capacity, we haven’t published reports on all massacres, while we’ve gathered evidence on the largest massacres, documented them, and issued bulletins on them. Most of these massacres are documented on the basis of the date, numbers of victims, and the geographical area in which they occurred, along with collecting the available visual materials in addition to other details. Thus, we can provide a picture of what took place that helps in compensation later, which is supposed to start (if it starts) from the worst affected areas.

 

We also have a great responsibility to document the violations of other parties, such as the opposition forces and the Kurdish forces, because they originally came out against the brutal regime that committed various violations against the people, and it was hoped that these parties would not violate human rights. However, we at the SNHR distinguish between the parties, because It is misleading to say that all parties committed violations, and stop at that; this formula is demagogic rhetoric.

The parties are not equal in terms of committing violations, as by far the greatest part of all the violations committed have been perpetrated by the main culprit, the Syrian regime, which remained for a long time at the beginning the sole perpetrator of violations, while there were no factions or military formations. In addition to this point, the regime also used the massive power of its military and security forces to commit violations and massacres.

This does not mean failing to condemn the transgressions of the other parties, as each violation is condemned in itself, but we must put things in perspective and shed light on the root of the problem.

 

You talked about publishing reports, how often are they issued?

For 10 years, we have issued a daily death toll of victims and a record of violations such as arrests and abductions, in addition to issuing monthly reports on what is happening in the country, and then we follow that with a comprehensive annual report showing statistics on violations and victims, while in March of each year, we issue a comprehensive report on the previous years starting from 2011.

In conjunction with the foregoing, there are reports issued in real time, addressing other types of violations that document individual cases or the bombing of hospitals and schools or forced displacement, or even the issue of barrel bombs.

 

What about the chemical massacres?

Chemical weapons are prohibited internationally, and the Syrian regime is the only state party that used this weapon since the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1996. We did not expect the regime to dare to use it against its own people. We have issued more than 40 reports on the regime’s use of chemical weapons.

We documented the chemical attacks according to the governorates in which they were used, the number of times they were used, the number of casualties resulting, the type of munitions in which they were contained, and the party that carried out the attack.

It should be noted that the Syrian regime and ISIS are the only parties that carried out chemical weapons attacks (222 attacks in total), as the regime used this weapon 217 times while ISIS used it 5 times. We are in the process of issuing permanent reports on these cases and commenting on statements from international organizations concerned with this issue.

We also draw the attention of the international community on every anniversary of the major chemical weapons massacres that took place, such as the massacres of Eastern Ghouta and Khan Sheikhoun. It must be noted here that although chemical weapons did not kill the largest number of Syrians, this is a weapon of particular fear and terrorism because it kills by suffocating all people without age discrimination. Moreover, it is a prohibited weapon under three Security Council resolutions.

Chemical weapons are weapons of mass destruction. For example, in Iraq, there was simply suspicion of possession of weapons of mass destruction and their manufacture by Saddam Hussein’s regime, at that time, the international community intervened without referring to the Security Council. In Syria, it has been proven by conclusive evidence from international organizations that the Assad regime used these weapons against its people repeatedly, but we did not see any deterrence against the Syrian regime to hold it accountable for this.

 

Is there a human rights movement against the perpetrators of those massacres in international forums? Why is the prosecution mostly limited to lower-ranking soldiers and military individuals? Why don’t the trials extend to major influential figures such as Bashar al Assad, his family, and his assistants?

In our reports, we name the individuals involved in these massacres to expose them, while we target individuals because it is a form of accountability, and we have also published reports on the most prominent officers and those responsible for the crimes.

As for the second part of the question, this is because these trials hold accountable those who are in the territories of the countries where these legal procedures are established, while the senior officials reside in Syria and do not travel to those countries; accountability requires arrest and trial until a court ruling is issued against the defendants.

 

Where has the issue of trials taking place in Europe against the perpetrators of war crimes reached, and is it possible to build on them in larger actions later on, or is the matter more complicated?

No, it is not complicated. People have the right to understand what is going on, but there is a basic reason behind this matter, which is that some of those who worked in these trials pushed their followers to believe that great and numerous results are expected from them; however, their fundamental objective is simply to lay a small stepping stone along the path of justice. If the workers in this field make clear to the people what the real expected results are, then there will be fewer questions and less waiting for major results.

Of course, we do not say that these trials are not important, are not a form of accountability, or will not contribute to exposing the regime, but such talk has a limited ceiling in the sense that this path will not reach the Syrian regime’s officers and senior officials, nor will it stop torture in prisons, nor will it prevent the regime from using internationally prohibited weapons. We need a balanced discourse in order not to dash the hopes of Syrians who are waiting for their rights to be met.

