Building Solidarity – what concrete forms of action can we take to support the Syrian People?
It was a pleasure to take part in a conference on June 21 called Syria - Correcting the Narrative, Building Solidarity, held at SOAS in London. The conference was expertly organised by the Center for Middle East Studies, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Denver and the London Middle East Institute. Below is a transcript from my presentation. It doesn't cover everything I said - it's more an outline of the main points.
Building solidarity – what concrete forms of action can we take to support the Syrian People?
Within those few words are hugely contested notions – what do we mean by solidarity? What sorts of action will be effective? Who is 'we' and which Syrian people are ‘we’ seeking to support?
I can’t answer for everybody, obviously, but I can run through some of what Amnesty is doing which is of course within the human rights framework and promotes a human rights narrative with all those we engage with, whether they are individuals, civil society groups, governments, or opposition groups.
Before I come to that, let me just say that building solidarity is incredibly difficult in a dictatorship like Assad’s. The deep state works to create disunity through fear and mistrust and by actively disrupting emerging networks - arresting, disappearing, torturing and killing those who would dissent or seek to build any credible and unified opposition party, group or movement.
However I don’t want to get into a socio-political analysis of the nature and difficulties of building solidarity in Syria – I am just flagging up a fundamental problem, because of the regimes brutality, of building solidarity and strong networks – especially when it comes to the ‘who’ we are seeking to support.
Let me elaborate on this point.
In particular, but not exclusively, solidarity with people peacefully demanding human rights – Defiance against those trying to stop them.
This may seem a narrow approach and in a sense it is but it is also about being clear on our core narrative as a human rights organisation. As events have unfolded in Syria, we are faced with the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world and so our ideas of solidarity and who we have solidarity with needs to be reassessed.
But I will not apologise for having a narrow definition of who we have our most active solidarity with and who we give our most active support to – we all know there are many Syrians who say they are against the regime, who say they want a better Syria, but who themselves commit or facilitate or justify or turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.
On what level do we have solidarity with these Syrian people? It is critical to consider when we talk of 'the Syrian people'. I don't say this to be provocative, I say it to ensure we have some distinction and sophistication in our messaging and narrative. What I certainly wouldn’t do though, is be dismissive and see all those who took up arms to defend themselves, defend protestors and defend communities as “terrorist cannibal heart munchers” as some self declared champions of the oppressed so easily do when it comes to Syria. Many of these people are generally very good in their analysis when it comes to Israel / Palestine, but have been shockingly bad on Syria - it's important they have a clearer view of the realities on the ground in Syria.
Maybe we will get into these points in the Q&A though.
In terms of our work and in particular the narrative and guiding principles we promote – it's both short term and long term - partly focused on the immediate crisis but also on a more long term approach focused on an effective transition which has human rights protections at the heart of it – anything less is a recipe for on-going instability and conflict. And whatever form of action you take or propose, keeping core human rights standards and civilian protection central to them is essential to projecting credibility, building support and ensuring you have more effective and sustainable actions.
Our work in 2013 and 2014 has been mainly advocacy and advice based – in 2011 and 2012 it was much more activism based and I worked with several Syrian led groups to organise a range of demonstrations – that was important then, now advocacy is more dominant in our work.
So – what are the core areas of our work and what can people do to build solidarity around those ideas and those who support those ideas? There are four key areas:
We are doing everything we can to research, document and increase the visibility of human rights violations and abuses that occur by any party to the conflict as a step towards them being held to account – ideally at the International Criminal Court.
It's essential those who say they want a better Syria also do this. Many people who describe themselves as progressive but do not have a deep analysis of Syria or the time to look into what is happening will notice where opposition activists are turning a blind eye or worse, justifying abuses by armed opposition groups – at that point you have lost them and it is no point complaining you are not getting the sufficient level of solidarity you think your cause deserves. In short, it is a massive own goal to ignore or justify abuses. A step towards building solidarity must include having a credible position and clear opposition to human rights abuses by all parties, not just the Assad regime or ISIS. And this isn't just about calling out opposition fighters, it is also about pushing them to improve their rules of engagement and structures so civilian protection is central to their own activities.
We are doing all we can to increase the visibility of the humanitarian crisis to help those seeking secure & durable cross border and cross line aid deliveries.
This issue, along with the counter terrorism narrative, is a key focus for many governments right now – we need to keep the focus on this and push the point that protecting civilians from deliberate starvation and indiscriminate bombardment is more important than quaint notions of state sovereignty – especially where that state is committing crimes against humanity, as Assad’s regime is.
Solidarity and Support for detained Syrian activists
We take action in solidarity with detained Syrian activists and call for their release - don’t let them be forgotten. Many of these people are critical to a future Syria where human rights for all is a central feature. You can join our urgent action network, take action in support and share information about Syria's detained peaceful activists.
We’re helping to empower, equip and mobilise Syrian activists to help them develop an independent civil society, take human rights messages out to a wider audience and be better enabled to use non-violent means to defend their own and others rights.
This last point on transition is crucial - across Syria and outside the country, there are still many thousands of brave people who continue to stand up for their rights to demand an end to poverty, corruption, impunity and repression. Those were key drivers of the uprisings and over three years on, the poverty is worse, the corruption is worse, the impunity is worse and the repression is worse. The regime arrested or killed a lot of peaceful activists in 2011 but there are still many who remain and many new activists imbued with a revolutionary spirit. Those that call themselves progressive should be supporting these activists.
These activists are calling for a future where human rights are respected and protected. If you truly believe in social justice you will make an effort to get to know this beautiful reality.
So many self described progressives have been disgracefully ignorant, maybe on purpose, of this reality - confront them, in a positive way, with the reality of Syria's many progressive activists campaigning for a better Syria and being repressed by a tyrannical regime - ask them to make a decision - who is more deserving of support and solidarity?
So anyway, this is what we at Amnesty are engaged in – there is not enough time to go into everything in detail, but it is great that Reem is on the panel – she and her colleagues in the Syrian Non Violence Movement are one of the groups we have been working with, providing advice, giving training and other support – and we will continue to do this in Turkey in the following weeks - our commitment to them is for the long term.
I appreciate individual activists can not engage in all these activities but there are still practical actions that can be taken. For instance
Make sure your MP is getting the full and accurate picture – I would of course say base your narrative on the human rights arguments, even if you are advocating more robust measures – the laws of war are there for a reason, use them. So write to your MPs, meet them, inform them – also if you are in a union, an NGO, a school or university, indeed any civil society group – call on them to devote resources to expressing their solidarity and promoting a Syria which has human rights for all.
Help credible Syrian civil society and relief organisations – whether small or large – many of them are crossing into Syria on a daily basis and not waiting for permission from the regime or the UN Security Council. They are doing vital work under dangerous conditions - they need support.
Speak at events, comment on and correct false narratives, organise solidarity events, educate - just make sure your message is credible.
And finally – try not to give up – it will take many years to see sustainable stability and protection in Syria and a lot of effort and resources from civil society, states and the UN – they need to be constantly reminded of this because there is always a danger Syria becomes another forgotten conflict. We can make sure it isn't.
Kristyan Benedict is on Twitter as @KreaseChan
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.