The Human Rights Committee periodic report on Syria’s complianc with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Human Rights Committee 
(HR/CT/606   Seventy-first Session)
30 March 2001 /1917th Meeting (PM)


The Human Rights Committee this afternoon concluded its consideration of the second periodic report on Syria’s complianc with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As it did so, Syria’s delegation responded to written and oral questions posed by the Committee, both during the meeting and previously.  Those responses addressed the issue of the continued state of emergency in the country, measures in place to ensure the right to a fair trial, the status of Kurds within Syria, the rights of the child, the makeup of Parliamen the question of polygamy and the release of Lebanese nationals held in Syria. On the last issue, Fayssal Mekdad (Syria) said he had followed the process of release of the Lebanese arrested in Syria on television, and they had spoken at length in front of the cameras.  None of them, he noted, had complained about mistreatment.  They had not been subject to any harassment or anything that contravened the provisions of the Covenant while in detention in Syria.  The released detainees now lived in Lebanon.  Also providing answers to Committee members’ questions was Abboud Sarraj (Syria), Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Damascus.  In a closing remark, he assured the Committee that its observations would be taken into account.  In a closing statement, Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati of India, Committee Chairman, said he was very thankful to the Committee for the full and frank discussion which had been held.  He then enumerated a number of concerns the Committee still had, including the continued state of emergency in the country and the related restrictions that subsisted, issues related to the death penalty and the range of offenses under which it could be applied, and alleged instances of torture.  During the meeting, while stressing that much more remained to be done, several members noted positive recent developments in the human rights situation in Syria. The Committee is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, 3 April, at 10 a.m. to continue elaborating its draft general comment on article 4 of the Covenant.

 The Human Rights Committee met this afternoon to continue its consideration of the Second Periodical Report of the Syrian Arab Republic on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights (document CCPR/C/SYR/2000/2).  (For more background information and summary of the report, see HR/CT/605 issued 30 March.  For background on the session see Press Release HR/CT/590 issued 19 March.)

 Questions and Comments by Experts
An expert said he had a question with regard to the discrepancy between Syria’s presentation and information received from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other sources.  One of the interesting things in the report and presentation were the aspects of arrest and detention that had been stressed.  He had had the impression that the procedures being described were the ones that would occur under normal situations.  The discrepancy was perhaps due to the state of emergency in Syria.   He asked what rights, normally applicable under the Constitution, might not be applicable in the allegedly rare cases of derogations from the Covenant due to the country’s state of emergency or in cases that found themselves before the highest State security courts.  Many of the more “blood-curdling” allegations related to the latter, he said.  The representative of Syria had indicated that many allegations could be clarified if NGOs had sought the information from the State party, he said.  However, many of the allegations, the Committee had been told, had been transmitted and there had not been a response.  Certain NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, had been invited into the country in the 1990s.  According to subsequent information provided by one of those NGOs, persons had been brought into the State security court in bad condition and the court had ignored their allegations of torture.  Turning to the death penalty, he said Amnesty International had received information in 2000 that an individual had been executed in Syria in 1992.  It had been left up to Amnesty to inform the family.  He sought more information about the actual application of the death penalty.  He also asked for information on when members of the organized legal profession had refused to appear before the State security court because they had doubts about its impartiality. He then asked for comment on the fact that –- if he understood the situation correctly -- places of pre- and post-trial detention were under the same authority. 

