Committee against Torture considers situation in Syria in the absence of a report

The Committee against Torture this morning considered the situation in Syria in the absence of the special report requested of the State party on the measures it was taking to ensure that all of its obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment were being effectively implemented; measures taken to implement the recommendations of the Committee’s concluding observations adopted in May 2010; as well as information on the current events occurring in the territory of the State party.

Claudio Grossman, Committee Chairperson acting as Rapporteur on Syria, opened the meeting and noted the absence of a delegation from Syria, which he said was unfortunate as the Committee would have benefited from its comments. He spoke about the procedures which led the Committee to request a special report, and correspondence between it and the Syrian authorities. The Chairperson detailed forms of torture and human rights violations in Syria, including widespread killings, torture in hospitals, detention centres and secret detention facilities, torture of children and sexual torture of male detainees. He also referred to alleged violations by armed opposition groups.

Essaida Belmir, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur on Syria, said the world was watching spiralling numbers of deaths and systematic torture, not to mention the numbers of children who were being tortured and killed in a truly shocking manner, while the political solution waited for was not forthcoming. Time was running out, people’s dignity depended on a solution, as did the credibility of the entire United Nations system. The Committee had to call for the relationship between Member States and the United Nations to be respected.

Other Committee members commented on the situation, some referred to the heinous misuse of hospitals as centres of torture and security forces dressing up as doctors then torturing injured patients, to the detention and torture of journalists, the use of torture as an open weapon in Syria, the impunity of the security forces and the obligations on the international community’s responsibility to protect and the need for a fact-based dialogue with the State party in which it could prove the falsity of allegations, as it claimed.

All correspondence relating to the request for a special report between the Committee and Syria, with translations in English as well as the original language Arabic, is available on the Committee’s webpage.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 3 p.m. today when it will hear the replies of Rwanda.

Statement by the Committee Chairperson and Rapporteur on Syria

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson acting as Rapporteur on Syria, opened the meeting and noted the absence of a delegation from Syria, which he said was unfortunate as the Committee would have benefited from its comments. The special report of Syria was requested by the Committee in November 2011, as per article 19.1 of the Convention against Torture which entitled the Committee to request additional information from States parties. The Chairperson recapped the course of correspondence with Syria since that time, starting with the Committee’s letter sent on 23 November 2011 requesting a special report in light of the Committee’s deep concern at “numerous, consistent and substantiated reports and information from various reliable sources about the widespread violations of the provisions of the Convention against Torture by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic”. The Permanent Mission of Syria replied on 20 February 2012 with a letter which questioned the Committee’s legitimacy to request a special report, saying that Article 19 did not provide for such enquiries, requests of information or issuance of press releases against Syria. On 12 March 2012 the Committee wrote again to Syria saying “it regretted that the Syrian Arab Republic did not submit the report requested by the established deadline” and recalling that article 19 paragraph 1 of the Convention sets out that “States parties shall submit supplementary reports every four years on any new measures taken and such other reports as the Committee may request”. A response from the Permanent Mission of Syria was received on 2 April 2012 expressing surprise that the Committee had convened a meeting, and that that was contrary to the fundamental rules of diplomatic conduct. In its letter the State party noted that article 19 of the Convention only gave the Committee the right to request a supplementary report should there be any new measures, which were not referred to by the Committee in any of its letters. The letter included a copy of the letter sent to the United Nations Security Council on 30 March 2012, marked ‘for circulation’ which detailed death tolls for civilians, army and security forces, directly assassinated people, women, children, kidnapped civilians and missing people, with a total death toll of 6,144 for the period of the crisis until 15 March 2012. The Chairperson said that the provision of those statistics, which were also available on the Committee’s webpage, boded well for the future in terms of the State party demonstrating cooperation.

The Chairperson said recent events in Syria had confirmed the rightfulness of the independent decision of the Committee to ask for cooperation on the special report. He emphasised that the sources of the information referred to by Committee members today were United Nations bodies and inter-governmental organizations, not even the credible and reliable information provided by non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately many organizations and United Nations bodies had not been allowed to visit Syria but the methodology they used to gather information included widespread investigation in neighbouring countries, and their methodology was public

United Nations bodies and inter-governmental sources referred to widespread killing of civilians, joint operations conducted by military and security forces who had shoot-to-kill orders, and numerous summary executions by security forces. Witnesses had attested to the use of live ammunition against peaceful demonstrators and disproportionate means of crowd control including snipers, tanks, and heavy machine guns mounted on anti-personnel carriers and helicopters in urban areas. Security forces also used rocket-propelled grenades and grenade launchers mounted on AK47s in other areas. The Chairperson spoke about regular raids by security forces on hospitals to search for and kill injured demonstrators, widespread attempts to cover up killings by the security forces, including the use of mass graves, and reference to the systematic and widespread torture of detainees. Security forces were reported to break into homes and beat civilians including women and children and conduct mass arrests followed by transportation of people in buses and trucks to secret detention centres including public stadiums, where torture and inhuman treatment took place.

