The Syrian government is erroneously claiming to United Nations experts that it has complied with the provisions of a major human rights treaty.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee is expected to make public its assessment of Syria's human rights performance by April 6.

On March 30, the U.N. Human Rights Committee examined Syria's long-overdue report on its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The head of the Syrian government's delegation, Dr. Abboud Sarraj, told the committee that reports of extrajudicial executions, "disappearances," and torture were "totally, categorically unfounded."

"In fact, the evidence of human rights abuse in Syria could not be more clear," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The Syrian government must account for the horrors of the past, such as torture, extrajudicial executions and massacres."

Syria is a state party to the ICCPR, a bedrock international treaty that guarantees fundamental human rights.

Human Rights Watch called on the European Union, which is negotiating an Association Agreement with Syria, to set benchmarks for human rights improvements and to insist that Syria lift the state of emergency.

The state of emergency has been in effect continuously since March 1963. It grants exceptional and broad powers to the interior minister and has facilitated massive rights abuses by security forces, including arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, "disappearances," unexplained deaths in custody, and long-term detention without charge or trial.

Tens of thousands of victims and their families have been effectively silenced, with no effective means to seek judicial remedy, redress, or compensation, Human Rights Watch said.

The trials of hundreds of nonviolent political opponents before the state security court have been grossly unfair and not in compliance with provisions of the ICCPR, including the right to appeal decisions to a higher tribunal.

"The new Syrian government should act now to guarantee the right to freedom of association and private or public assembly," Megally said. "Independent political parties cannot seek legal status and operate freely at the present time."

In its March 30 testimony, the Syrian government did not offer substantive responses to questions about discrimination in law and practice against women and the Kurdish minority. Dr. Sarraj told the committee that all information about discrimination against the Kurds "is erroneous and not valid at all."

The government also did not explain the legal process under which Lebanese and other nationals in Lebanon have been secretly transferred to Syria and held in detention there. Several experts raised the issue of Lebanese known or believed to be "disappeared" in Syria, and the government replied that "there is not a single Lebanese detainee or prisoner in Syria."

The European Union is in the process of negotiating an Association Agreement with Syria, and Damascus is also seeking European aid to finance a ten-year, $5.66 billion industrial development plan. Article 2 of every Association Agreement states that the agreement is premised on respect for human rights and democratic freedoms.

"The European Union has a very important role to play here," Megally said. "Lifting of the state of emergency and guaranteeing basic civil and political rights, like freedom of association and assembly, should be part of any deal the EU makes with Syria."

The next round of negotiations between the EU and Syria is set for April 23 in Damascus. EU Commissioner Romano Prodi said earlier this year that a final agreement could be signed before the end of 2001.

***

The U.N. Human Rights Committee's consideration of the report of the government of Syria took place during the Human Rights Committee's 71st session, held in New York from March 19 to April 6. Under article 40 of the ICCPR, all States parties agree to submit periodic reports on the implementation of the covenant. Syria's report, its second since becoming a state party, was due in 1984, but was not submitted to the committee until 16 years later, on January 19, 2000.

The March 2001 Human Rights Watch memorandum to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on Syria's Compliance with the ICCPR can be found here.