(New York, January 6, 2012) – The Syrian government should comply with all the terms of its agreement with the Arab League, Human Rights Watch said today ahead of a January 8, 2012 meeting of the Arab League to discuss its monitoring mission in Syria.
The Arab League should declare that if Syria fails to take the repression-ending measures it agreed to and continues to impede the monitoring mission, the League will urge the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria and sanctions against the individuals responsible for grave violations.
“Syria seems determined to subvert Arab League efforts to end the repression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Arab League needs to draw clear lines regarding the Syrian government’s responsibilities under the agreement and the conditions that need to be met for its monitors to do their essential work.”
In the agreement it signed with the Arab League on December 19 the Syrian government pledged to end violence against peaceful protests, release detained protesters, withdraw armed elements from cities and residential areas, and allow Arab and international media unhindered access to all parts of Syria. Syria also pledged in the agreement to grant Arab League monitors unhindered and independent access to all individuals they wish to interview to verify Syria’s implementation of these measures, including victims, detainees, and nongovernmental organizations. Syria guaranteed the safety of witnesses from reprisals.
According to Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby, Syria has already taken some steps under the terms of the agreement, withdrawing heavy weapons from Syrian cities, and releasing about 3,500 prisoners.
But Human Rights Watch has found that Syria has yet to honor most of its commitments under its agreement with the Arab League. Attacks by security forces against peaceful protests have been reported every day since the Arab League mission began. During the week since the monitors arrived on December 26 security forces have killed 199 civilians, according to lists drawn up by the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian monitoring group working in coordination with the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of Syrian activists.
In the al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus, on December 27 security forces fired on demonstrators as they were leaving a mosque at about noon, a resident who participated in the protest there told Human Rights Watch. The monitors came at about 6 p.m., but, “by that time the security forces had cleared out of the area,” the man said. “They didn’t hear our demands and didn’t witness the use of force against the protesters.”
Reports indicate that since the Syrian government signed the Arab League agreement, it has arbitrarily detained activists, including Mohamed Anwar al-Dabas, the brother-in-law of Ghiyath Matar, an activist whose death in detention Human Rights Watch reported in September.
Human Rights Watch has documented what seem to be efforts by the Syrian government to deceive the Arab League monitors. Under the agreement, Syria agreed to provide the monitors full access to prisons, detention centers, police stations, and hospitals. However, authorities transferred hundreds of detainees to improvised holding centers at military sites in an apparent effort to hide them from the monitors. Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was quoted in the Independent daily of London on December 21 saying that the international monitors would not be permitted to visit certain “sensitive” military locations.
Authorities have also issued police identification cards to military officials apparently in order to give the impression that military forces have, under the agreement with the Arab League, withdrawn from civilian areas.
Syria also appears to be violating its pledge under the agreement to protect people who communicate with the monitors from reprisal. For example, a resident of the Mo`adamiyeh neighborhood in Damascus told Human Rights Watch on January 3 that after she and her friend spoke to Arab League monitors on January 1, security forces detained her friend on January 2.
She explained that when their bus heading to Mo`adamiyeh was stopped at a military checkpoint, “they took our ID cards from us and they had a picture of her with them, and an officer said to her, ‘You were the one talking to the monitors.’ After that they pointed a gun at her until she got off of the bus. When we were speaking to the monitors I had my face covered, but she did not, which is why they could recognize her. They took her away in a security car. It was a Mitsubishi without a license plate.”
The Arab League should investigate credible reports of reprisals against Syrians who communicate with its monitors and take its own measures to protect those it interviews, including refusing to allow Syrian government agents to monitor interviews, establishing information security systems to protect the confidentiality of information provided by victims and witnesses who request it, and denouncing any reprisals publicly.
Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to enhance its monitoring mission by deploying monitors who have expertise in human rights and in forensic investigations, and by seeking technical support for the mission from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Human Rights Watch said that these measures will enhance the mission’s credibility, which has been clouded by the appointment as its chief of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, a former head of Sudan’s military intelligence. Al-Dabi oversaw an intelligence agency well known for serious abuses in Sudan and is a close political ally of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Human Rights Watch urged the Arab League to disclose the criteria used to select monitors participating in its mission and to make the monitoring reports public in order to bolster the transparency and accountability of the mission.
“It’s critically important for the Arab League mission to succeed,” Whitson said. “But at a time when the mission is practically the only international presence on the ground, its success will depend on its ability to document day-to-day conditions and to call out the Syrian government for its deception, its continuing crimes, and its failure to adhere to its commitments.”