Injured people taken to military hospitals were tortured and beaten during interrogation. Numerous methods of torture had been identified. Those methods included severe beating with batons and cables, forcing detainees into stress positions for hours or even days in a row, electroshocks, and deprivation of food, water and sleep. Detainees were often put into overcrowded cells and forced to take turns to sleep. Many were blindfolded and sometimes handcuffed, then forced to thumb-sign written confessions of crimes that, at best, were read to them by an officer. The Chairperson said that a number of journalists and web activists had been detained and tortured for reporting on demonstrations. Accounts obtained from victims and defectors described arbitrary arrests.

Several testimonies reported the practice of sexual torture used on male detainees. Men were routinely forced to undress and remain naked. Several former detainees testified reported beatings of genitals, forced oral sex, electroshocks and cigarette burns to the anus in detention facilities. Testimonies were received from several men who stated they had been anally raped with batons and that they had witnessed the rape of boys. There were cases of the disappearance and torture of children under 18 years old. Numerous testimonies pointed out the obstruction and denial of medical assistance to the injured and sick and the systematic arrest and torture of wounded patients in State hospitals. Individuals suspected by the Government of setting up and operating alternative medical care or providing medical supplies were also subjected to arrest and torture by the security forces.

The Chairperson noted that there were reports alleging violations by opposition groups which included torture, kidnap and killings. The Committee did not condone those types of actions. Strict enforcement of international law and international human rights obligations was required by all at all times. Reports by international organs also cited some measures adopted by the Syrian Government, including lifting of the State of Emergency and Amnesty Law, and the announcement of some changes in legislation in anticipation of changes in practice. Those were also accounted in the report.

From the point of the promotion and protection of human rights, the Committee had a function as an early-warning system for the purpose of avoiding the further deterioration of a situation. It could also help improve a situation before it reached the point of no return. In 2010, the last time Syria came before the Committee, the concluding observations brought many issues to the attention of the Syrian Government, such as the widespread authority of security services, the need for training and total impunity involving torture. Unfortunately the Committee had not yet seen evidence of follow-up to satisfy its concerns. During the course of this session the Committee could consider what action to take concerning Syria.

Statement by the Co-Rapporteur on Syria

ESSAIDA BELMIR, Committee Expert acting as Co-Rapporteur on Syria, said she had visited Syria many times and met the people who lived there, who only wanted to live in peace. Today the world was watching the spiralling numbers of deaths, systematic torture and no system of regulation, while the political solution waited for was not forthcoming. The world was watching denials of the physical integrity of human life. International norms were being violated as were human rights across the board. The situation and the violations were worsening, not to mention the numbers of children who were being tortured and killed in a truly shocking manner. The situation required action. Dialogue with the State party was needed to remind it of its obligations. Some problems had not even been discovered yet, particularly cases of enforced disappearances. Time was running out, people’s dignity depended on a solution, as did the credibility of the entire United Nations system. That was why the Committee had to call for the relationship between Member States and the United Nations to be respected. The United Nations Charter decreed that Member States and the United Nations should work together to create and protect human rights: that was a key question today.

Comments by Committee Experts

The situation was worsening and in particular the practice of torture was almost becoming public policy, an Expert said. It has been said following the intervention in Libya that the international community did not want an armed intervention in Syria, but if the international community had a responsibility to protect, it also had various means to do so, from the Commission of Inquiry to the General Assembly to the United Nations Supervision Mission currently on the ground. Subsequently the actions of the Committee to remind the State party of its obligations and to offer ways forward were important. An Expert recalled that in its replies, the Syrian Government had said that the widespread use of torture did not exist and was mere hearsay unsupported by any physical evidence. It was difficult to say the reports were just hearsay when those events had been seen on television, they have been seen everywhere. The Committee underlined that the Syrian authorities must begin a dialogue in order to prove that those allegations were just hearsay. As they would not take part in the dialogue the Committee not only had to draw its own conclusions but also must add recommendations to enhance the value of its work, and decide how to convey its message to the Syrian authorities.

An Expert noted that the Syrian authorities’ response to the Committee’s most recent concluding observations, in 2010, was that they were almost all untrue. However, the State party’s replies did not address any substantive points. In those concluding observations the Committee expressed considerable concern about secret detention facilities. That issue, which was identified beforehand, was compounded by the fact that members of the Security Services had immunity by law. The Government’s response to that was to state that individuals who served in the Security Services were subject to various laws – in other words, blanket denial. Given the information the Committee was receiving from the United Nations system, the Commission of Inquiry and other reliable sources, the responses were inadequate, hence the request for further information. The Syrian authorities said that it was not in the Committee’s remit to examine enforced disappearances. However, enforced disappearances linked to torture were a pattern the Committee saw in many places around the world, and were regarded as a very serious issue. He also referred to extensive reports on the arrest and torture of children in detention, the arrest and killing of bloggers, journalists and people seeking to upload videos onto YouTube.

