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Letter to the Arab League Secretary-General Regarding the Monitoring Mission in Syria

H.E. Mr. Nabil El Araby


The League of Arab States

Secretariat - Tahrir Square

Cairo, Egypt


Dear Secretary-General,

We write to you in advance of this week’s meeting of the Arab Foreign Ministers Council on January 22 where Ministers will be reviewing the report of the Arab League monitoring mission to Syria and assessing the League’s next steps to put an end to the crisis in Syria.

Human Rights Watch has been monitoring the ongoing human rights violations in Syria since the beginning of antigovernment protests in mid-March. In an effort to assist your assessment of the mission, we are setting out our documentation of recent violations as well as our concerns regarding the work of the monitoring mission. Given that the success of the monitoring mission, including its ability to deter future violations, will depend on the Arab League’s credible and effective reporting on Syria’s compliance with the Arab League plan of December 19, 2011, we urge you to publicly release the Mission’s final report in full, in particular to address ongoing concerns about the opacity of the Mission, and in particular, address concerns that the monitoring mission is being manipulated by the Syrian authorities.

I. Ongoing Violations

Our research and other credible reports show that the Syrian government is failing in a number of respects to meet its commitments under the Arab League plan of December 19, 2011 to end violence against peaceful protests, release detained protesters, withdraw armed elements from cities and residential areas, and allow Arab and international media unhindered access to all parts of Syria. We documented the following violations:

  • Continued Attacks by Security Forces: Attacks by security forces against peaceful protests have been reported every day since the Arab League Mission began. According to media reports, the United Nations estimated on January 10 that 400 people had been killed since the Arab League mission began working in Syria on December 26. The Violations Documentation Center (VDC), a Syrian monitoring group, reports that between December 26 and January 18 security forces have killed 506 civilians. According to a local resident who spoke with Human Rights Watch in the al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus, on December 27 security forces fired on demonstrators as they were leaving a mosque at about noon, hours before Arab League monitors visited the area. In another incident in Jisr al-Shughur on January 10 Syrian Security Forces shot at peaceful protesters attempting to reach Arab League observers according to witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch.
  • Arrests of Protesters and Activists:The Syrian government continues to arbitrarily detain protesters and activists. According to eye witnesses that spoke to Human Rights Watch, on January 1 in Daira, Anwar Al-Debbas was shot while at a protest organized by demonstrators expecting the arrival of Arab League monitors and was then arrested by security forces while seeking treatment at the National Hospital. A witness told Human Rights Watch that he was taken to the 601 Military Hospital but says that officials there have denied that he is a patient and claim to not know about his arrest. The VDC reports that between December 26 and January 18,490 individuals have been detained. 
  • Ongoing Military Deployment in Cities: Human Rights Watch has also reported on instances in which the Syrian military has not withdrawn from cities as per the Arab League agreement, including in Jisr al-Shughur, Idlib and the al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus.  Eyewitnesses also told Human Rights Watch that military forces remain in Al-Sabile, Daraa; Baba Amr, Homs; Al-Sultaniya, Homs; and Zabadani near Damascus.
  • Restricted movement of journalists: While Syrian authorities have issued more visas to foreign journalists, the authorities continue to restrict the movement of journalists within Syria. An international journalist working in Syria told Human Rights Watch that “the Ministry of Information stopped us from going anywhere today [January 11] but Damascus city center. The Ministry requires us to get permission to film anywhere and it tells us where we can and cannot go.”

II. Assessing the Monitoring Mission

The Mission’s credibility has been clouded by a number of factors including its lack of transparency. The criteria for selecting Arab League monitors have not been communicated nor has any information been made available regarding their relevant experience in monitoring, leading to serious concerns about their expertise. The Mission’s interim report presented on January 8 has not been made public and the Arab League has not shared information about the Mission’s methodology and composition.

The appointment of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, a former head of Sudan’s military intelligence, an intelligence agency well known for serious abuses in Sudan, as its chief has also called the Mission’s credibility into question.

Further, the Mission has relied on the Syrian government for security and to transport monitors around the country, compromising the Mission’s independence and ability to access victims and witnesses without putting them in danger. 

Our research suggests that the Syrian government has taken a number of steps to interfere with the work of the Mission. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented what seem to be efforts by the Syrian government to deceive the Arab League monitors by transferring hundreds of detainees to improvised holding centers at military sites that are off limits to Arab League observers. Authorities have also issued police identification cards to military officials apparently in order to give the impression that military forces have, under the agreement with the Arab League, withdrawn from civilian areas. Syria also appears to be violating its pledge under the agreement to protect people who communicate with the monitors from reprisal. For example, a resident of the Mo`adamiyeh neighborhood in Damascus told Human Rights Watch on January 3 that after she and her friend spoke to Arab League monitors on January 1, security forces detained her friend on January 2.

In light of these findings, we urge the Arab League to publicly release the Mission’s final report and to specifically report on whether the Syrian government is complying with the protocol and whether and how the Syrian government is interfering with the work of the Mission. The Arab League should determine whether its monitors have been able to independently and effectively monitor Syria’s compliance with the Arab League plan, and this determination should be transparent for it to be credible.

If the monitors have not been able to operate independently and effectively, and the League cannot guarantee their effectiveness, then it should consider whether its monitoring mission can serve a useful purpose.

If the Mission is to continue, we urge the Arab League to request that the UN Security Council call on the Syrian government to cooperate with the Mission. Regardless of whether the monitoring mission continues, as long as the human rights violations continue, the Arab League should work with the Security Council to (i) impose an arms embargo on Syria, (ii) impose sanctions against the individuals responsible for grave violations, (iii) demand unhindered access for humanitarian missions, foreign journalists, and independent human rights organizations, (iv) call on the Syrian government to cooperate with the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in establishing a human rights monitoring presence in Syria, and (v) refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

We respectfully submit these findings and recommendations to the Arab League Ministers in the hopes of assisting in the important work of your monitoring mission.  I look forward to discussing these matters with you in the near future.


With highest regards,

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

Human Rights Watch

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