It is true that one can say they want a new Syria where all people's human rights are respected AND cheer the brutal extrajudicial execution of members of the notorious Berri clan in Aleppo. This is possible but let’s be clear; it would also be gross hypocrisy and is the sort of logic which contributes to killing hope for a genuine human rights revolution in Syria.
This may sound like unnecessarily harsh words which are insensitive to the suffering the Berri clan inflicted on so many people in Syria and of course the sickening disregard for human dignity and life displayed by the Assad government - but just as we condemn gross violations by the pro Syrian government forces we must also be consistent and do the same when the armed opposition commit abuses and furthermore when they or their supporters try to justify these abuses.
This is not about equivalence or saying the scale of abuses is anywhere near the violations by government forces – it is about taking a consistent approach whenever abuses and violations occur and by whomever. The armed opposition do not get a free pass because their opponent is terrorising, punishing and humiliating civilians across Syria.
So while Syrian government forces continue to perpetrate human rights violations on a mass scale, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, a growing number of abuses by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other armed opposition groups have been reported in recent weeks, including deliberate and unlawful killings as well as torture of captured security forces members. Such killings and the torture and ill-treatment of captives are serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and constitute war crimes.
This issue is of course fraught with sensitivities and difficulties as well as a clear lack of awareness from some on what IHL even is or means. Today a leading Syrian activist based in the UK told me one of his close relatives was killed yesterday (31 July) by the Berri clan – he told me this in response to comments I had made essentially saying the executions were not the right way to have dealt with these people. This activist is a sincere and wise man and understands the necessity to ensure “what comes next” in Syria is not the same or worse than that which is on its way out…context is necessary, that is right to say as is saying something’s should be unacceptable, especially to those demanding their freedom and rights – extrajudicial executions are one of those acts which should not be acceptable along with torture and other inhumane treatment of detainees.
Indeed the issue of how these individuals were killed is being debated between Syrian activists online and offline with many saying they can totally understand the need to rid Syria of these thugs but this is not what should have happened – this is not what they are fighting for – this is what they are fighting against…indeed many of the comments echo what Abdul-Razzak Tlass, Commander of the Farouk Brigades said in a recent video where he commits to abide by the Geneva Conventions or in a statement from several FSA battalions who commit to upholding the rights and proper treatment of prisoners of war.
One could say that given the grim and trying circumstances this is actually a very positive and timely set of initiatives – certainly the Syrian authorities and their many supporters and apologists do not give any time or credence to the need to respect and protect international human rights law or IHL, certainly not so publicly.
So yes there are many in the opposition rightly condemning abuses by the armed opposition and they should be credited for it. There is much hope generated within many parts of the Syrian opposition that what comes next will indeed be better but the extrajudicial executions we saw in the Berri video and abuses we have seen in other videos over the weeks only undermine the good efforts by opposition activists and will certainly not bring about a human rights revolution in Syria.
Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, many Syrian opposition activists have also said in relation to evidence of abuses that “It’s war..these things happen” or “it’s gloves off time – Assad is killing our children” to which I say yes it is war but there are laws of war..laws which regulate the methods and means employed..laws designed to spare civilians and others not directly participating in the fighting and minimizing human suffering…laws which say we are and will be humane in our conduct.. these should not be disregarded or disrespected if one is genuinely fighting for a better Syria which respects all peoples human rights.
Others have said it is impractical to think the FSA or the armed opposition in general could take on and understand IHL let alone implement it through their ranks which are still in the process of being better organised.
I say alternatives to public executions consistent with international law should always be found. In the Berri case, how difficult would it have been to contact the ICRC in Damascus and ask them what they should do with the detainees? Should they be removed to a secret location where the Syrian forces could not attempt a rescue operation for instance? This may sound fanciful and the ICRCs movement is limited and their numbers are low but they are also contactable and there to provide advice to parties to what is now a non-international armed conflict. This advice would include proper treatment of detainees
On 20 July we issued a public statement on these issues as it was clear evidence of abuses by armed opposition groups were increasing - within it we said
While government forces continue to perpetrate human rights violations on a mass scale, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, a growing number of abuses by the FSA and other armed opposition groups have been reported in recent weeks, including deliberate and unlawful killings as well as torture of captured security forces members. Such killings and the torture and ill-treatment of captives are serious violations of IHL and constitute war crimes.
It should be clear that our primary concern is protection of civilians and what practical and effective steps the opposition leadership can take to ensure this as well as the wider requirements of IHL. Those States assisting the armed opposition also have such a responsibility as I said in a previous post but right now it is essential the leadership of the armed opposition do all they can to actively promote the key elements IHL - clearly this has more credibility coming from the recognised leadership as opposed to any State, civilian opposition or NGO.