An Expert recalled the Channel 4 (a British TV company) documentary on alleged torture in military and regular hospitals, which showed the misuse of hospitals where people had been beaten and patients who were deceived into thinking they were being treated by doctors only to be tortured in the hospital. Dressing up security forces as doctors must end. The misuse of medical professions was particularly heinous and merited the strongest attention. The Expert referred to reprisals to make detainees cooperate with the authorities, such as arresting family members or threatening them with sexual violence. The routine sexual violence and brutalization of male detainees was a longstanding area of concern of the Committee. The Committee had come across sexual violence in prisons before, but rarely if ever before had such detailed evidence of the scope of the routine usage of sexual violence in prisons.

Another Expert said regarding procedural issues, it was fully legitimate for the Committee to request additional reports from a State party: it was not the first time the Committee had done so, and sadly, it would probably not be the last. It was regrettable that the Syrian authorities did not send a delegation to meet the Committee, as if they thought the information before the Committee was false then they should come before the Committee to provide their facts and prove the falsity of allegations. Sending or not sending a delegation to the Committee to have a dialogue, a State party could not shirk its responsibility assumed under the Convention which it freely acceded to. The situation in Syria at the moment was tragic, critical and very complicated. The Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, was currently mediating in Syria, while there were 300 United Nations observers on the ground. The Special Envoy’s mission and the purpose of this Committee were the same: to protect the rights of the Syrian people and especially to protect civilians’ rights. The Expert noted that he did not endorse any action against civilians taken in Syria by any armed opposition groups.

Exactly two years ago a high-level delegation from Syria attended the Committee and engaged in an active dialogue, albeit with strong differences in opinion, an Expert recalled, saying it was very regrettable that they were not here today to discuss what was happening. In the 2010 review the Committee raised deep concerns about the widespread use of torture and impunity of perpetrators. The Expert noted that she had personally treated victims of torture from Syria who had come to Europe as refugees and knew the intensity of the torture they had been exposed to. Since 2010 all the issues had exploded, and the use of torture was especially alarming. The time when torture could be used as an open weapon had been thought to be in the past. But in Syria it seemed to be a point to communicate that torture was happening. People were strongly encouraged, or even ordered, to relay to their families and communities details of what torture happened in prison and corpses were delivered back to families with clear signs of torture. That was shocking. Furthermore, children were being tortured to renounce their own parents, which was a deplorable practice. The Committee must clearly communicate its strong protest.

Concerning impunity, an Expert said that everything said by the Committee two years ago held even more strongly today: the lack of accountability was a deep concern. The Committee must underline the importance of opening up for monitoring places of detention. The secret detention centres, referred to two years ago as ‘numerous’ had grown exponentially and today any house could be used as a secret detention centre. Mass arrests and detentions must be stopped. The Committee must strongly communicate the importance of grand actions to redress the people, such as the large numbers of refugees on the border. Their damages and wounds would not be healed even if all those responsible were detained. Ahead lay many years of active participation with Syria in order to help deal with the many wounds created during this period.

The situation in Syria was very tragic and also very complicated, an Expert said. Dialogue appeared to be the only way open to the international community to work towards ending the crisis. What was the most effective method of starting a dialogue with the Syrian authorities? The task was not facilitated by their refusal to send a delegation today. The latest document must be widely explored so the Committee could persuade the State party to have a dialogue based on facts, and then to make reforms. In their letter the Syrian authorities said they had always complied with their obligations under the Convention and would continue to cooperate with the Committee, but asked the Committee to recognize their sovereignty. The Committee had to ask: by not attending today’s meeting, was the State party cooperating?

Concluding Remarks

CLAUDIO GROSSMAN, Committee Chairperson acting as Rapporteur for Syria, recalled that when the Convention against Torture was adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1984, its considerations included important interpretative tools. However Article 19 explicitly, without interpretation, established the authority of the Committee to request additional reports. Unfortunately, instead of cooperating, Syria chose to make arguments of form which did not correspond with the Convention. The Committee still called upon the Syrian authorities to provide it with information. Unfortunately a pattern of non-compliance had emerged after Syria declined to provide information for the United Nations High Commissioner for the Human Rights’ Fact-Finding Mission and the United Nations Commission of Inquiry. In the absence of Syria’s cooperation, the Committee would take into account all information, included information publically provided by the State party.

For use of the information media; not an official record