Syria's 'progress' on human rights

Largely unnoticed in the midst of other events, it was the turn of Syria to come up for scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council last month, under the periodic review system.

As part of the review process each country has to submit a self-assessment report describing its efforts in the human rights field, and the Assad regime's 26-page submission makes interesing reading. 

It begins with a rant:

"In recent months, the Syrian Arab Republic has been subjected to a series of criminal attacks against the nation and the people by armed terrorist groups ... The groups involved have committed offences against the Syrian people, and acts of theft, murder and vandalism. They have also exploited peaceful demonstrations in order to create anarchy, strike a blow at national unity and destroy the social fabric of the nation ... 

"These terrorist acts have been accompanied by a concerted misinformation campaign that has been waged by Arab and international media. The campaign began with the fabrication of stories about events in the Syrian Arab Republic with advanced visual and communications technology being used to show fake footage, allegedly of events unfolding in the Syrian Arab Republic."

There's plenty more along these lines but I'm sure you've got the general idea.

Despite these developments "and the grief that the nation feels for the victims of terrorism", the submission continues, "the Syrian Government decided to meet its responsibility for preparing its report ..."

"With this report, the Syrian Arab Republic hopes to provide a comprehensive overview of the human rights situation in the country and a clear picture of tangible gains scored, of difficulties encountered and of future goals and aspirations."

Plunging into the report proper, it informs the UN:

"The Syrian Arab Republic is on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and is bounded by Turkey in the north, Iraq in the east, Palestine and Jordan in the south and Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The surface area of the Syrian Arab Republic is 185,180 sq km ..."

The report does in fact talk at some length about "grave violations" of human rights, including "the worst forms of physical and psychological torture", along with violations of economic, cultural and educational rights but in this regard it is referring to the Golan – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

In the rest of Syria, controlled by the benevolent Assad regime, the picture is much better – at least, according to the government's report:

  • "Liberty is a sacred right that is safeguarded by the Constitution and the law" (paragraph 27).

  • "A human rights syllabus is taught in relevant educational establishments – for example, at law faculties for first-year university students" (paragraph 42).

  • "Freedom of expression in the Syrian Arab Republic is protected under the Constitution and the law. The law grants all citizens the right to express their views freely and openly in the spoken or written word or by any other means. Citizens may participate in making constructive criticisms. The exercise of this freedom is subject only to such restrictions as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect for the rights and liberties of others or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or public morals" (paragraph 45).

  • "Legislative Decree No. 50 of 2001 ... grants citizens the right to publish privately-owned newspapers. A total of 175 print media firms have been licensed in the Syrian Arab Republic, together with upwards of 625 publishing houses; they all operate in complete freedom. In addition, media correspondents are issued with work permits and all the Arab and foreign media have opened up offices in the country" (paragraph 46).

  • "The right to peaceful assembly is afforded under the Syrian Constitution ... in accordance with recognised international standards and the practice followed in most countries. The decree states that the right to peaceful protest is afforded to citizens as a fundamental human right ..." (paragraph 51).

It also points out that "the courts are required to engage defence counsel to represent defendants who have committed a serious crime but cannot afford counsel or enlist the services of a lawyer" (paragraph 34). Maybe that's just a Freudian slip, or perhaps the regime really is so generous that it provides suspects with lawyers even when it has already decided they are guilty.

Exactly what the Human Rights Council made of all this remains to be seen, since its conclusions have yet to be posted on the UN website, though apparently it made 179 recommendations, of which 98 were accepted by Syria.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2011