 Answers to Experts’ Questions 
FAYSSAL MEKDAD (Syria) said he was honoured to present the work of his Government in enhancing human rights.  He confirmed that his delegation would provide all necessary information.  His Government had made great efforts to prepare the report and had not wanted to avoid its responsibilities.  Technical complications had prevented it to providing the second report on time.  He hoped that recent efforts would contribute to a solid basis for providing reports on time in the future.  That basis needed human as well as financial resources.  He hoped that the Committee’s comments could be useful to enhance human rights in Syria.   The circumstances of Syria were difficult, he said, addressing questions about the state of emergency.  Between the forties and the sixties, the Country was plagued by coups d’état.  That cycle had stopped in 1970.  In 1975 armed groups, such as the “Muslim Brothers” started killing citizens.  People committing such crimes could not talk about human rights, he said.  The city of Hama had been attacked by those gangs who had killed there for seven days.  The State had no choice but to put an end to the killing.  Allegations had been made that the State was responsible for the killings.  Those allegations were not acceptable.  Could the killers be welcomed back to the country after they had fled?  He appealed to the Committee to believe him, as he told the truth. Regarding questions about some individuals who had died in jail, he said one of them had not died in jail, but in Paris, as was well known.  Why the falsification?   One of the most important elements in the story of Lebanon was that of a protracted civil war.  In 1975 Syria had intervened by sending troops.  The inalienable position of Syria at the time was based on the view that no party to a civil war should be defeated, he said.  The civil war ended in 1990.  The peace and return to prosperity was thanks to Syria’s sacrifices including thousands of martyrs.  All Lebanese detainees had been handed over to Lebanese authorities.  He assured the Committee that not a single Lebanese detainee was in Syria and was prepared to have a dialogue with the Lebanese Government if there were questions.  Turning to another question, he asked what was wrong with saying, as the Constitution did, that art should be in the service of society.  This did not imply a restriction on the freedom of innovation in art.  There were thousands of books in Syria on all sorts of topics.  The provision in the Constitution had been designed only to encourage art and literature.

 ABBOUD SARRAJ (Syria), Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Damascus, said his delegation was present to engage in dialogue –- everything the Committee said would be considered and duly taken into account.  Today’s meeting would not be the last -– many meetings would be held with the Committee in the future.  Much of significance had been said.  He said the Committee members believed that it was not necessary to continue the state of emergency in Syria.  The matter related to the State and was contingent on the circumstance affecting the country.  He noted that there was a law which governed the situation, and that in all countries of the world there was such a law.   Many countries that had not declared states of emergency had human rights violations, he said.  The emergency law contained very important restrictions on officials for safeguarding human rights.  While the emergency was in effect, its provisions were seldom used.  In recent years, there were very few known cases where the law had been applied. When decisions on capital punishment were made they were sent to a court of appeal, which commuted the penalty to imprisonment, meaning, effectively, that there was no capital punishment.  The Committee had been referring to instances of capital punishment without trials and disappearances.  Those allegations had been made by certain organizations.  The relevant authorities in Syria had asserted that there had been no such incidents.   He said Amnesty International had been allowed to enter Syria and conduct its investigations in full freedom.  It was not necessary, he pointed out, that whoever disappeared was an enemy of Syria.  There were many neighbouring States and it was easy to enter them. Regarding the status of women, he said that women in Syria had rights that were not observed in many developed countries.  Personal law was derived from Islamic law, which gave women a full range of rights provided in the Holy Koran. No rights for women had been belittled or derogated.  Regarding polygamy, he said only a small percentage of men married more than one women, as an old cultural heritage.  The wife could submit a petition to the court that life with her husband had become unbearable, and the judge, if convinced, would provide for divorce.  By law, women in Syria could work without seeking the approval of their husbands. Regarding corporal punishment in schools, he said he “lived” in education and had not heard about corporal punishment.  Such things could happen because of some crazy teacher, but the law did not allow it.  There were no laws preventing NGOs from coming to his country.  Any association could work in Syria.  There was a trend in Syria to encourage institutionalization of NGOs.  He said international law and instruments took precedence over internal law.  Internal law was adjusted when needed in order to comply with international law. He said the issue of visas was subject to regulations and did not represent any restriction on freedoms.  The visas were required because some persons who had responsibilities in Syria could not leave, such as those in military service.  In some cases, divorced persons could not leave the country unless they had paid their alimony or child support.  Employees of some companies could not leave the country until they obtained approval.  Women did not need an exit visa to leave the country. 

