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Time to end Syria’s atrocities

Only concerted and united international action – to end the targeting of civilians and to lift the humanitarian blockade and to support justice for past crimes – will ease the suffering of Syrian civilians – writes Emma Daly

It seems fitting that headlines about Syria – a purported archive of official execution photos and upcoming peace talks – bookends Human Rights Watch’s annual state of the world report since this vicious conflict has created the most acute human rights crisis of 2013. Since the report covers more than 90 countries and the European Union, there are many other problems to note: the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance by the United States and the United Kingdom, Moscow’s crackdown on dissent by anyone and its discrimination against Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender people, and the bullying of dissidents and minorities by governments claiming to have the support of the majority.

And, of course, the documented human rights abuses from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There are even reasons to hope: two new treaties will protect some of the most vulnerable laborers in the world, domestic workers and artisanal gold miners. Also, despite its failure in Syria, the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ endorsed by world leaders in 2005 prompted the initial international action to try to diminish or prevent mass atrocities in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The United Nations, African Union and European Union as well as individual governments promised – and produced – assistance or political pressure – although it, in fact, will require a sustained commitment to ensure that promises are kept and civilians in both countries are supported, and protected.

But in Syria, the picture is bleak. We have documented how the government committed war crimes as part of its battle strategy, making lives of civilians in opposition-held areas as miserable as possible in the hope of turning public support against the opposition and forcing people to flee. The government has dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo, used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs and imposed harsh sieges on rebel-held enclaves. Civilians have also faced increasing abuses by extremist rebel groups – executions, kidnappings and other abuses that amount to war crimes.

Ending the indiscriminate killing of civilians and opening borders to humanitarian aid should be central to the Geneva II peace talks with – at least some – of the relevant actors. But these talks should not offer yet another sorry excuse for international inaction or distraction. Although we cannot authenticate the pictures published this week by The Guardian and CNN, we have documented the Syrian government’s extensive use of torture in facilities across the country by speaking to survivors and defectors, visiting former detention centers and seeing first-hand torture devices and chambers. The latest images show why a Geneva II agreement needs to include freedom for all political detainees in Syria and pressure on Syria and Russia to allow the United Nations commission of inquiry full and unimpeded access to conduct a comprehensive independent investigation into allegations of serious crimes by all parties.

Holding people to account for serious abuses should be central to any transition plan for Syria and a key ingredient for a meaningful and durable peace. The International Criminal Court could investigate crimes on both sides and a UN Security Council referral of the situation in Syria to the court would ratchet up the pressure to end the mass killings. It would also put commanders and political leaders on notice that they can be held responsible for future atrocities.

The Syria crisis has produced more than 2.3 million refugees, and European governments could do far more to share the burden of caring for them. Germany has offered to resettle 10,000 Syrians and its EU partners should follow suit. And the urgent need for humanitarian relief for more than 6.5 million displaced in Syria, and others under siege, underscores the need to press the Syrian government to remove all restrictions on access to food and health care.

As our report points out the EU and its member states should be acting on many fronts to promote human rights, including tackling violence and discrimination against migrants and minorities at home; and using its influence with Russia and China to push for reforms. Many European governments were rightly angry about unchecked United States government surveillance but have yet to come clean about their own records.

Documents revealed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed that the US has been collecting and analysing the emails – and communications – of millions of people around the world not suspected of any wrongdoing. This violates standards protecting the right to privacy essential to freedom of expression and association necessary for any functioning democracy.

These rights are subject to some restrictions – for genuine national security concerns, for example – and when strictly proportionate. American surveillance practices were anything but allowing for the bulk collection of communications worldwide – under vague terms and for broad purposes. American President Barack Obama last week promised to rein in these surveillance practices although his reforms did not go far enough. He imposed some vague restraints on what the US can do with the information it collects but few on how it is gathered in the first place. We need stronger safeguards on both.

In today’s world, where almost everyone depends on electronic communications, it is not ok to collect the private data of so many people under no suspicion of any wrongdoing. The Snowden uproar prompted the UN general assembly to adopt a resolution aimed at protecting the right to privacy in the digital age. It was the first major statement from the UN on the issue in 25 years. But we need to see real reforms. Of course, America is only capable of conducting this mass surveillance due to its position of global dominance in internet communications. Unless the US better protects the privacy rights of those both inside and outside its borders though, it risks giving other governments a green light to engage in mass surveillance and encouraging them to enact laws forcing Internet companies to keep consumers’ data within their borders.

As for Syria, the US cannot fix it alone but it – and its European allies – could do so much more to increase the pressure on Russia and Iran, who have influence with President Bashar al-Assad, and on the Gulf States that allow support to extremist and abusive rebel groups. Only concerted and united international action – to end the targeting of civilians and to lift the humanitarian blockade and to support justice for past crimes – will ease the suffering of Syrian civilians.

Emma Daly is communications director at Human Rights Watch

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