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Getting the priorities on human rights right in Syria

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By Jonathan Power

March 12, 2019

The long war is almost over in Syria. Tyranny has won. Violence has won. Most have suffered, many unspeakably. For too long all sides were stalemated by each others’ brutality. Now the government of Bashar Al-Assad has come out on top, aided by Russia and Iran.

What to do next? EU member states held their third annual Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. It’s time for some radical re-thinking. Well-wishing for good things like the persecution of war crimes is whistling in the wind, at least for now.

are facing a fait accompli and renewed realization that the outside world does
not have much leverage, apart from Russia and Iran, and even their influence is

Yet, understandably, EU countries insist that in return for helping to re-build Syria the government must commit itself to a human rights agenda – the freeing of political prisoners, the end of torture and capital punishment, free elections, judicial reform, enshrining in law the right to protest and the devolution of power to town and village councils, even if it means giving opposition groups some political power.

time to time they also insist on what is manifestly impossible, the stepping
down of President Assad. Under the Geneva peace talks, set up by UN Resolution
2254 passed in December 2015, the regime and the opposition are supposed to
agree to a joint committee to write a new constitution.

this is good. Encourage it, yes. Insist on it right now, no.

The biggest and most important human rights at stake in Syria are the right to life, good health and education, the right to family life, the right to a home and the right to a job.

few years ago Amnesty International widened its list of necessary human rights
from the issues of political prisoners, torture and capital punishment to these
broader social rights traditionally supported as the priority by Communist and
Third World governments.

should never have been a contradiction in the first place.

For Syria today it is these social rights that must be tackled first. It is indeed in the EU’s own interest to do it this way. The migrants who fled en masse to Europe three and a half years ago have only shallow roots in their host countries.

Only a minority has learnt the language well and many have jobs way below their qualifications. They are not the kind of migrants – like the Africans, Bangladeshis or Algerians – who have dreamed all their lives of migrating like Dick Whittington and who as soon as they get the chance are off to search for a better life.

before the war rarely migrated except to neighbouring Lebanon. Today most, I
suggest, would gladly uproot from Germany, Sweden or wherever and go back home.
They want to be close to the grandparents they left behind.

They want to get hold again of their traditional home and the plot of land in their old village that has been in the family for generations. If they live in the town or city they want too the apartment they have probably built themselves with their own sweat.

They want their children to grown up as Syrians who live according to the norms of Islamic and Syrian culture.

should encourage them to go. We should help rebuild Syria as fast as it can be
done, redirecting the money allocated to settling refugees to re-starting home
building, school and medical services in Syria.

We should encourage them to go. We should help rebuild Syria as fast as it can be done, redirecting the money allocated to settling refugees to re-starting home building, school and medical services in Syria.

is what Russia has been arguing for and it is right. The last months in the run
up to tomorrow’s EU conference the east European members plus Italy and Greece,
the two major destination countries, have been arguing the same.

southern European diplomat is quoted in the current issue of Foreign Policy
as saying, “If you want the refugees to leave, if you want to stop a second
wave of refugees, if you want to end the suffering of the internally displaced,
if you want to tackle ISIS in Europe- and they are there- then you need to deal
with the Syrian government.”

But the Germans, French, Scandinavians, Dutch and British have been taking a political correct stance- before it receives substantial aid Syria has to commit itself to the full panoply of human rights and to show by its actions that it is following through.

Moreover, the EU insists on maintaining counterproductive economic sanctions and (the still necessary) sanctions on high-ranking Syrians.

hard for us to accept that Assad has won this bestial conflict but to stop the
innocent and the opposition from further punishment we have to aid the regime
to do what it says it now wants to do, which is rebuild Syria.

The rest is for another day.

Copyright: Jonathan Power.

Power’s homepage

Note: I am the author of 2 books on human rights: “Like Water on Stone- The Story of Amnesty International” (Penguin) and “Ending War Crimes, Chasing the War Criminals” (Nijoff).

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