HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH
The Silenced Kurds
Vol. 8, No. 4(E), October 1996
SUMMARY | RECOMMENDATIONS | TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED REPORTS ON THE KURDISH MINORITY
Since 1983, Human Rights Watch has monitored and reported on human rights violations of the Kurdish minority in states throughout the region, and has published thirteen reports on the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. This is the first report by Human Rights Watch on the Kurdish minority in Syria.
Reports published by Human Rights Watch on the Kurds in Turkey include:
Reports published by Human Rights Watch on the Kurds in Iraq include:
Kurds are the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in Syria, comprising about 8.5 to 10 percent of the population of 13.8 million. This report documents the situation of stateless Syrian-born Kurds 142,465 by the governments count, and well over 200,000 according to Kurdish sources who have been arbitrarily denied the right to Syrian nationality in violation of international law. These Kurds, who have no claim to a nationality other than Syrian, are literally trapped in Syria: not only are they treated in a discriminatory fashion in the land of their birth, but also they do not have the option of relocating to another country because they lack passports or other internationally recognized travel documents. This report also examines policies and practices of the Syrian government that violate the right of Kurds in Syria to enjoy their own culture, use their own language, and otherwise exercise freedom of expression, also in violation of international human rights standards. These issues have received little international attention.
In 1962, an exceptional census stripped some 120,000 Syrian Kurds 20 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population of their Syrian citizenship. They were left stateless, and with no claim to another nationality. Decree No. 93, issued in August 1962, ordered that a census be carried out in Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria for the purpose of identifying alien infiltrators. The stated purpose of this census was to discover how many people had illegally crossed the border from Turkish Kurdistan. Kurds had to prove that they had lived in Syria at least since 1945 or lose any claim to Syrian citizenship. The census was one component of a comprehensive plan to Arabize the resources-rich northeast of Syria, an area with the largest concentration of non-Arabs in the country.
By many accounts, the special census was carried out in an arbitrary manner. Brothers from the same family, born in the same Syrian village, were classified differently. Fathers became foreigners while their sons remained citizens. Kurds who had served in the Syrian army lost citizenship while families who bribed officials kept theirs. This report includes the names of Kuridsh men and women, born in Syria in 1935 or earlier, who lost their citizenship as a result of the census and became foreigners (ajanib, in Arabic) in their own country. According to Syrian lawyers, as a result of the census thousands of people went to sleep as Syrians and woke up to find that they no longer were [citizens].
Since these Syrian Kurds did not and do not have citizenship in another country, they are stateless as a matter of international law. They have been issued special red identity cards by the Ministry of Interior and, pursuant to discriminatory state policy, are denied many rights which other Syrians enjoy, such as the right to vote, the right to own property, and the right to have marriages legally recognized. They are not entitled to passports and thus cannot exercise the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of movement and to legally leave and return to their own country (Syria). Kurdish sources say that there are now an estimated 200,000 Kurds in Syria who are officially classified as a special category of foreigners. The Syrian government informed Human Rights Watch in July 1996 that the number is 67,465.
The census of thirty-four years ago in Hasakeh governorate has a continuing and ever-widening impact on the lives of Kurds born in towns and villages in northeastern Syria, due to natural population increase. The number of stateless Syrian Kurds has grown since 1962 because the status is inherited by the Syrian-born children of stateless Kurdish fathers. One Kurdish resident of Hasakeh governorate told us that when his father, who was born in Syria, lost his nationality in the 1962 census, he and his three brothers all born in Syria became foreigners as well. The four brothers have since married, and their thirty-three children, all born in Hasakeh governorate, are not Syrian citizens. In Darbasiyyah, located west of Qamishli, there are approximately 59,000 Kurdish residents in the town and its 200 surrounding villages, according to a well-informed local source. He told us that 20 percent of the Kurdish residents some 12,000 people are not Syrian citizens although they were born in the country.
Syrian-born Kurds with foreigner identity cards face tremendous difficulties in their everyday lives. They are not permitted to own land, housing or businesses. They cannot be employed at government agencies and state-owned enterprises, and cannot practice as doctors or engineers. They are not eligible for food subsidies or admission to public hospitals. They may not legally marry Syrian citizens; if they do, the marriages are not legally recognized for either the citizen or the foreigner, and both spouses are described as unmarried on their identity cards. Kurds with foreigner status do not have the right to vote in elections or referenda, or run for public office. They are not issued passports or other travel documents, and thus may not legally leave or return to Syria. When you live it, you cannot believe that it is happening to you, one Kurdish foreigner who was born in northeastern Syria in 1952 told Human Rights Watch..
