Human rights refers to the fundamental freedoms and privileges inalienable to every person regardless of age, sex, race, status, or religion. Although universally understood to be inherent, inalienable, and indivisible, numerous issues on human rights spring in places rife with conflict. Syria is one such country that is ravaged by conflict and violence, and as such, is faced with human rights issues. The author of this expository essay tackles the human rights issues in Syria, how the Syrian government deals with citizens’ rights and freedoms, and human rights violations resulting from the Syrian civil war. In this essay, the author shall also expound on the causes of the conflicts in Syria as well as the various human rights violations of international response on the humanitarian crisis that spans 9 years.
On Human Rights
The concept of human rights was not fully established until World War II, however versions of it had been the subject of philosophical debate and political discussions and legislation as early as the 18th century. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 (“What are Human Rights?”), human rights became universally protected by the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations. States are also obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights of all people in their jurisdiction (“What are Human Rights?”). Treatises and international laws have been established to serve as guidelines for states in an attempt to regulate wars.
The United Nations, tasked of maintaining human rights throughout the world, appears to be at a loss on how to resolve the human rights issues in Syria. Its efforts, so far, seems to be futile. The organization has cited evidence that human rights were violated in the duration of the Syrian civil war, and has since been demanding warring parties to “end indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas (Rodgers et al.)”, but this has been widely ignored. As the civil war wages on, more and more Syrians as well as foreigners are sacrificed. It is quite apparent that the human rights issues in Syria require far stronger actions from the international community.
The Conflict In Syria
The civil war in Syria is rooted in complex societal and political issues and conflicts in the country that goes all the way back to the 70s and the people’s subsequent disappointment in the al-Assad family’s failure to bring stability to the country. Political unrest in Syria exploded during, and as part of the Arab Spring in 2011. Like most Arab Spring protests, protests in Syria called for the removal of the president, Bashar al-Assad, democratic reforms, regime change, expansion of civil rights, lifting of the emergency law and, consequently, abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, and equal rights for Kurds (Roth). The government’s violent response to the protests led the country to a long and violent civil war. Al-Assad resorted to massive arrests, police and military violence, crackdown, and censorship to stop the revolution. As a response to the police and military violence, the opposition resorted to armed rebellion to defend themselves and to drive off government forces from local areas (Rodgers et al.). In the midst of the violent war between forces are the civilians who not only are trapped but also frequently become pawns for either forces.
In 2012, the United Nations proclaimed Syria to be in a state of civil war as government and rebel forces fought for control of cities and towns (Roth). Factions emerged--Syrian rebels, the Islamic State Of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organizations, Kurdish-led organizations, and foreign militias including Hezbollah and the armed uprising expanded to two of the largest Syrian cities Aleppo and Damascus (United States Institute of Peace). The Syrian civil war has evolveed into something more complex, taking on socioeconomic and religious overtones, on top of the issues with the government. As the opposition fragmented into factions, the government continued to benefit from the support of neighboring countries who provided military support, particularly from Russia and Iran (Rodgers et al.). The United States, United Kingdom, France, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, and Australia had intervened by sending military forces to combat the largest rebel group Islamic State Of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) as well as other rebel factions (Rodgers et al.). The US also imposed economic sanctions on the country to force the al-Assad regime to cooperate with the United Nations and stop his government’s human rights violations, and finally put an end to the civil war (Qiblawi). The conflict in Syria has evolved into a full-blown war and has created the greatest humanitarian crisis in the 21st century.
Human Rights Issues in Syria
By the time of the Arab Springs, Syria had been under a state of emergency, ruled by a police state, since 1960s (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). The al Assads had been responsible for numerous human rights violations in Syria and Lebanon for decades (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). Although protests in Syria had begun peacefully, al-Assad’s iron fist forced the country into a brutal civil war. Now on its tenth year, the civil war in Syria records more than 500,000 deaths and over 13 million displaced (USIP). The grave situation in Syria is not just the work of the police state and rebel and opposition forces. Human Rights Watch also report human rights violations by international forces, including the military of the US-led coalition (Roth). Syrians thus are left to bear the brunt of the various human rights violations from various fronts.