Answers to Written Questions
Mr. SARRAJ then turned to a questions on article 14 of the Covenant on the right to a fair trial.  He said that the judicial power in Syria enjoyed full independence in its decisions and verdicts.  The late President had stressed the need not to interfere with the judiciary, and there were many constitutional and legislative provisions in place to protect that independence.  The selection of judges took place without any personal consideration, efficiency being the only criteria.  The relevant article prevented the appointment of disabled individuals in judicial jobs because adequate physical capacities were needed.  He agreed that there was nothing that prevented the employment of disabled persons if the disability did not run counter to the nature of the job. The highest State Security Court was a judicial court established in 1968 and was headed by a civil judge, he said.  Additionally, there was one civil and one military judge.  The Court’s meetings were public and the right to defence was ensured.  Counsel could be contacted at any time.  It was known in Syria that the president of the court and the two members were selected from among the best judges in the country. Responding to a question, he said military trials in Syria were used to try military persons for military offences.  The military judge must apply the normal penal law and procedures.  The military judiciary power was not at all different from the normal judiciary power.  Political offences were offences committed out of a political motive or that violated a political right, he said.  The sentences of life in prison and capital punishment were not allowed for political crimes.  Political prisoners were not forced to work in prison. Regarding confiscation of money of officials accused of insubordination, he said that particular amendment to the Penal Law had been issued because of the refusal of employees to work when Syria was in dire need of their services. An amnesty was issued every two or three years for those employees, and money had not been confiscated. Regarding freedom of expression, he said in Syria conscience was the only restriction.  The Association of Journalists was responsible for the conditions of the journalists.  No restrictions were imposed on journalists, even during the state of emergency.  There was no difference with other countries in that regard.  Radio and television belonged to the State, but Syria was encouraging the private sector to establish stations in the future.  Radio and television had full freedom of expression. Regarding the case of Mr Nizar Nayyuf, he said Mr. Nayyuf had been arrested in 1992, and condemned to 10 years imprisonment by the Court of State Security because he belonged to a clandestine organization and was instigating and spreading chaos.  The clandestine organization had been behind many acts of violence.  In 1999, Mr. Nayyuf had refused to enter a request to be freed. There was nothing in Syria to restrict the right to freedom of association, unless such association was contrary to the health of the State or other citizens, he said.  The Government had never prohibited any demonstration carried out in accordance with official regulations. The State encouraged the establishment of syndicates, clubs, parties and other organizations, he said.  The records of the Ministry of Social Affairs confirmed that there were more than 600 societies permitted to work within the fields of their competence.  There were societies for women, youth, farmers, artists, doctors, engineers and many others. There were six political parties in Syria.  The Baath Socialist party worked with other parties within the national front, he noted. The nature of the People’s Parliament as a legislative authority necessitated that members of Parliament should read and write well, but an advanced degree was not necessary. 
The earmarking of 50 per cent of seats in the Parliament for workers and farmers expressed the social and economic structure of society. In Syria there were no problems with Kurdish citizens -– they were on an equal footing with other citizens.  A number of Kurds had occupied high posts in the State and had an effective role in social and economic life.  All information received on discrimination against Kurds was erroneous, he stressed.  Kurds who came to Syria were well taken care. He said the rights of the child were respected by all State institutions.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child had been ratified in 1993 and its provisions were fully adhered to.  Kurdish children born in Syria were considered citizens, without any discrimination, he noted.  The same thing applied to Kurdish children who came from other countries.
 Syrian authorities sought to inform citizens about the Covenant and tried to explain it.  Syria newspapers gave the Covenant a special place on their pages.  Human rights were taught in elementary and secondary schools as well in faculties of Law, Letters, Sociology and Education.  The international human rights articles were also taught to judges and others  The subject was also taught in police academies in Syria.   In conclusion, he said it was difficult to talk about human rights without taking into consideration the political, social and economical situation of a country.  The desire to safeguard human rights and the dignity of human beings existed in Syria.  He wanted to convey to the Committee that Syria’s President desired to enhance human rights and to protect them on the basis of the Constitution, Syrian law, covenants and international agreements.