Another group of stateless Syrian-born Kurds including a significant but thus-far undocumented number of children are in an even more tenuous position than those categorized as foreigners because they are not issued identity cards and are not listed in official population registers. The Arabic word used in Syria to refer to these Kurds is maktoumeen (unregistered, or not appearing in the records), following the terminology that is used to describe them in documents issued by Syrian government ministries.
One of the major objectives of Human Rights Watch in issuing this report is to publicize internationally the existence of the maktoumeen. According to information provided by the Syrian government to Human Rights Watch in July 1996, there are 75,000 stateless Kurds with this classification. Children inherit maktoumeen status from their parents under certain conditions, as explained below. Due to the high birth rate of Kurds, particularly in villages in Hasakeh governorate where families of six or more children are not uncommon, the number of maktoumeen will grow rapidly over the coming years, as children with this status come of age, marry, and have children of their own.
Kurdish children become maktoumeen when one of the following three conditions apply: if they are the children of Syria-born Kurdish foreigners who marry women who are Syrian citizens; if one of their parents is a foreigner and the other maktoum (singular of maktoumeen); or if both parents are maktoumeen. Like Kurdish foreigners in Syria, the children born of these marriages are not issued passports or other documents that can be used to travel abroad and re-enter Syria. State policies with respect to Syrian-born Kurdish children who are maktoumeen contradict the assurances provided by the Syrian government to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child. The governments 1996 report to the committee stated that all children in Syria are treated in nondiscriminatory fashion:
The law protects Syrian and all other children residing in the territory of the state, regardless of race, origin, religion or nationality and without any discrimination between them. No case of discrimination in regard to this protection has ever been reported in Syria.
Syrian children enjoy the same rights without discriminatory treatment on grounds such as race, origin, language or religion. They are treated equally at school and in the various institutions concerned with the welfare and protection of children. They all benefit from the same rights, privileges and services provided by the State.
In the absence of official identity cards, parents of maktoumeen are forced into nightmarish procedures simply to ensure that there is some form of written documentation of the identities of their children. Kurdish sources in northeast Syria told Human Rights Watch that children who are maktoumeen cannot be admitted to school without the approval of Political Security, one of Syrias internal security forces. One man pointed to his young daughter and said: It took me twenty-nine days, going to the police area director, to the security apparatus, to the birth registration office, just to register her for first grade. The process of obtaining permission from the intelligence service for young children to attend school can also bring on harassment and pressure on the male head of household from the local security apparatus.
The Syrian government informed Human Rights Watch in July 1996 that maktoumeen are accepted [for admission] in all schools. But based on information that we received, it appears that the maktoumeen are treated in a discriminatory fashion and have only limited use of the state education system. After children in Syria complete the first six years of school, they go on to a three-year program of study. After the completion of grades seven to nine, children take an examination and are issued a diploma from the education department, which is required in order to begin the next three years of secondary school, grades ten to twelve. The maktoumeen, however, are not permitted to study beyond the ninth grade, according to testimony that we obtained, because they are issued inferior documents by the education ministry that are not officially recognized. The government did not respond to our written request for information about the procedures that must be used to enroll maktoumeen children in state primary, intermediate and secondary schools.
INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS STANDARDS
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right of every person to a nationality, and provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality. This right is binding on all nations as a matter of customary international law. The Syrian governments denial of citizenship to Syrian-born Kurdish men, women and children with no claim to another nationality is a clear case of discrimination based solely on ethnicity and gender and a flagrant violation of international human rights standards. These stateless Kurds have no basis for claiming citizenship anywhere other than Syria, yet the government has denied them the right to a nationality.
Denial of citizenship to Syrian-born Kurds leaves them in the position of having no passport or other internationally recognized travel document, thus preventing them from exercising the right to freedom of movement guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Syria has ratified. Freedom of movement includes the right to leave any country, including ones own, and the right to enter ones own country. Without passports or other travel documents, stateless Kurds the foreigners and the maktoumeen alike are unable to exercise these rights.
