x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syria's coalition for human rights makes quiet launch

Campaigners face imprisonment as courts and security services seek to curtail any opposition to the establishment.

Damascus // As publicity announcements go, last week's unveiling of a new coalition of human rights groups in Syria was extremely discreet. Word of mouth and a few e-mails, none of which wassent to any major media outlet, made up the only advertising. That low-key opening was deliberate, a reflection of the difficult circumstances facing civil rights activists here. In recent years dozens of pro-democracy campaigners have been imprisoned and, more recently, a number of more apolitical human rights advocates have been detained. Syrian courts and the security services have justified the moves as necessary to stop dangerous dissent from undermining the state and ushering in chaos. Whatever the underlying rationale, civil society groups say conditions have been worsening, which is why the alliance, named the Platform for Syrian Non-Governmental Organisations (PSNGO), was launched. "Because of the crackdown and the hard situation, we decided to gather ourselves into a bloc," explained Ammar Qurabi, a central co-ordinator of the new forum and head of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHRS), one of the groups involved. "Before we were all separate and isolated and that made us weaker. We wanted to have a unified approach, it is harder to shut down a forum that has various independent actors." The eight organisations making up the PSNGO are in an extremely tenuous position. The authorities frequently make use of sweeping powers to imprison members of social or political groups that have been formed without their prior permission. The government has not authorised any human rights groups to operate in Syria. Mohannad al Hassani, a Syrian lawyer, is one of the more renowned human rights advocates to have fallen foul of the authorities. He is facing up to 15 years in prison if found guilty on criminal charges of weakening national sentiment and tarnishing the overseas image of Syria. Members of the new alliance stress they are not anti-government and are not political campaigners. The coalition is consistent with Syrian government aspirations, its members say, and represents a necessary step towards completing an association agreement with Europe. That agreement was set to be signed after years of delay in October but Damascus called for another and unexpected halt. "Under the EU agreement, Syria will need to have an independent organisation to monitor the human rights clauses, which will be our role," said Mr Qurabi. "Syria has much closer, much better relations with Europe than was the case and we see this platform as a constructive part of that process." The original idea for the PSNGO was sown at a meeting of the Euro-Mediterranean countries in 2005 but internal bickering among Syrian activists ? a notoriously divided set of people ? and the constrained political situation meant it was put on hold. More recently there were some last-minute hitches. The original plan to unveil the alliance was thrown off schedule because the Syrian authorities arrested Haithem al Maleh, a prominent human rights lawyer, on the same day. The 78-year-old remains in custody. And shortly before the final announcement of the PSNGO's existence, four groups that had agreed to be members decided to drop out, not wanting to risk arrest. That left eight groups in the coalition. No attempt has yet been made by the authorities to close the PSNGO down, a fact that has prompted speculation among some activists that it has been secretly authorised by the state and, therefore, has no real credibility. Civil society groups that were not asked to join the PSNGO have also criticised it as unrepresentative. Mr Qurabi said those invited to be part of the platform were all currently active in human rights issues, not just pressure groups aimed at a western audience, or political parties in disguise. "Some organisations here are really just a person sitting in a room and writing statements to send to the media," he said. "This platform is intended for work, it's a real organisation involved in human rights matters here, such as providing lawyers at trials. We didn't want to get caught up in big and unproductive media campaigning or empty rhetoric. "It is also perhaps a first sign of more unity among Syria's divided civil society." There had been hopes the internal political atmosphere would soften now that Syria is enjoying a diplomatic rapprochement with Europe and the US after years of isolation under the Bush administration. That has not happened, however, and Syrian campaigners say the pressures on them have increased, not lessened. Long anticipated political party laws have also not been finalised which, together with a string of recent arrests, has made even the most optimistic civil society campaigners despair. One hope they cling to is that the EU association agreement will be signed and that the quiet approach of European diplomats to the issue will help bring about change, thought this has add little effect in the past. Critics of this approach note that similar political-economic deals between the EU and other counties, including Egypt and Algeria, have done nothing to improve their appalling human rights records. Syrian campaigners acknowledge this but see little alternative left open to them. The EU association agreement may have opened a small space in which they can work, the PSNGO's organisers say. "The circumstances are highly restricted," said Mr Rahawee. "There is a contradiction in that we must prepare the community for change in the human rights arena, but we are unable to communicate with people easily. In Syria we cannot call a press conference, we cannot easily sow a culture of human rights in the community by public meetings." Last week the independent Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies issued a scathing report on the state of social freedoms in the Arab world, saying human rights in 12 surveyed countries ? Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen ? had worsened compared since 2009. psands@thenational.ae