 Questions by Experts
One expert said he was still unclear about the state of emergency, as most rights dealt with by the Committee were subject to derogation.  He had information from the Syrian Government that the state of emergency was “de facto suspended”.  He wanted to know if the state of emergency existed.  He also asked for more factual information in the next report. The Committee had reviewed information about cases which had been decided under the state of emergency by the Court of State Security.  Unfortunately, replies given by the Government to organizations who sought information about two prisoners did not address the specific complaints.  It was unhelpful that the Government had not responded in detail to allegations about the absence of lawyers and detainment beyond the term of imprisonment.  Perhaps the delegation could shed some light on the matter. There seemed to be a fresh breath for the protection of human rights under the new President, and the situation had improved, according to information he had received.  That ought to be encouraged.  However, he hoped that things might move along a little faster.  People professing peaceful proposals should be given that liberty, even if they criticized government.  Giving a long term of imprisonment to somebody who criticized a government was not consistent with the Covenant  He also wished to see some of the decrees passed under the emergency law, such as one relating to censorship, removed. An expert said that perhaps in the follow-up session the delegation could give information on texts before the Committee related to the equality of women, repudiation and disobedience.  She still had some questions on political crimes.  Her perplexity had been strengthened with a reference made to French law.  She wanted to know whether a political crime came under the jurisdiction of the Highest State Security Court.  She asked for more clarification on recourse to the State Security Court.Another expert asked for more information on the role of civil society in Syria.  Many positive things had been seen since the assumption to power of the new President.  He wondered if the trend would continue.  He also asked a question regarding the rights of women in accordance with the Isamic Sharia.  Did women have the right to repudiate their husbands before a magistrate?  In some Islamic countries recently laws had been adjusted to allow women to do so. Was the same situation in effect in Syria?  Another expert said many questions had not really been answered, such as the question about Lebanese detained in Syria.  The delegation had said there were no Lebanese in detention, but had not addressed allegations of what had happened in the past. Regarding the independence of the judiciary, he asked whether the fact that the President of the Republic should preside over the Supreme Judicial Council did not suggest some problems about that independence.  He would like some enlightenment on that.  He had noted that the term of membership of the High Constitutional Court was four years and that that term could be renewed.  He did not think such a short term gave judges the necessary independence, especially if the term was renewable.  Were judges really as independent as the Constitution suggested, he asked.

 An expert asked for further clarification on the issue of freedom of expression.  The delegation had explained that it was still in a state of war with Israel and that an emergency situation prevailed.  Was it really necessary to maintain a state of emergency, which affected freedom of expression?  The Syrian Arab Writers Union was supposed to be independent, but according to information before the Committee it was led by members of the Baath party, and consequently functioned as a sort of censorship body.  He asked for further clarification on that issue and on how free citizens were in asking for information from official documents.  He understood that about 8.5 per cent of the population were of Kurdish ethnic origin.  In 1962, a census had been undertaken in one of Syria’s provinces, resulting in the classification of some Kurds as unregistered foreigners, which limited their rights.  Was that true?  If it was, what was the Government doing to give some protection to their human rights. Another expert invited the delegation for comments on a case brought to his attention by a usually reliable source, concerning a woman who had been arrested without a warrant in December 2000 because she had distributed a cartoon of the Syrian president by e-mail and had not yet appeared before a judge.  He also wanted to know if intelligence forces, when they arrested people, operated under the same rules as the police in criminal cases. He said no statistics or data had been given regarding the state of emergency.  He renewed his questions about differences between procedures of the Higher State Security Court from procedures in other courts in pre-trial detention stage.  He noted that before their release, the existence of Lebanese prisoners had been denied.  He wanted more assurance about the existence of Lebanese detainees. Another expert asked for more information about a particular case of somebody who had died shortly after being freed from prison.  He had obtained lists of Syrian, Jordanese and Lebanese prisoners.  Some of them had been released, according to the list, but others, mentioned by name, were mentioned as still detained.  Was it possible to get an indication of the validity or falsehood of that information?
Notwithstanding the assurances of the delegation regarding Kurdish children, he said there had been at least 150 cases indicating that children had not been registered.  He also asked for more clarification regarding the status of women and military courts.  The “yardsticks” used in defining political crime were not clear to him. The report had said that meetings had to be free from disturbances and not designed to pressure the state.  That raised the problem of freedom of association and expression.  He also asked if it was true that professionals were by nature members of a union 

