What hopes for credible justice in a post Assad Syria?

By Kristyan Benedict - @KreaseChan

As London plays host to Syria’s political opposition, talk once again is about a future political “transition” in Syria.

Given the relentlessly brutal reality on the ground in Syria, any search for a way out of the crisis has to be welcomed. Syria’s political opposition groups should be commended for proposing a range of plans and initiatives that seek to uphold international law - something that Assad’s government and its backers flout in the most outrageous fashion.

But are all those groups opposed to Assad actually so committed to human rights values? The answer is: certainly not, and I don’t just mean ISIS or Al Qaeda-linked groups when I say this.

It’s no secret that armed opposition groups operating in Aleppo, Idlib and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings - Amnesty highlighted this in a report just a few weeks ago. That report offered a glimpse of what life is really like in areas under the control of those armed groups.

For instance, “Halim”, a humanitarian worker, was abducted by the Nour al-Dine Zinki Movement in July 2014 while supervising a project in a hospital in Aleppo city. He was held incommunicado for around two months before being forced to sign a “confession” under torture.

“When I refused to sign the confession paper the interrogator ordered the guard to torture me. The guard used the bisat al-rih [flying carpet] technique. He placed my hands above my head, and forced me to lift my legs in a perpendicular position. He then started beating me with cables on the soles of my feet. I couldn’t bear the pain so I signed the paper,” he said.

The reality is that many Syrian civilians, including human rights activists, live in constant fear of being abducted if they criticise the conduct of powerful armed groups or fail to abide by the strict rules that some have imposed. It’s a form of organised thuggery masquerading as “freedom fighting” and in many ways it’s behaviour indistinct from the abuses committed by pro-government forces in Syria.

Some of these groups are supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the USA, despite evidence of their war crimes.

If armed opposition groups are to have the confidence of people living under their rule in Syria, both they and the governments that support them militarily and financially, and their political representatives, must challenge their abuses without delay - this point can’t be emphasised enough. So let’s see the political and armed opposition as well as the UK, US, Turkey, Qatar and the Saudis publicly condemn all human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law - not just by Assad and his allies but by his opponents too.

You can read further Amnesty recommendations to armed opposition groups, International Syria Support Group members, the UN Syria envoy and the UN Security Council here.

The meeting in London is a significant opportunity for some of Syria’s opposition groups to lay out their stall over things like justice and democracy in a future Syria. But let’s be clear: any post-Assad Syria mustn’t be one built on the killing, kidnap and torture of Syrian human rights activists, aid workers or journalists. The task of rebuilding Syria is going to be immense, but one of the vital building blocks will be proper respect for human rights and an active, independent and safe civil society. Syria’s political opposition must make that absolutely clear to armed opposition groups and so should the UK Government.

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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.
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