“Human rights at war in Syria”: A response to Tarak Barkawi

In an article published on Al Jazeera English a few days ago, titled “Human rights at war in Syria”, Tarak Barkawi criticises human rights organisations (he pinpoints HRW and Amnesty International) for denouncing the abuses committed by rebels in Syria. Barkawi laments that their reports reveal “a systematic bias favouring the official, uniformed armed forces of states”. In his view, by naming and shaming the abuses committed by the armed opposition, human rights groups create a “moral equivalence between the murderous regime of Assad and those who are fighting against the odds to defeat him”. Barkawi asks his readers the following question: “What are we to make of the idea that the violence of the regime and that of the rebels should be measured against the same standard? Does it make sense to be impartial about a war?”

Yes, I think it makes sense not only to be impartial but also to be seen to be impartial. In fact, impartiality is not only a fundamental principle in human rights advocacy; it is also a strategic choice of critical importance. The credibility of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and to some extent also the UN, very much depends on the way they conduct their investigations. It is precisely Amnesty International’s record of independent and impartial research over more than half a century what permits its spokespeople to say that while both parties have committed serious human rights violations, the frequency and scale of the abuses differ notably. The report of the UN independent international commission of inquiry, issued yesterday, confirms the existence of a State policy of human rights violations by Government forces and its militias, which are deemed to be responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes. At the same time, the commission found “reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture, had been perpetrated by organized anti-Government armed groups”.

The legitimacy of the use of force does not determine the extent to which civilian lives must be respected. Where each side stands in the political arena is not relevant. The fact is that there is now a non-international armed conflict in Syria. And this means that both parties, opposition armed groups and state forces, are bound by International Humanitarian Law (IHL), especially Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary IHL.

Barkawi would probably disagree since, he writes, “we know that the powerful write the laws and the victors hold the trials”. However, this phrase doesn´t truly reflect the current state of affairs. Although governments wrote the laws, they are not at all happy to obey them, and they wouldn´t do so if it wasn´t for the existence of watchdogs like Amnesty and HRW. Government officials today do not show the necessary vision and leadership to comply by the norms that their predecessors committed to respect and implement after World War II. The continuous attempts to neglect the applicability of IHL in the so-called “War on Terror” (take the case of the unlawful drone killings, for example) constitute compelling evidence that States tend not to like international law.

There is something I agree with Barkawi about: True international justice, understood as the inexistence of safe haven for serious human rights violators anywhere in the world, is not yet a reality. Let us hope the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the following years and the development of other means, like universal jurisdiction, will help matching the expectations. In the words of Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, “the criminal court is a great achievement in international justice, but it must do better in its next decade”.

The existence of abuses committed by opposition combatants has actually been acknowledged by rebel commanders. Adopting the necessary measures to prevent torture and extrajudicial executions in the future and carrying out a thorough investigation would be a useful way for rebels to fight Assad’s regime not only in the battleground but also in the hearts and minds of the international community. The announcement by the Free Syrian Army to open up an investigation into the alleged unlawful killings of 14 pro-Government fighters is an opportunity to honour its engagement with international law and its pledge to hold accountable those responsible for these abuses.

Human rights don´t stop at the gates of armed conflict. Actually, it´s precisely at war when human rights are most needed. Being impartial is not tantamount to being neutral. By definition, human rights advocacy cannot be neutral, since it is built upon ideas, values and norms that are ideologically and emotionally charged, such as inherent human dignity, equality and non-discrimination, solidarity and justice. In front of human rights violations, there can be no neutrality. In a sense, impartiality can be considered the opposite of neutrality: An impartial assessment of the situation, whoever the perpetrator and whoever the victim, is the way not to remain neutral in front of human rights abuses. Paraphrasing George Orwell, in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.


Koldo Casla


 Photograph: The town of Taftanaz came under attack from the Syrian army in April, resulting in large-scale killings. © Amnesty International


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