Responses by Delegation
Mr. MEKDAD (Syria) expressed his satisfaction at the constructive dialogue that had taken place.  Syria had tried its best to benefit from the suggestions previously elaborated by the Committee in preparing the current report.  There was still room for improvement, however, and the current observations would be taken into consideration when the third report was prepared.  Many members had spoken of the new atmosphere or “change of guard” in Syria, he said.  He stressed that what was happening was a continuation of the achievements made during the tenure of the previous leadership.  Initiatives were in place to improve the social and economic situation in the country.  There was a newly developed perspective regarding the media.  That did not, however, mean that information in Syria had been restricted in the past.  He encouraged the Committee to read the mass media in the social, economic and political fields -- anyone who did so could see that restrictions on their freedom of expression were not in place.  The only restriction in place was one’s conscience.  Writers could write whatever they wanted in whatever manner they chose.  However, some aspects of tradition and society must be taken into account. He said that joining societies such as the previously mentioned Arab Writers Union was voluntary.  Was it possible to believe that the Writers Union was dominated by a specific authority?  The writers did not like such regulations.  The Union had decided to expel two persons as had been notified by an expert -– was the Government expected to require of the association that they be readmitted?  Associations were fully free to judge their members in whatever way was appropriate -– the final say belonged to them. He then returned to the issue of the Lebanese.  He said he had followed the process of release of the Lebanese arrested in Syria on television, and they had spoken at length in front of the cameras.  None of them had complained about mistreatment.  They had not been subject to any harassment or anything that contravened the provisions of the Covenant while in detention in Syria.  The released detainees now lived in Lebanon.  The Lebanese authorities would undertake their prosecution. 

Regarding the case of the Arab writer Haider Haider, he said his novel about a specific Arab state had raised many discussions leading to threats and attacks on him.  But those discussions took place in another Arab country.  In Syria, the intellectuals had defended his freedom of expression.  He was proud of the way the Syrian authorities had tackled the issue.  Regarding Jordanian and Lebanese detainees, he reiterated they did not exist in Syria.  They had been released.  The Jordanians had been accused of espionage and unacceptable activities on Syrian territory.  The Constitution of the Baath socialist party was not applied in Syria, he said, responding to another question, but the Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic was applied.  Syndicates and unions were fully independent.  Democracyin those organizations was defined by the principles and objectives of the organizations and the free way they elected their officials.   Mr. SARRAJ reiterated that the state of emergency did not mean summary execution, torture or disappearances, despite what reports by organizations might have said.  He stressed that those cases did not exist in Syria.  The problem was who spoke the truth, the organizations or the Syrian authorities.  He emphasized that there was a new vision in Syria, a general desire to apply the provisions of the Human Rights Declaration and the Covenant.  Genuine differences between the Committee and Syria did not exist, and there was agreement on principles.  In Syria human rights were fully applied.  He said the theory on political crime in Syria was good and sound, derived from the French system.  If the High State Security Court tried political prisoners, that court would be illegal.  The legal status of women in Syria was a distinguished one, he said.  The Law on Personal Affairs had been praised by the Women’s League of Syria and the question of polygamy did not create a problem.  Repudiation was a provision in which husband and wife could repudiate each other before the court.  In case repudiation was accepted, marriage would end.  That provision had enabled women to leave their husbands. The law of 1965 on opposing the objectives of the revolution had never been applied, he said, nor the law on enemies of the revolution.  He was pleased to have met with the Committee and had taken note of all questions and comments.  Some unanswered questions would be answered later.  He hoped that during the next meeting things would be fully satisfactory.

 Closing Statement by Chairman
 Prafullachandra Natwarlal Bhagwati of India, Committee Chairman, said he was very thankful to the Committee for the dialogue over the course of the day -- a full and frank discussion had been held.  He wished that the report had been sent earlier.  There had been a delay of 17 years.  Nevertheless, detailed answers to the Committee’s questions had been provided.Because he was limited in time, he would not reiterate all the Committee’s outstanding concerns.  The continued state of emergency in the country and the related restrictions that subsisted were one of the concerns.  Concern had also been expressed on the death penalty and the range of offenses under which it could be applied.  He urged the State party to reconsider the matter and asked it to provide relevant statistical information.  Concern had also been expressed regarding alleged instances of torture.  He noted that the Committee’s concerns would be more fully expressed in its concluding observations.