Sabah Hallaq / March 2, 2021

Sabah Hallaq's briefing today on human rights in Syria at a high-level UN panel discussion

Sabah Hallaq is a founding member of the Syrian League for Citizenship

This briefing was delivered to the General Assembly: High-level panel discussion to brief on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic – Informal meeting of the plenary, 75th session, on 2nd March 2021.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you to the previous speakers. They are fully aware of the situation in Syria. So I will be brief in order not to repeat what has already been said. Allow me to thank OHCHR and everyone that allowed us to participate in this panel to convey to you the voices of Syrian men and women. Thank you to the human rights commission and to everyone who supported us to be here with you to deliver the demands of Syrians to this council.

It has been six years since resolution 2254 was reached. And 21 years have passed since resolution 1325. Have they been implemented? How urgent are they to member states?

I am a Syrian woman, I have been a women’s rights activist for the past 30 years. I cannot put into words the violations we have witnessed of Syrian women and girls since 2011. You all know that women’s bodies are used as a tool of war between conflicting sides. Imagine how bad the situation is for Syrian women. They have been deprived for so long of legal protection from violence of all kinds. Starting with domestic abuse and not ending with the regime’s violence and other armed groups. There are no exceptions.

And even though violations have been committed against women and men since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011. We believe that violence against women is particularly and excruciatingly painful. As these crimes lead to more crimes. Raped women are being killed by their own families under the pretext of protecting their honor. Survivors are being stigmatized by their community and families.

For those reasons, there is a need for special mechanisms to deal with this issue in the Syrian context. Especially as existing legal, political, cultural and social norms reinforce violence against women. This is based in misogyny in society and is legitimized by Syrian law.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are all aware that thousands of female activists have been exposed to detention, torture and travel bans. Women that work in relief aid also cannot avoid these punishments. Women have been put through so many forms of violence: grooming, forced marriages, rape and human trafficking, and being sold as slaves by ISIS.

Today, the conditions in Syria are more complicated economically, politically, and for humanitarianism. The conflict continues and there is widespread coronavirus. It’s also well known that women are disproportionately affected. They are more poor and marginalized economically, politically and socially.

The question is, what decisions have the UN made to support and protect women? Especially inside Syria. Today, the political process is frozen in terms of negotiations. Possibly in terms of the constitutional process. You all know that it’s not in the hands of Syrians, but in the hands of a number of UN member states. What have you done to stop the bloodshed and pain of Syrians?

I am a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. Allow me to speak of the situation of Syrian refugees. Mr.Paniro has referred to their situation. Syrian refugees have lived and are living through harsh conditions. These are directly related to the policies of host countries towards them. Especially in Lebanon where the government approved “The General Policy of Return of Displaced Syrians” on July 14th 2020. This paper does not address a threshold of protection, even though it implies a possibility of visiting Lebanon after refugees return to Syria. But in practice they all receive a ban on returning to Lebanon as soon as they leave.

The policy states that 89% of Syrians want to go back according to the refugee commission. But it overlooks the fact that 85-88% of Syrians condition their return to political and security circumstances, which are not met yet, even if they do want to return.

This policy refers to the policy of non-refoulement, and since this policy that encourages refugees to return does point out the principle of no forced returns, it’s worth mentioning that between May 21st and August 28th 2019, 3000 Syrian refugees were forcibly returned to Syria. While thousands of Syrians were not allowed to return.

Today, the situation is much more severe due to the lockdown policies to limit coronavirus, especially for women. The question is: is it enough that most member states recognize Syria as an unsafe country? Or is there a need for practical steps to protect refugees from forced returns? And to pressure governments that sponsor such measures?

Regarding the dossier of detention and forced disappearance. It is a humanitarian dossier. Every side of the conflict contributes to it, especially the Syrian government, which is a member state and has the biggest responsibility in this humanitarian issue. This shouldn’t be contingent on the negotiations, constitutional process or Astana.

We must take action now, especially in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. Syrians and international civil society has already provided so much evidence. There is the report of the international commission of inquiry, especially the “I lost my dignity” report that documented thousands of violations against Syrian women by all sides. Or the Caesar images. What more is needed to move the world to protect tens of thousands of detainees, whose destiny is still unknown for their families and for us as human rights defenders?

This is what we demand, and it is our right. We don’t just ask or recommend this:

  • A decisive humanitarian stance, not dependent on your political position towards the parties of the conflict. This is to elevate the tragedies that Syrians have been enduring for more than 50 years. That have only intensified since 2011 and until this day. This stance must include a binding mandate for the release of political detainees and to clarify the fate of those who were forcibly disappeared.
  • You must bring pressure to bear on countries with influence on Syria, in accordance with the security council resolutions, especially 2254. To revive the political and constitutional processes.
  • You must enforce the protection of refugees in host countries. It is your responsibility to guarantee only dignified and voluntary return to their original homes, in accordance with the international convention on refugees. You must guarantee compensation for female refugees and displaced women who have lost their husbands and are the main providers in their families, and to provide shelter for them and their children.
  • We demand important pressure on all sides of the negotiations and on states that support the Syrian political process, to guarantee gender-sensitive transitional justice programs. Ones that will allow for special courts for those who commit abuse against women especially sexual abuse.
  • And finally, Syrians across Syria and in the diaspora need you to act fast to ease their economic and humanitarian suffering, especially during corona. The government still detains activists for criticizing the government’s policy towards deteriorating living conditions. A policy which has led to 83% of Syrians living below the poverty line. You must also act on the situation against activists, especially media activists outside of the government’s control by SDF or armed fractions of Al Nousra Front.

Your support and your practical stances, not rhetorical ones, are the only way to regain Syrians’ trust in the international community and the UN. And to hang onto their hope of a decent humane life. They need to know that you defend human rights in practice, and not just theoretically.

Ten years ago our revolution began. A revolution of a people aspiring to freedom, equality and togetherness. Aspiring to develop their country into a civic state, where all members of society lead dignified lives.

Thank you for listening and we await your practical action.

March 2nd,
Sabah Hallak
A women’s rights activist.
The Syrian league for citizenship.