In March 2011, thousands of Syrians took to the streets in the southern city of Daraa. Their cause was just and uncontroversial: to demand the release of 12 to 15 local schoolboys, arrested and tortured by security forces operating in the area. The boys’ sole transgression was graffitiing the Arab Spring slogan “The people want the regime to fall (الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام)”.
The Syrian government’s brutal crackdown against the Daraa protesters would spark a mass popular uprising, and propel the country into a savage and protracted armed conflict that has since claimed half a million lives, led to the displacement of over ten million Syrians, and reduced entire cities to rubble. Those obscure lines of graffiti, the precursors to every revolutionary demand ranging from democratic reform to equal rights for Kurds, have been repaid with ten years of bloodshed and “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II.”
Serious human rights violations and international crimes have characterized the Syrian conflict since the very beginning, with some of the most flagrant patterns including the use of chemical weapons, torture in detention, destruction of schools and hospitals, and collective punishment in the form of siege warfare. In 2018, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) published “I lost my dignity”, a landmark report that revealed widespread sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by all parties to the conflict.
LAW’s Syria Programme
In response to the COI report, LAW initiated an EU-funded programme to empower survivors of gendered human rights violations and international crimes in Syrian-led justice strategies.
There are three interlinked pillars to the programme:
– Identification and empowerment of survivors’ groups and development of survivor-led justice strategies.
– Building the capacity of Syrian lawyers in the region to provide legal information, assistance and representation.
– Implementing tailor-made justice strategies through a survivor-centred approach in conjunction with local Syrian partners.
The programme aims to empower some of the most marginalised survivor communities, linking them into a regional justice network, and providing them with the tools they need to make use of relevant justice mechanisms, and to deliver their justice messaging directly to the most significant actors working on the Syria crisis.
30 August 2020: INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE VICTIMS OF ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCES 2020
Since the outbreak of hostilities in Syria ten years ago, it is estimated that between 100,000-148,000 people have gone missing. Reports suggest that many of those who have gone missing are victims of enforced disappearances perpetrated by all parties to the conflict. The Syrian regime has been one of the most ruthless perpetrators, using enforced disappearances to break the will of the opposition and to terrorise the communities who support it. For thousands of families who have watched their loved ones taken away by military and intelligence personnel, the thought of what happened to them once they entered the regime’s sinister detention system is an open wound.
“Frankly, progress on this file has been vastly insufficient, to the frustration of many Syrians, inside and outside Syria. So many Syrians remain detained, abducted or missing, and so many families still desperately seek information on the fate of their loved ones.” Geir Pederson, UN Special Envoy for Syria.
To mark the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances 2020, LAW partnered with Syrian survivors’ groups Freedom Jasmine to highlight the struggles faced by Syrian families of the missing and detained to maintain hope, discover the truth, and secure justice. LAW and Freedom Jasmine spoke with three brave Syrian women who wanted to speak out about the injustices they have suffered. Their stories emphasise the importance of satisfying families’ desire for truth and justice, both as a foundation for any lasting political settlement in Syria, and to enable an entire generation of Syrian families to find peace.
Listen to the families’ stories below (pseudonyms used):
TRAINING OF SYRIAN LAWYERS
In December 2019, LAW and EFI co-hosted two roundtables on Gender, Violence and Human Rights Violations in Beirut, Lebanon and Gaziantep, Turkey. Over 75 Syrian lawyers and activists operating within the region attended the roundtables. Satter Human Rights Fellow, Terry Flyte, delivered a presentation on violence against women in international human rights law and international humanitarian law, while LAW’s Executive Director, Antonia Mulvey, briefed the participants on a survivor-centred approach to interviewing. Participants said:
“I was inspired by hearing about the stories of the Gambia vs Myanmar case at the ICJ relating to the Rohingya. I thought if it can be done for the Rohingya, then surely it can be done for Syrians.”
“This was an important opportunity to work on a collective action plan for legal change and I was impressed by the bravery of the Syrian lawyers and activists present.”
Based on contributions during the roundtable debate, and subsequent discussions with roundtable participants, LAW identified 22 Syrian lawyers to take forward to the next stage of the capacity-building process.
