Speech given by Huquqyat member ‘Mariana Karkoutly’ at the Swiss Parliament on 30 September 2021

My name is Mariana Karkoutly, I am a Syrian woman, forcibly displaced who sought refuge in Germany. I highlight this because today after 10 years of a revolution that started with people demanding their basic human rights, justice, freedom and dignity, many of my friends and their family members are still detained or disappeared in Syria until today, simply because they demonstrated against a dictatorship. Until today, those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria such as chemical attacks on civilians, torture, sexual and gender-based violence in detention centers siege and starvation and many other inhuman treatment in Syria are not held accountable, and today, we as Syrians scattered all over the world fear the danger of deportation from those countries that we sought refuge.

Today in Syria, there is an estimation of more than 150,000 disappeared and detained persons and we can’t know how many of them are alive or died under torture. The Syrian center for human rights documented the death of approximately 389 thousand people in Syria, 117 civilians, from which there are 22 thousand children, 14 thousand women and 81 thousand men. Until today, in some cities like Dara’a, the Syrian regime uses siege as a weapon of war.

After 10 years, Syria is a war-torn country where civil society lives in horrible economic situations and still fear detention and enforced disappearance. Since 6 June 2020, protests against deteriorating living conditions have been ongoing in the predominantly Druze city of Sweida. The political slogans chanted in the protests have reached the point of demanding the toppling of the Syrian regime. They also hold 

President Bashar al-Assad directly responsible for the failure to resolve the country’s various social and national crises. Until today, and after everything they have lost, Syrians are still demanding their freedom.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime and its allies are planning reconstruction projects in the country which aim towards demographic change in areas like north of Syria. Reconstruction in a country that is governed by a dictator and war criminals should not be possible, reconstruction in a country where half of the population have either been killed, disappeared or have fled the country should not be possible.

In the last Amnesty international report on Syria September 2021, it was clear that a lot of people who have returned to Syria have been detained or disappeared, the report reads:

“Syrian security forces have subjected Syrians who returned home after seeking refuge abroad to detention, disappearance and torture, including sexual violence…the organization documented a catalogue of horrific violations committed by Syrian intelligence officers against 66 returnees, including 13 children. Among these violations, Amnesty International documented five cases whereby detainees had died in custody after returning to Syria, while the fate of 17 forcibly disappeared people remains unknown”. 

Until today, families of those who are detained or disappeared know nothing about their whereabouts, one of whom is Razan Zeitoneh. Razan, a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer, activist, and journalist. Razan dedicated her life to defending political prisoners, documenting crimes against humanity, and helping others free themselves from oppression. She is co-founder of the Local Coordination Committees in Syria and the Violations Documentation Center, which documents human rights violations in Syria. Together with her husband and two colleagues (namely: Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wael Hamada) disappeared on 9 December 2013 in Douma, after a group of armed men stormed the office of the Violations Documentation Center. Since then, no one has heard from them.

In a report to the freedom magazine Razan spoke about the Syrian revolution mentioning that:

“Despite the anxiety that can be felt in the eyes, everyone talks about the moment of freedom with a certainty that only a rebellious Syrian will know. The moment of freedom that is built with victory on the fronts, but also by not forgetting for a moment that “we will not build our state on skulls, and we will not wear the same dress and our revenge will be through achieving justice.” Razan Zeitoneh from Rise to freedom magazine

Razan Zeitoneh, Huda Al Khayty, Fadwa Mahmoud, Joumana Seif, and many other amazing and strong women who do not until today mention their identities for security reasons have paved the way and fought even before the beginning of the revolution against discriminatory laws applied on women in Syria within the personal status law and have had a very important impact on documenting human rights violations and atrocities committed in Syria. Many Syrian lawyers and legal practitioners scattered in diaspora are currently working on opening case files related to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity that happened in Syria and bringing attention to the numerous gender and sexual based violence committed against Syrians in detention centres, in siege and in other contexts of the conflict.

In the first case worldwide that was opened against individuals who committed War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Syria, Anwar R. and Eyad A., known as Al Khatib trial in Koblenz, Germany, which my colleagues Ebrahim and Mazen will talk thoroughly about,  Syrian human rights lawyer Joumana Seif and human rights lawyer Alexandera Lily Kather brought to the prosecution authorities a follow up case on Al Khatib trials focusing on gender and sexual based violence that were committed in Syria.

All of these efforts by Syrian women since 2011 until today should be introduced presenting Syrian women as active actors and not as victims or passive members of the Syrian community.

Moreover, without the immense efforts of Syrian civil society organizations, Syrian lawyers and activists, the process of using universal jurisdiction as a tool to prosecute Syrian war criminals in Europe wouldn’t have been possible. 

Additionally to the principle of no safe haven for war criminals and in an intention to joint efforts between Syrians and some European prosecution authorities to capture those criminals and to provide safety to survivors and victims.

In July 2012, The red cross described the crimes happening in Syria as War crimes and Crimes against humanity. The fight for freedom and justice continues until today. We see currently the efforts made for investigating crimes committed in Syria and opening case files in different European countries using the Universal Jurisdiction. We applaud these efforts and demand other European countries to actively use this Universal Jurisdiction, since the crimes that have been and are still being committed in Syria should not only be perceived against Syrians, but against the whole humanity. 

Currently, together with my colleague Leila Sibai, who unfortunately couldn’t be with us today, we are working on mass killings that happened in besieged areas in south damascus within a bigger case file that focuses on starvation as a war crime and crimes against humanity. We started our investigation upon the Swiss initiative that took place in 2019 which suggested prosecuting those responsible for starving civilians in countries like Syria and Yemen during war as war crimes. The 122 member states of the International Criminal Court unanimously approved the Swiss proposal at their annual meeting in 2019 in The Hague. This initiative aims to strengthen the protection of conflict victims, according to the Swiss foreign ministry.

From that point, we started working on these crimes committed in south Damascus and until today we documented more than 40 testimonies on human rights atrocities committed in the area. 

Following our work, together with Yasmine Nahlawi and a group of Syrian women lawyers and legal practitioners we started an initiative called Huquqyat that aims towards training Syrian women legal practitioners to work on War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity investigations in Syria and to develop case files that can benefit from Universal Jurisdiction in different european countries to open case files.

Today, as Syrians working on accountability for human rights atrocities committed in Syria we demand the Swiss government to consider joining efforts with other European countries such as Norway, Sweden and Germany to investigate war crimes and hold war criminals accountable. We demand of the Swiss government to listen and to pay attention to Syrian civil society’s demands and to support Syrians in their claim towards a just, safe and free country.

Syria will not be safe as long as it stays governed by a dictator, Syria will not be safe as long as people are still in detention centers and disappeared, and peace cannot occur in a country where war criminals are not held accountable for the crimes they committed.

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