Responding to demands for reform: The right approach to save Syria

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies is gravely concerned about the Syrian authorities’ continued insistence on using excessive force to break up ongoing peaceful protests demanding the right to dignity and democratic freedoms.

CIHRS believes that the repressive security approach undertaken by the Syrian regime once again proves the utter lack of genuine will to engage in serious reform and exposes the falsity of recent official promises of reform meant to circumvent Syrians’ democratic entitlements and absorb the anger at home and abroad following the brutal crackdown that left at least 123 people dead. Most of the victims died in peaceful protests that have taken place since the second half of March, starting first in Deraa and spreading to several other Syrian provinces.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has admitted a few days ago that reform had been too long delayed in Syria and that the country might face destructive dangers if it did not embark on reform. However, these exalted phrases found their practical application in further violence against peaceful protests called for by forces demanding democratic freedoms, which has led to the death of an additional 100 people in the first half of April. Most of the victims were killed in demonstrations in Latakia, Deir al-Zor, Damascus, Baniyas, in addition to Deraa.

While the official media and presidential aides reported that a decision had been made to lift the state of emergency that has been in force in Syria since 1963, President al-Assad quickly dispelled this notion. Instead, he seems to be following in the footsteps of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak by issuing orders to draft a new counterterrorism law to replace the emergency law.

The practices of the Syrian authorities clearly show that the Baath regime is incapable of learning the lesson from the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab region, which have thus far led to the downfall of two of the most recalcitrant examples of police rule in the Arab world – Egypt and Tunisia – and which are shaking the thrones of tyrants in Libya and Yemen.

CIHRS further warns that continued repression and deception by the Syrian regime to avoid addressing demands for reform and democracy threaten to throw the country into an intractable spiral of violence.

CIHRS thus urges the UN Human Rights Council that a Special Session be convened to discuss the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria and consider appropriate measures to end the abuses of the Syrian authorities. We stress that saving the country from violence and avoiding the Libyan or Yemeni scenario of armed conflict, which threatens wide-scale civil war, require the Syrian regime to exercise the utmost responsibility toward its people and to immediately adopt serious, far-reaching measures that respond to the aspirations and sacrifices made by Syrians to achieve democracy. This entails:

  1. Putting an immediate end to official media campaigns seeking to smear the popular uprising as part of a foreign conspiracy against Syria and offering an official apology to the families of martyrs and all victims of the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations and protests.
  2.  Immediately and unconditionally releasing all activists detained for their participation in these demonstrations, estimated at 400 individuals according to human rights groups.
  3. Issuing strict, public directives to the security apparatus to refrain from the use of force and to protect the right of citizens to peacefully demonstrate. An impartial, independent investigation must be conducted, with the participation of representatives from Syrian human rights organizations, into the deaths of demonstrators. Those responsible must be identified and brought to immediate and fair trial.
  4. Taking immediate action to lift the exceptional state of emergency and releasing all political prisoners and others incarcerated because of their opinions or because of their defense of human rights and democratic freedoms. The exceptional State Security courts must be abolished and the prosecution of civilians before military tribunals banned.

CIHRS firmly believes that these steps can create an environment suitable for a social debate over a comprehensive program for reform. This should involve far-reaching constitutional and legislative reform to end the Baath Party’s perpetual monopoly on power, establish constitutional rules to guarantee the independence of the legislative and judicial authorities and to end the dominance of the executive, guarantee respect for the values of diversity and political and partisan pluralism, restrict the authorities’ ability to pass legislation inimical to constitutional rights and freedoms, and guarantee equality and non-discrimination- specifically putting a stop to  the institutional discrimination against the Kurdish minority. These reforms ought to further end the impunity for abuses enjoyed by the Syrian security and intelligence apparatus.

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