I. Summary

If you say you are a human rights activist to a security official, it is as if you are admitting you are a criminal.

–Syrian human rights activist, November 20061

The government of Syria severely constrains the freedom of human rights activists to express their views and to associate as a group. Under restrictive and arbitrary legal provisions, human rights groups are consistently refused registration and endure a precarious existence without legal status. Worse, state security services subject human rights activists to intrusive scrutiny and harassment that includes travel bans, arrest, and trial.

This report documents these restrictions by examining the legal environment in which activists operate and the government practices to which they are subject. It is based on extensive interviews with representatives of all of the major Syrian human rights groups, independent lawyers, and members of the international diplomatic community in Damascus.

Although the Syrian constitution protects the rights to freedom of association and expression, the government has used emergency powers and restrictive legislation, such as the 1958 Law on Associations and Private Societies (Law No. 93), to stifle the activists’ exercise of their most basic rights. The government has relied on these laws to override constitutional guarantees and to establish itself as the sole arbiter of with whom and how Syrians can associate.

Under the provisions of Law No. 93, the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MoSAL) controls the registration of all civil society associations and has wide jurisdiction to intervene in the internal governance and day-to-day operations of any association. Associations must notify MoSAL of their meetings, and representatives of the ministry have the right to attend. In addition, MoSAL has the authority to regulate the ties of any local group with the international community, ensuring that local associations are severely restricted in their ability to finance their operations or seek advice, expertise, support, and cooperation from abroad.

The problem with Law No. 93 is not just the language of its provisions but also the arbitrary way in which the government applies its provisions. The only reliable factor to predict how strictly it will control a group is the extent to which the group’s work includes criticism of the government.

In addition to Law No. 93, Government authorities also rely on the continuing state of emergency to adopt arbitrary measures to silence their critics and to prohibit them from operating as a legally recognized group.

The outcome has been that Syrian authorities have refused to register any of the human rights groups that have applied for registration. Without legal status, these groups operate at the whim of the authorities and live in constant fear of being shut down at any moment and their members imprisoned for violating the law.

Yet the most serious barrier to the rights and freedoms of Syria’s human rights community lies not in the law but in the role of the powerful security services, which routinely harass human rights groups and scrutinize their leaders, activities, and funding. These security services frequently operate even beyond the provisions of Syria’s strict laws to arbitrarily break up meetings of human rights groups, bar activists from traveling, arrest them, and refer them to trial under dubious charges.

The Syrian government often justifies its intolerance of criticism by arguing that it is presently under threat from the United States and other Western countries that are seeking to isolate it, and that any criticism of the government will only serve the interests of these foreign powers. However, state repression of human rights activism is not a recent phenomenon in Syria, and its victims usually have no link to foreign powers and are themselves critical of US policy in the region. Since the Ba`ath party assumed power in 1963, the Syrian authorities have maintained a tight lid on any form of criticism. The coming to power of Bashar al-Asad in 2000 carried with it hopes of increased tolerance for criticism, but these hopes ended abruptly a year later when Syrian authorities cracked down on a nascent civil society movement.

Whatever its justifications for its refusal to respect the rights of Syrian citizens, the consequence of the government’s actions is clear: insulating the authorities from any criticism and accountability. Another consequence is that restrictive laws and practices have left Syria’s human rights community extremely vulnerable and isolated. Compared to other human rights groups in the Middle East, these activists have few links to international groups or networks.

By isolating human rights groups, the government of Syria is not only stifling the right of the activists to express themselves or associate freely. It is depriving the Syrian people of the vibrancy of a society in which individuals can hold the government accountable for human rights violations.

1 Human Rights Watch interview with Syrian human rights activist (name withheld), Damascus, November 11, 2006.