Ten years into the Syrian conflict, the country’s human rights situation continues to worsen. What started as a peaceful movement for democracy and freedom quickly descended into a civil war and proxy war, leading to a protracted conflict and a multitude of human rights abuses. This includes the plight of thousands of detainees and missing persons; the use of torture on an industrial scale by the Syrian government; widespread impunity, even after the use of chemical weapons; and continued war crimes and crimes against humanity by all warring factions. Meanwhile, the situation for women’s and children’s rights has regressed. Syria is now characterised by the absence of basic civil liberties and freedoms.
European governments tried to address the human rights crisis in Syria from an early stage of the conflict, most fundamentally by working to support a political transition away from the Assad regime, which is largely culpable for these abuses. This included the suspension of diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, the deployment of sanctions against violators, and wider political pressure.
Europeans have also funded Syrian human rights organisations that document abuses, as well as UN accountability mechanisms such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Commission of Inquiry and the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism. This support has allowed Syrian organisations to at least record gross violations. This will be key to ensuring that transitional justice instruments can eventually be put in place. Some EU member states, such as Germany, have also backed the use of universal jurisdiction measures to prosecute Syrians accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Netherlands, meanwhile, has referred Syria to the International Court of Justice for violation of the Convention against Torture. These steps are important to give victims hope of justice one day in the future.
Still, while positive, these actions are insufficient. Ultimately, Europeans have lacked the political will to meaningfully enforce the protection of human rights. Their impact has been limited at best and the human rights situation remains dire. Europeans have found themselves marginalised by, and unwilling to respond to, the ruthless policies of the Assad regime and its external backers, Russia and Iran.
European political pressure and sanctions, in particular, have been unable to address the core dynamics feeding human rights abuses. There has been some limited positive impact – for example, two Syrian businessmen divested from the illegal Marota city urban development in order to have their names removed from the sanctions lists and their assets unfrozen. But in general, sanctioned persons and entities have, over the course of the long conflict, perfected evasion techniques, creating opaque webs of legal entities across the globe. More broadly, enforcing sanctions remains difficult, especially where the line blurs between humanitarian and non-humanitarian work. This enables regime cronies to exploit aid for their own gain and results in the further impoverishment of the Syrian people, who bear the burden of some sanctions. Meanwhile, although support for accountability mechanisms is to be welcomed, proper international justice mechanisms cannot be put in place, and accountability will remain incomplete, unless and until Syria is referred to the International Criminal Court.
The regime’s continued use of indiscriminate violence, detention, and torture of Syrians, as well as its sustained deployment of chemical weapons, are the biggest indictments of Europe’s – and the West’s at large – failure to respond to the abuses in Syria. This could encourage dictators elsewhere to use violence, including chemical weapons, to protect their positions in power.
Moving forward, Europeans will need to look for more effective paths to secure progress. For one, this will mean not walking away from the country even as levels of violence decrease. It should also mean rejecting the Russian argument that stability and associated European interests, such as migration and counter-terrorism, can only be pursued by supporting the Assad government. While the regime may have won the military battle, Europeans must remain committed to ensuring that human rights are a core element of their engagement with the country. They need to continue to press Russia, the UN, and other interlocutors to ensure this remains a priority.
Beyond continuing to assist Syrian human rights organisations, as well as UN investigation mechanisms, the European Union and EU member states must do more to leverage the significant humanitarian aid they are already providing to ensure human rights issues are addressed. This will mean not politicising or withholding aid for urgent needs on the ground – these needs must be met. Increased European support at all levels, including early recovery and stabilisation efforts, will help Syrian society to survive the regime. But Europeans can operationalise conditionality mechanisms much more than they have done to date. For example, they could tie the provision of support to the securing of core human rights standards. This should include securing equal access to all parts of the country, which the regime is currently denying.
Europeans must also focus on the plight of detainees and missing persons, which remains the country’s single biggest threat to peace. They should take care not to politicise this issue, such as by allowing prisoner exchange scheme proposals to emerge, as suggested by the Astana group of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Towards this end, Europeans need to press for greater involvement by the apolitical International Committee of the Red Cross to begin the necessary and painful task of uncovering the whereabouts of the detained and disappeared.
Assaad Al Achi is a Syrian economist and civil society activist. He is currently the executive director of Baytna, a civil society support organisation. A founding member of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, Achi has been active in the Syrian revolutionary movement since 2011.