Reflection on a Syrian anniversary by Martin Barber

An Annual Inspiration

On 15 March, the governments of the US, France, Germany, Netherlands and the UK marked the 13th anniversary of the start of the uprising in Syria by sponsoring a webinar organised by the Syrian Network on Human Rights (SNHR).  The event – Thirteen Years of Death, Torture, and Disappearance: Examining Human Rights Abuses and Accountability Opportunities in Syria – reviewed efforts to challenge impunity for egregious human rights violations.

The event underlined the failure, over more than a decade, of all efforts by the ‘international community’ to bring the conflict in Syria to an end, and to allow its people to enjoy productive lives of peace and security.

Since March 2011, more than 500,000 Syrians have been killed, half the population has been displaced, 6.8 million as refugees and 6.9 million displaced within the country. At least 155,000 people remain in detention or disappeared.

In November 2023, the International Court of Justice handed down a binding order under the Convention Against Torture for the Syrian government to cease all acts of torture and to preserve evidence of previous torture. This ruling has been flagrantly ignored by the Syrian government.

What is there to inspire us about this terrible litany of crimes and suffering? It is the courage, resilience, and persistence of ordinary Syrians who continue to record and document the thousands of individual stories that need to be told in courts of law when the perpetrators of crimes are eventually held to account.

Their initiative and persistence have led to the setting up of the UN Commission of Inquiry that published its latest report on 19th March 2024, the IIIM (Independent International Investigative Mechanism), the IIMP (Independent Institution on Missing Persons), which starts its work next month, the initiative of Canada and the Netherlands to bring the case against Syria under the Convention Against Torture at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the cases brought in France, Germany and Switzerland against Syrians now charged or convicted of participation in crimes against humanity on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

UAI is currently focusing its efforts  on the inhumanity of Europe’s response to asylum-seekers and migrants fleeing war and destitution, and the continuing crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sudan and the Horn. But we could, with equal justification, be focusing our efforts on support for the people of Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Gaza, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and Haiti.

While attention is riveted on Gaza or Ukraine, we must salute the people of devastated countries who keep alive the demand for justice and freedom, and remind our political leaders of their responsibilities to prevent these atrocities and work tirelessly for peace. .

In March, we recall the struggles of Syrians, in April it will be Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, in August Afghans, October, Palestinians, in November Tigrayans, and in January the people of Myanmar.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights is just one of the many Syrian civil society organisations preserving the memories so indispensable to a future of justice and peace. Let us salute them and all such fighters against impunity.

Martin Barber is a retired senior UN official. He served as director of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) at UN Headquarters from 2000 until 2005. Before that, he was chief of policy in the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

From 1996 to 1998, he was Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From 1989 to 1996, he worked with the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan, serving as UN Humanitarian Coordinator in 1995-6.

Martin is a member of UAI in the UK, as well as member of UAI’s International Executive Committee. He is a co-founder of UAI.

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