Syrian-born men with foreigner status may not legally marry Syrian citizens; if they do, the marriages are not legally recognized and both spouses are described as unmarried on their identity cards. The Syrian government confirmed this policy, writing the following to Human Rights Watch in July 1996: [I]n the case that a Syrian female should have the audacity to marry any foreigner, whether he is a foreigner or Hasakeh [governorate] or elsewhere, that marriage is considered illegal. As a result neither it nor the children that ensue will be registered in the civil registers. This policy is a violation of Article 23 of the ICCPR, which states in its pertinent part: The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and found a family shall be recognized.
The state policy of refusing to register children born of marriages between Syrian Kurdish foreigners and Syrian citizens, between Syrian Kurdish foreigners and Syrian-born maktoumeen, and between Syrian-born maktoumeen also violates international human rights standards. Lastly, the maktoumeen are not provided with legally recognized identity documents. This is a clear violation of Article 26 of the ICCPR, which states: [T]he law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Syrias nationality law differentiates between men and women in terms of their ability under the law to pass on citizenship to their children. According to the law, women can pass on Syrian nationality to their children born in Syria only if the paternity of the child has not been legally established. In contrast, the law states that Syrian nationality is passed on to children born in Syria or outside the country if their father is of Syrian nationality. By restricting the ability of women but not men to pass on Syrian citizenship to their children, the Syrian government violates the international prohibitions against gender discrimination found in Article 26 of the ICCPR.
The Syrian governments policies and practices with respect to Kurdish children it has made stateless violate international standards that have been codified to protect the rights of children. Syria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in June 1993, and is violating its provisions systematically. The denial of Syrian nationality to Kurdish children born in Syria is a blatant case of discrimination based on ethnicity, in violation of the Convention, which provides guarantees to every child to the right to be registered and the right to acquire a nationality. Kurdish children born in Syria some of them classified as foreigners, and others as maktoumeen are singled out solely because of their status as members of the Kurdish ethnic minority.
In cases where authorities stripped Syrian-born Kurdish children of their nationality, such as in the aftermath of the 1962 special census conducted in Hasakeh governorate, the government is in violation of Article 8 of the Convention, which states:
1. States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
2. Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all of the elements of his or her identity, States Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to speedily re-establishing his or her identity.
The states discriminatory treatment of Syrian-born Kurdish children in the area of education violates the provisions of Article 28 of the Convention, which guarantees the right of the child to education on the basis of equal opportunity. The issuance of inferior documents to the maktoumeen, upon their successful completion of compulsory public school examinations, is a clear case of discrimination based on ethnic and legal status.
The Syrian governments obligations under international law require it to initiate legal and administrative reforms to remedy the numerous violations of the rights of stateless Kurdish children.
SUPPRESSION OF ETHNIC IDENTITY
International human rights law provides ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities in every country the right to equal protection of the law without discrimination, and the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language. Syrian authorities violate these international standards with impunity through the use of discriminatory laws, decrees and directives that are applied only to the Kurdish minority.
Suppression of the ethnic identity of Kurds by Syrian authorities has taken many forms. Restrictions have included: various bans on the use of the Kurdish language; refusal to register children with Kurdish names; replacement of Kurdish place names with new names in Arabic; prohibition of businesses that do not have Arabic names; not permitting Kurdish private schools; and the prohibition of books and other materials written in Kurdish.
Syrian Kurds also complained to Human Rights Watch about other forms of state-sponsored or state-sanctioned discrimination. They claimed that Kurds are not accepted in Syrias military colleges, and pointed out that it is extremely rare for a Kurd to be appointed a judge or prosecutor. In the last few years, it reportedly has become increasingly difficult for Kurds to gain admission to the countrys three medical schools.
Syrian authorities have also harassed suspected Kurdish political activists and, in arbitrary fashion, have dismissed them from their jobs at state-owned companies and from educational institutions where they were studying. Kurds, including well-known political leaders, have been prevented from traveling abroad because authorities have refused to renew their passports.
TO THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT:
Take immediate steps to redress the stateless status of all Kurds who were born in Syria, and offer citizenship to all Kurds with strong ties to Syria by reason of birth, marriage, or long residence in the country and who are not otherwise entitled to citizenship in other countries. Such measures will bring Syria into compliance with international law, including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Syria has signed.
Restore Syrian nationality to those Kurds and their descendants from whom such nationality was stripped as a result of the special census conducted in 1962 in Hasakeh governorate. Take immedidate steps to ensure, in particular, that every child born in Syria has the right to acquire a nationality and is not stateless.
