Take Consistent Approach to Uprisings in Region
March 29, 2012

For Annan’s plan to work, the Syrian government must stop stalling for time and actually change course. By moving forward with the sanctions against the Syrian leadership, the Arab League will send a convincing message that actions are more important than words.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The League of Arab States should at its summit in Baghdad that began on March 27, 2012, commit to carrying out and monitoring the implementation of the targeted sanctions against the Syrian leadership it agreed to in November 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.

Taking such steps will signal to the Syrian government that sanctions will remain in place until security forces halt their human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. It will also make clear that the Arab League will not ease its pressure on Syria until it carries out the steps included in the proposal by the Arab League and the United Nations Special Envoy.

“For Annan’s plan to work, the Syrian government must stop stalling for time and actually change course,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By moving forward with the sanctions against the Syrian leadership, the Arab League will send a convincing message that actions are more important than words.”

On November 27, foreign ministers from 19 Arab League countries adopted unprecedented sanctions against Syria. They included a travel ban to prevent senior Syrian officials from traveling to other Arab countries and a call to freeze assets related to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. The League also called on Arab central banks to monitor transfers to Syria, with the exception of remittances from Syrians abroad.

Some Arab countries have put some of the sanctions in place, but large gaps remain and the extent to which individual member countries are carrying out the sanctions is unclear.

In December, 120 Arab and international civil society organizations called for the Arab League to form a panel of experts to monitor and report on the effective enforcement of sanctions. They also called on each individual Arab government to report on the implementation of the sanctions it has approved. The Arab League did not respond to those calls and has not established an effective mechanism for monitoring and reporting on the implementation of its sanctions.

“The Arab League talked big in November about sanctions against the Syrian leadership, but what has actually been done?” Whitson said. “It’s not enough to make declarations; the Arab League should follow through by putting a transparent system in place for reporting on how the sanctions are being carried out.”

The Arab League should also, at this summit meeting, call for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said. On March 10 the Arab League demanded that those responsible for the shelling of the Syrian city of Homs be held to account. The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at an Arab foreign ministers’ meeting in February that those involved in abuses in Syria should be punished by the ICC. The Kuwaiti parliament has reportedly supported calls for an ICC referral as well.

The Arab League should also apply consistent standards in responding to human rights violations throughout the region and address other situations in which peaceful protests have been suppressed, including Bahrain and Yemen, Human Rights Watch said. The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told reporters on March 26 that, “The Bahrain situation is not on the agenda.”

While the Arab League has taken an active stand on the crises in Libya and Syria, it has failed to engage forcefully and respond to human rights abuses in Yemen and Bahrain following the governments’ crackdowns on peaceful protests in those countries, Human Rights Watch said.

The Arab League should support independent international investigation of the abuses in Yemen and prosecution of those found responsible. In Bahrain, where the king appointed a commission of international experts to report on rights violations, the Arab League should be pressing the government to carry out the commission’s recommendations fully, including freeing everyone convicted and sentenced for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

“The Arab League should stop picking and choosing, and apply the same standards to abuses across the region,” Whitson said. “People arbitrarily detained or injured in peaceful protests in Bahrain or Yemen don’t understand why the Arab League ignores their fate.”

Arab states also sent contradictory messages regarding severe human rights violations at the UN Human Rights Council session that ended on March 23, Human Rights Watch said. The Arab members of the council – Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – played a leadership role in pushing for strong action by the council on Syria, but all five countries rejected amendments proposed by Russia and Uganda that would have cast more light on ongoing violations in Libya.

Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia voted against a resolution that finally called for accountability for crimes against humanity committed at the end of the Sri Lanka conflict, while Jordan abstained. Libya voted in favour of the Sri Lanka resolution. Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia abstained, and Qatar voted against, a resolution condemning violations in Iran and extending the mandate of a human rights expert to report on that situation.