Conflict & Justice

Syria, accused of crimes against humanity, offers new reforms


Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against the Syrian government in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 23, 2011.


Jewel Samad

With a series of reports on widespread and systematic human rights violations perpetrated by Syrian security forces against protestors, the United States and United Nations now appear convinced that crimes against humanity have been committed.

The United Nations special advisers on genocide prevention and the principle of responsibility to protect have voiced alarm at persistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations committed by security forces in Syria. They believe that crimes against humanity may have been perpetrated.

“Based on available information, the Special Advisers consider that the scale and gravity of the violations indicate a serious possibility that crimes against humanity may have been committed and continue to be committed in Syria,” said a joint statement by Francis Deng, Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide and Edward Luck, Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.

The U.S. ambassador in charge of investigating war crimes, Stephen Rapp, said that government officials in Damascus will eventually be brought to justice.

"We are watching the situation in Syria very closely," he said.

"We see crimes against humanity,” Rapp told the Guardian. “I can't tell whether it's … systematic attacks against civilians based on a plan. But it is clearly violence that has caused more than 1,000 deaths [among] civilians who were asking for democratic rights. It constitutes a crime against humanity. That needs to stop and there needs to be accountability.”

Wissam Tarif, director of the Syrian human rights group Insan, said abuses focus on three main areas: Military sieges of cities; mass killings and forced disappearances.

“Hundreds of families in Syria don’t know if their sons or daughters are alive, if they are dead, if they are detained. They simply disappeared and that’s also a crime against humanity,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government announced plans to allow the formation of opposition parties, which the ruling Baath Party, in power since 1963, approves of. Announcing the plan, the state news agency Sana said the move was designed to "enrich and revitalize political life, share responsibility and alternate the possession of power".

The move was quickly rejected by voices in the opposition who pointed out that it does nothing to address a central demand of an end to Article 8 in the Constitution which states the Baath must lead state and society. It is also unclear how such stringent rules on new parties would differ much from the existing politics in Syria where other parties exist but only through approval of and de facto alliance with the Baath.

Yasser Saadeldine, a Syrian opposition figure living in exile in the Gulf, told Reuters that new law “is designed to show on paper that the regime tolerates dissent while continuing killings and repression”.

“Every time the regime comes under international pressure it takes more false reform measures to try and appear as having democratic credentials. But arrests of activists continue and the crackdown deepens."