How are these field commanders and other leaders within the military councils really expected to communicate such messages though? Well, short videos condemning abuses such as torture, ill treatment of detainees and extrajudicial executions as well as stating the minimum obligations the armed opposition should abide by is a very practical way forward as Abdul-Razzak Tlass has already shown.
In fact the opposition have shown themselves to be using this communication mechanism in a very effective way especially when distributed via private email lists and social networks. It also gives the message more credibility if opposition combatants see who is delivering the message as opposed to words in a leaflet. If we want the armed opposition leadership to commit publicly to Human Rights and IHL standards and condemn abuses in messages to those under their command then we should also offer practical suggestions for how that could come about.
From my perspective I see no point in us just pointing out abuses by the armed opposition such as the executions of the Berri clan members and giving basic recommendations to stop and prevent such abuses when we could also be offering practical measures to reduce and eliminate abuses.
I also think there is no time like now to start showing adherence to IHL. When there is a new Syria, a large proportion of the armed opposition may well take on a key role in the countries future security sector – I see no reason why security sector reform (SSR) cannot start now. A key element of that should be understanding and adhering to International law.
The risks of not engaging with such a process as suggested is that there will be more abuses and more bloodshed as massacres breed more massacres in revenge attacks and the situation for ordinary Syrians becomes even more unstable than it is now. From a strictly self-interested perspective for armed group members there is a possibility of members of the armed opposition being held to account for not taking sufficient action to prevent abuses. There is also a risk that the new Syria will have a security sector which has a similar approach to international law and human rights as the current Syrian government’s security sector. That would be a crushing blow to those that have given so much for a better Syria.
There are of course other risks such as to the image of the armed opposition or the wider opposition in general. It is notable how so many apologists for the current regime have been circulating the “Berri execution” video trying to tarnish the whole of the Syrian opposition – that is to be expected – they will use international law and issues of dignity when it suits them and always turn a blind eye to the gross violations of the Syrian government. Avoiding this does not mean not filming and posting these abuses in the future though it means not carrying out these abuses at all.
Hopefully enough people are aware of what Amnesty has been doing to bring about a new Syria where human rights are respected and protected. Some may be cynical of such proposals and say “go tell this to the Syrian Government” or “We are not as bad as the Syrian Government” – sure that is to be expected but that does not mean the armed opposition do not have their own obligations under IHL as stated in our recent public statement.
It is also the case, as we have said in our new report released on 1 August that the Syrian government show no intention or desire to try to stamp out their grave human rights violations, to investigate them or to hold those responsible to account. On the contrary, crimes under international law and other human rights violations continue to be committed, evidently with the blessing of government authorities at the highest level.
So for the armed opposition, preparation for transition also entails preparing to be the change you say you want to see in Syria. However if that change is one which deliberately and publicly ignores international law (like the current regime) then say so but please do not get offended when human rights organisations criticise and challenge such behaviour.
That is why we have said publicly and privately that the leadership (pro & anti government) must make clear to the forces under their command or which act under their leadership, that violations of IHL will not be tolerated. Superiors and commanders have a duty to prevent and, where necessary, to suppress war crimes by those under their command or who they otherwise control; and as said but is worth repeating, they may be held criminally responsible if they fail to do so.
Accordingly, parties to the Syria conflict must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian objects and to refrain from attacks that would disproportionately harm civilians or fail to distinguish between combatants and civilians.
The FSA and other armed opposition commanders must be aware that with control of territory come responsibilities, notably to ensure the protection of the civilian population.
Clearly I am making a much wider point than just the incident with the Berri clan before anybody says these were not civilians these were Shabiha thugs. To them I would point to applicable international law in relation to treatment of detainees in this case here and here.
I like so many people around the world and inside Syria want to see a new Syria which genuinely respects and protects everybody’s human rights – and that means everybody, even those who have inflicted great suffering on ordinary people in Aleppo and other places in Syria.
It is absolutely right to condemn abuses like extrajudicial executions and it has been good to see so many opposition activists and groups doing just that with the Berri killings – this gives us hope even in the midst of such dark times.
Amnesty will not give up on Syria and we continue to dedicate our work to peaceful protesters, to those that lost their lives, the disappeared, the detained and the defiant ones – bravely standing on the frontline in pursuit of a human rights revolution.
Some Examples of ICRC literature here
Here is a very good video giving an overview:
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