Establish fair, open and transparent administrative and other procedures for restoring and granting citizenship to Syria-born Kurdish residents of the country, and ensure that decisions resulting from such administrative or other procedures are subject to judicial review.
Encourage the National Committee to Monitor the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is chaired by the Minister for Social Affairs and Labor, to examine the issues raised in this report concerning discrimination against stateless Syrian-born Kurdish children, and investigate in particular the problems of children who are classified as maktoumeen. The National Committee should consider the recommendations made in this report, and should make its own recommendations to appropriate Syrian government ministries in order to bring Syria into compliance with its obligations as a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Review all government decrees and directives that apply uniquely to the Kurdish minority in Syria, and abolish discriminatory decrees and directives that are in violation of international law. Ensure that Kurdish residents of Syria, citizens and stateless alike, are protected against discrimination on grounds such as race, language, political or other opinion, and national or social origin, as required under international law.
Ensure that Syrias Kurds have the right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language, and the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas orally, in writing and through any other media, as required under international law. Abolish all laws and administrative decrees and directives that restrict the enjoyment of these rights.
Release all prisoners in Syria who are detained or serving sentences solely because they exercised the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. If charged with a recognizable criminal offense, they are entitled to a prompt and fair trial in which their due process rights are safeguarded.
TO THE EUROPEAN UNION AND ITS MEMBER STATES:
The European Council of Ministers, the European Commission, and the European Parliament should examine violations of the internationally recognized human rights of Syrias Kurdish minority by Syrian authorities, including the purposeful creation of statelessness in the Syrian Kurdish community.
The European Council of Ministers, the European Commission, and the European Parliament should vigorously urge Syrian authorities to ensure that nationality is restored to all currently stateless Syrian Kurds, including children, and to ensure that Syrian Kurds have the right to freedom of expression and the right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language, as required under international law.
Member states should press for the adoption of the recommendations in this report in bilateral and European Union discussion with Syrian government officials. Further, in visits to Syria by European Union officials, the recommendations in this report should be discussed with Syrian officials and pursued with determination.
The European Council of Ministers and the European Commission should, without any further delay, present the progress report on human rights in Syria to the European Parliament, in accordance with the commitment made by the Commission during the debate on the Fourth Protocol on financial and technical cooperation with Syria in December 1993.
Member states should show restraint in arms export policy toward Syria until the Asad government makes measurable improvement in its human rights record, including respect for the internationally recognized rights of the Kurdish minority in Syria. Human Rights Watch makes this recommendation based on the common criteria for arms exports agreed to by the European Council in its Declaration on Non-proliferation and Arms Exports issued at its 1991 Luxembourg meeting and in the conclusions of its 1992 Lisbon meeting. These common criteria include respect for human rights on the part of the country of final destination.
TO THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION:
Discontinue the policy of public silence concerning the human rights record of the Asad government, and direct appropriate U.S. State Department officials to express publicly the U.S. governments concern about continuing human rights abuses in Syria, including violations of the rights of the Kurdish ethnic minority.
Raise the issues outlined in this report with Syrian government officials at the highest levels, and press for the adoption of the reports recommendations.
Encourage the Syrian government to take the appropriate legal and administrative measures to ensure that nationality is restored to all stateless Syrian-born Kurds, including children.
Encourage the Syrian government to take the appropriate legal and administratiave measures to ensure that the Syrian Kurds enjoy the right to equal protection of the law without discrimination, the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language, as required under international law.
Inform Syrian authorities that measurable progress on these matters will be noted in the U.S. governments assessment of human rights conditions in Syria.
TO THE UNITED NATIONS HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE:
Request from Syria an urgent report on the status of stateless Syrian-born Kurds with respect to the governments compliance with Articles 12, 24 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
TO THE UNITED NATIONS COMMITTEE ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD:
Consider the information presented in this report during the Committees working group meeting in October 1996.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED REPORTS ON THE KURDISH MINORITY
DENIAL OF A NATIONALITY
SUPPRESSION OF ETHNIC IDENTITY
ARBITRARY STATE ACTIONS BASED ON ETHNICITY
PROTESTS IN SYRIA AND EUROPE
Human Rights Watch October 1996 Vol. 8, No. 4(E)
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