Institutions must be honest, transparent, and frank, and matters should not be exaggerated by those working on certain issues. We as organizations do not have great power, but we are doing as much as possible on the path of justice.

 

Syrian activists talk about the trials taking place in Europe as “selective justice”, how do you see the situation?

There is some truth in this response; yes, it is selective because not all major criminals are in countries that have jurisdiction, and they really select those on their soil, and it depends on whether or not there is evidence against these individuals.

These details were not made clear to the Syrian people, which led to distortion and disruption of the process at times. Let us be frank, there are some people at the fore who distorted the general meaning of the case, despite its importance, vitality, and the necessity of its continuation. We are talking here about the process of trials and not the human rights field as a whole.

 

Let’s talk about the SNHR – what are the mechanisms you follow? And how do you evaluate your role in presenting the picture to the world about what is happening in Syria?

We need to cooperate with other institutions to integrate because we work on human rights issues and not on criminal issues. This needs concerted efforts with institutions working with the same files in order to build a legal case.

We have also made efforts with our available capabilities, and we hope that we have contributed to conveying the suffering and rights violations against Syrians to the concerned countries and organizations. The SNHR has tried its best, and has become a primary source on the human rights situation in Syria for the U.S. Department of State, the German Foreign Ministry, the French, the UK, Dutch, and Danish Foreign Ministries, as well as for a number of UN bodies.

Several UN agencies rely on the SNHR’s data, with the SNHR becoming a primary source for data on the violations documented in Syria for bodies such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (UN-COI); the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (UN-IIIM); the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA); the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) on Grave Violations Against Children in situations of Armed Conflict, led by UNICEF; the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID); and a number of special rapporteurs appointed by the Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

We hope that we have reflected the reality, but have we made a change? This matter is not in our hands. We have tried to describe what we have recorded with as much skill as possible, and we always hope that we will be successful in providing the best for our people and our country, because Syria and the Syrian people deserve effort and sympathy, and they need hundreds of institutions in order to deliver their case and document their suffering.

 

The Syrian people now know the extent of the Russian campaign against Syrian organizations, including the SNHR and the White Helmets, to weaken their credibility. How do you face this ongoing campaign that is trying to weaken you? Is there coordination with other Syrian organizations?

Confronting the Russian campaign is done by sticking to and raising the methodological standards and steadily proceeding on this path, so as to avoid any defect in the documentation of the incidents that we are working on. Russia cannot refute or falsify any incident that we have recorded and documented, since we are not politicians and we do not come up with random statistics; to this day, Russia has not been able to contradict what we have published, and this is the source of our strength.

The Russian media outlets describe the SNHR as being supported by the West and biased! They can say whatever they want without providing any proof. We are not interested in responding to everyone who accuses us and addresses us. We respond through our work and accept professional criticism, and we have the courage to apologize for mistakes if any.

We also have communication with other Syrian organizations for coordination, and there are continuous meetings with the Civil Defense organization, the ‘White Helmets’, and there is also coordination between us, in addition to partnership and cooperation for years. At the same time, we have memoranda of understanding with several local and international organizations.

 

There is always a recurring question, is there any point in human rights work? Especially since the days are passing and there has been no breakthrough on the human rights level against the regime?

We are doing what we have to do, but the change is not in our hands, but in the hands of the politicians, and we hold them responsible. Our task is to say that we [the Syrian people] are not doing well, we are still being bombed and displaced, and the regime is still in place. As for achieving change, this is out of our control, but we seek to attain protection for civilians. If these needs are not fulfilled, this does not mean that the basis is not correct, but there is a certain ceiling as a result of the complexities of the international situation.

 

What is the importance of human rights work in light of countries’ drawing back from looking at the Syrian issue as a hot crisis, and dealing with the Assad regime as a fait accompli, regardless of everything that happened?

For this, the human rights issue must be prioritized and we must not despair. We will certainly not allow them to restore their relationship with the regime. As for dealing with the Syrian regime, it has become a fait accompli. It is a phrase that came out from the regime itself to promote, and some are now adopting this phrase.

 

Do you think that your human rights work and exposing Bashar al Assad’s violations are capable of limiting normalization with his regime?

Yes, I think they are to a large extent. The human rights movement succeeded in certain areas in playing this role. As a result, many countries that were far from the Syrian issue and voted for the regime in international forums, have changed their positions after learning about the extent of violations committed by the regime.

It must be noted that the countries that support the regime are basically dictatorships, whose numbers do not exceed 10, in addition to being on the lowest scale in terms of human rights, such as Russia and China, which normally support Assad.

The original article was published on the Noon Post website.