Human Rights Violations by the Syrian Government
The Syrian government uses the law and the military against both opposition forces and civilians. Al-Assad’s government enforced a legal and policy framework that enables it to restrict humanitarian organizations’ and approve projects for anti-government held areas. This practice effectively punishes civilians who genuinely need aide and who are not part of terrorist organizations. The Syrian government is also of the habit of arbitrarily designating people and human rights activists as terrorists, which allows the former to freeze the latter’s assets.
Aside from policies, the Syrian government, backed by the Russian military, launches daily attacks on anti-government held areas. The coalition reportedly uses, as quoted, “internationally banned cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and explosive weapons with wide-area effect including improvised “barrel bombs” against schools, homes, and hospitals” (Roth), the most recent being the attacks on Idlib. Government-backed attacks alone kill thousands of people in a day and force others into internal displacement. Civilians throughout Syria are left without homes and without the means to relocate to Turkey. They also fear prosecution if they attempt to move to government-held areas (Roth). These civilians are trapped in more ways than one, unable to rely on the government or even on humanitarian aid.
Furthermore, the Syrian government is responsible for arbitrary detention and forced disappearances, particularly in regions re-taken from anti-government groups. Activists, former opposition leaders, as well as their families often fall victim to these tactics despite having signed reconciliation agreements with the government. Since 2011, thousands have died from torture and inhumane detention conditions in the hands of the Syrian government (Roth). The Syrian government has long defected from its duty to protect its citizens in its blind attempt to overpower opposition forces.
Human Rights Violations by Rebel Forces
Various factions of rebel forces also pose as a serious threat against the lives of Syrians. Various rebel forces fight against each other and government forces for occupation of regions in Syria. As a result, these forces launch indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, particularly those under government control. Rebel groups have repeatedly fired deadly mortars to civilian-packed, government-controlled regions from the countryside and have, as the government has too, often violated cease-fire agreements (Rodgers et al.). Attacks led by rebel forces indiscriminately target both militaries and civilians. ISIL, in particular, is known to set up land mines around regions they occupy to prevent civilians from fleeing. Furthermore, anyone caught attempting to escape is punished, if not caught by the aforementioned land mines (Roth). These rebel forces actively trap civilians in regions, and continuously force them to live in inhumane circumstances.
Rebel forces also routinely violate human rights as war strategy. The Human Rights Watch reports that they have targeted civilians, taken hostages, planted car bombs, conducted arbitrary arrests, extorted, tortured, and enforced rigid dress codes and rules for women (Roth). Like the government, rebel forces also restrict humanitarian aids in the regions they occupy and have accused the United Nations of “waging a campaign of terror” as reported by Rodgers et al, thereby worsening the humanitarian crisis in the country. Time and time again, rebel forces have shown that they have little regard for the safety of civilians.
Human rights appears to have been suspended within the boundaries of Syria, as this sample expository essay demonstrated. The human rights issues in Syria have long been the topic of political science research papers, but it is more than that. It is a real problem that has cost millions of lives. As forces fight each other for supremacy and control over the country, they appear to have shed compassion and regard for others. Both sides of the fight, government and non-government, have conducted actions that violate human rights and various war crimes. They have attacked, extorted, abducted, tortured, and arbitrarily arrested civilians for years. Innocent Syrians are forced to live in terror and inhumane conditions, unable even to have access to humanitarian aid sent their way. Syrians have lost their freedom along with their homes as they now constitute a large part of refugees. The international community continuously finds ways to not only send humanitarian aid to ravaged regions but also to end the war once and for all. However, the lack of cooperation from major stakeholders makes peace seem like an impossible goal.
Roth, Kenneth. “Syria: Events of 2019.” Human Rights Watch, hrw.org, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/syria#a1fb55.
Rodgers, Lucy, et al. “Syria: The Story Of The Conflict.” BBC News, BBC, 11 March 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-26116868.
“What Are Human Rights?” United Nations – Office Of The High Commissioner, OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/pages/whatarehumanrights.aspx.
Qiblawi, Tamara. “As the US Rolls Out New Sanctions on Assad, Syria Braces For Economic Devastation.” CNN, 17 June 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/17/middleeast/syria-caesar-act-us-sanctions-economy-intl/index.html.
United States Institute of Peace. “The Current Situation in Syria: A USIP Fact Sheet.” United States Institute of Peace, 26 August 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/08/current-situation-syria.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syrian Civil War.” Britannica, n.d., https://www.britannica.com/event/Syrian-Civil-War.