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Syria: The Road Towards Justice

Ms Schaake, distinguished co-panelists and Members of the European Parliament, it is a privilege to speak to you here today on the issue of justice and accountability in Syria. I would like to thank the European Parliament and

MsSchaake, in particular, for your sustained attention and support on this issue. Some two weeks ago, a doctor from eastern Ghouta, in the Damascus countryside, said: “Even a million videos that come out of here won’t relay our pain, or even a fraction of what is going on. How would you describe a father who buried his son, and had to leave Ghouta, he went to visit his son’s grave, and told him, forgive me I have to leave you…; how do you describe the feelings of a young man who had to bury his entire family… children and women and men, and where were they buried? In the public square in the middle of town. Why? Because the bombings wouldn’t stop and he had no other choice.”

This past weekend, residents of Douma in eastern Ghouta, besieged, starved and bombarded by government forces for over four years, have yet again come under a hail of bombardments, pushing people into the basements for shelter… shelters that have become traps in and of themselves whenever incendiary or chemical weapons are used… over 50 people were killed in their homes this past weekend by what appear to be credible reports of chemical attacks, compounding the dozens of reported casualties from the bombings…

The horrific killings of this past week in eastern Ghouta are only the latest in the continuous stream of suffering inflicted by the Syrian government and armed opposition groups, supported by foreign states.

During these past 7 years, Amnesty International has documented grave violations of international law including war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed by all parties to the conflict – in other words the Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-led coalition, the opposition armed groups, and the Islamic State.

While we were able in the first years to be present in Syria – our researchers were in fact present during the first protests in Damascus – this access has been increasingly made difficult in opposition-held areas for security purposes and the government has refused to grant us access to government-controlled areas, despite repeated requests. To overcome this lack of access, we have developed a rigorous methodology in our investigations that has been based on collecting first-hand testimonies from people on the ground or in diaspora, verifying the images and videos to corroborate their authenticity, and cross-checking these with witness accounts, analyzing satellite imagery, as well as resorting to the analysis of medical and weapons experts.

Over the course of the past 7 years, Amnesty staff members have spoken to hundreds of residents, medical workers, activists, journalists, lawyers inside the country –individuals who make up the fabric of a society… never before has it been as limpid that the main victor in this conflict today is widespread fear and disillusionment of the survivors.

But with the government’s territorial advances, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us and others to document the ongoing violations, because of the lack of access, but increasingly because of the real security risks for people on the ground, who have every reason to fear retaliation for speaking out.

Over four decades ago, the Syrian government’s forces under Hafez al Assad’s rule carried out crimes in Lebanon – enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture leading to deaths, extrajudicial killings as well as unlawful bombardment campaigns. There was no talk of accountability at the time; the international community chose to ignore these crimes. Today, hundreds of families are still hoping their loved ones are alive in Syrian prisons. Being from Lebanon, I am part of a society that has paid a hefty price for impunity for the crimes committed by Syria, Israel, and Lebanon and non-Lebanese armed groups.

Political settlements that forfeit accountability simply cannot sustain long-term stability, let alone a life of safety and dignity that the people of Syria are paying such as terrible price for.

This speech was given by Lynn Maalouf, the Middle East Research Director at Amnesty International, at an event organized by Marietje Schaake, Representative of European Parliament. The event was held in Brussels on 10 April 2018 and was entitled “Syria: The Road Towards Accountability”.