ONLINE TRAINING ON STATEMENT-TAKING
LAW had planned to conduct intensive training of Syrian lawyers in June 2020. When the global COVID-19 pandemic made an in-person training event impossible, LAW moved quickly to develop an innovative online learning package in conjunction with a highly experience international criminal investigator. The purpose of the training was to upskill lawyers who are already dealing with matters such as domestic violence, modern slavery, torture and sexual abuse, initiating them in the skills required to undertake complex legal casework. Its innovative of some short recorded lectures, visual recordings of mock interviews with children and vulnerable witnesses, and online exercises.
The programme, titled “Statement-Taking for Lawyers”, went live on 15 June 2020, with 22 lawyers participating from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. Upon completion, 100% of lawyers indicated that the training has been useful, with 50% describing it as very useful:
“The training was good and useful … I discovered major mistakes in my previous documentation work. It became clear to me that documentation and interviews require a lot of work, but the results can be great.”
““The three things I found most useful were the focus on the details, the way to comfortably ask questions, and the difference between a statement presented to a court and to a fact-finding statement.”
EMPOWERing SURVIVORS’ GROUPS
During the inception phase of the programme, LAW successfully mapped 38 survivors’ groups in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. A preliminary assessment of justice needs identified the following key priorities for Syrian survivors:
- Access to legal documentation that will allow survivors to lead empowered lives, including civil registration services, obtaining academic records, and assistance with claims related to housing, land and property rights
- Assistance for families of the missing and detained, including assistance with obtaining legal custody of children
- Addressing gendered crimes and human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and including pervasive forms of GBV such as domestic violence and forced and child marriage
- Protection from discrimination and harassment, particularly for vulnerable survivors such as LGBTQI.
LAW has selected six groups, representing some of the most marginalised survivors, to work with in the development of a survivor-led accountability strategy. Together with local partner organisations and a cadre of independent lawyers specifically trained for the purpose, LAW will support survivors in their pursuit of justice through tailored justice strategies.
WEBINAR ON CHILDREN’S RIGHTS IN THE SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC
On 18 June 2020, LAW cohosted the webinar “Gendered crimes and protection of children in Syria” as part of the EU’s Brussels IV Conference, alongside the EU delegation to the UN in Geneva, The Permanent mission of United Kingdom to the UN in Geneva, and the Permanent Representative of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN in Geneva: Qatar. The webinar brought international justice actors and Syrian civil society representatives together to respond to the findings in “They have erased the dreams of my children”, a landmark report by the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on children’s rights in the Syrian Arab Republic. The webinar was attended by over 120 actors working on the Syria crisis, comprising representatives from the international donor community and the humanitarian sector. Panelists included Hanny Megally, member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Michelle Jarvis, the Deputy Head of the International Independent and Impartial Mechanism for Syria, and Maimounna Al-Alammar, child protection specialist for Hurras Network.
LAW’s Executive Director, Antonia Mulvey, briefed the conference on a survivor-centred approach to accountability for the following violations against children including civil registration and access to legal documentation, sexual violence against girls and boys, including sexualised torture and child and forced marriage.
“If anyone is not familiar with the work of LAW they should familiarise themselves, because they are doing fantastic work in many countries throughout the world … They have a lot to say on Syria.”
Carl Hallergard, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva
INTERNATIONAL WIDOW’S DAY 2020
To mark International Widow’s Day on 23 June 2020, LAW launched a major social media campaign in cooperation with Syrian survivors’ group Freedom Jasmine. The campaign aims to highlight the injustices suffered by the widows of the missing and detained in Syria, and to raise awareness of the support services provided by Freedom Jasmine. LAW will assist with increasing access to justice for the widows of the missing and detained through tailor-made justice strategies. The campaign video has since been viewed by over 17,000 people and shared 306 times.
Watch the video below.
“This is the first time we’ve had this kind of reaction on our page. I’m very happy for Freedom Jasmine. It is an honour to have our logo next to LAW’s and I think it’s a very important step for our future work.”
Yasmeen Benshi, CEO Freedom Jasmine