Crime of forced displacement in Syria… Accountability mechanisms and right of return
Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa
“It is as if you were being uprooted”, with these words, Shaher al-Muhammad, a newly displaced person from Saraqib in Idlib countryside, described his condition when he was forced to leave his hometown.
Shaher told Enab Baladi that this is the first time he leaves the city of Saraqib: “I did not leave the city before under any circumstances, even when the regime forces entered it, but what is happening now has made us think again about leaving, especially in light of the crimes committed by the regime. The cities are being ravaged by airstrikes, artillery, demolitions, and massacres. I have already lost my wife and son, and I am not prepared to lose more.”
Shaher is one of the millions of Syrians who have been forcibly displaced, leaving their life savings, part of their souls, and many of personal memories behind. Several Syriansleft that favorite corner in the house where they used to prefer to drink the coffee, or the window curtains they used to choose carefully, or the vast veranda where they used to have their family reunions. In the same place, they endured the years of war and its tragedies; however, the greatest tragedy was forcing them to evacuate their homes and head towards the unknown.
Shaher added, “Many people left their homes, lands, factories, and properties. They left everything, and the first thing they thought about was to save their lives.”
The young man carried a few necessities from his home, such as clothes, to protect him from the winter’s cold, pillows, blankets, and some supplies, then he got into the car without knowing where to go.
“On the way, we saw a huge number of displaced people. Thousands of cars were behind and in front of us. The scene affected me quite a deal. It was indescribable. I have to face a new life and adapt to a new society, in light of the difficulty of securing a shelter, which is a priority. I would have preferred to be run by a tank rather than leave my city.”
Like the last breath
Nevin Houtari, a displaced person from Ghouta, agreed with Shaher that the displacement journey is one of the most challenging experiences that a person can go through. The plight “begins with a moral agony, as if you were going to take your last breath when you make the final decision to leave. This feeling continues along the journey as we keep facing difficulties, from the bombings targeting the cars carrying the displaced people to the lack of adequate shelters to receive them. Afterward, we have to adapt to a new lifestyle in a new place, in addition to the difficult financial situation of some families, which hinders their endeavor from starting a new life.”
Speaking to Enab Baladi, Nevin indicated that despite everything that the people of Ghouta went through during the years of the revolution and the siege, they chose to stay there. However, the violent escalation and progress of the regime on the ground imposed on them the decision to leave. Furthermore, their previous experiences confirm that there are no agreements or covenants that can ensure the safety of people as the regime does not abide by any accord upon entering the cities outside its control.
She added: “When the choice was either to be displaced and leave our homes and memories and our lives’ savings or to remain under the control of al-Assad, who will enjoy torturing us, we had no choice but to leave.”
Forced displacement is defined in international law as “the forced and illegal eviction of a group of individuals and residents from the land in which they reside.”
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits the forcible or mass transfer of persons, or their exile from their areas of residence to other lands, except when this is in their interest to spare them the risks of armed conflict.
Article 7 (d) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that “the removal or forcible transfer of a population whenever committed in the context of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any group of the civilian population, constitutes a crime against humanity.”
Statistics of asylum and displacement in Syria
Syria is considered as the largest source of refugees around the world, with the number of Syrian refugees exceeding six million, according to statistics of the International Organization for Migration in its report on international migration for 2020, issued on November 27, 2019. According to the same report, Syria has the highest number of displaced persons internally, estimated at 6.1 million.
As a result of the five military campaigns launched by the regime and Russia on the de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria, from the signing of the Sochi agreement in Russia in September 2018 until January 31, last year, the number of IDPs has reached 1,695,500 people.
1,992 people, including 549 children, were killed in the campaigns, according to a statement issued on January 31 by the Syria Response Coordinators team.
When are displacement cases “legal”?
The Executive Director of Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization, Bassam al-Ahmad, talked to Enab Baladi about the possibility of the return of forcibly displaced persons to their areas and the mechanisms of accountability against the crime of forced displacement.
Al-Ahmad pointed out that the international humanitarian law prohibits the transfer or deportation of individuals from their places of residence, except with certain exceptions that may be considered “legal deportations.” For example, these exceptions might take place when there is a real need to move a group of people for a temporary period to other sites for military purposes or fear of their lives.
Al-Ahmad explained that these conditions are not available in the Syrian military context, because all sides are targeting civilians, and the deportations are aimed at making demographic changes.
He added that it is therefore not possible to talk about cases of legal deportation in Syria, even if some parties attribute them to military necessities, due to the absence of the two conditions that the risk be “clear,” and the period during which civilians are evacuated to safe places be “specific,” after which they are returned to their original residence areas.
Right of return
Al-Ahmad stressed that when talking about cases of arbitrary displacement, the right of return of the population to the areas from which they were displaced must be a “priority.” This is because when the reasons behind the displacement of people from a specific place, such as some parties’ pretext of the existence of military operations or armed groups, come to an end, and after the occurrence of military control over a specific entity later, the right of return of the original population should be a “priority.”
However, this did not happen in most cases of Syrian displacement during the conflict period, whether in Idlib, Afrin, or other areas, because, as in conflict cases, the military party tends to “demonize” entire groups, cities, and communities.
Al-Ahmad stated that there must be a distinction between the IDPs and refugees regarding the issue of return, as the 1951 Refugee Protection Convention defined the rights of refugees in this context. However, there is no agreement for the IDPs, who did not cross international borders.
He further indicated that the absence of an exclusive agreement for the IDPs does not mean that they are deprived of protection before or during the period of displacement, as they are protected under national and international human rights law that prohibits killing, torture and other violations. These are subjects in the Syrian case to the international humanitarian law because we are talking about a country where there is an armed conflict.
Al-Ahmad pointed out that if there were already a commitment to the laws of war and the rules of international law, this would reduce and prevent many cases of displacement.
For example, when talking about recent attacks on Idlib Governorate, if targeting only affects military installations, and there is trust among civilians that the military parties will not target them, the displacement waves will not be similar to what is currently happening. In contrast, the random targeting of civilian houses, the bombing of markets and medical teams, and executions and reprisals by the attacking forces push civilians to flee these areas.
Al-Ahmad noted that many of the cases of forced displacement and eviction not only occurred by forcing people to leave their homes, but also by creating conditions that compel them to leave them, such as random bombing and making people feel unsafe.
Al-Ahmad stressed that the return of refugees to their homeland should be safe, voluntary and dignified, as the international law prohibits the return of any person to a place where he could be at risk. Countries may resort to signing certain political agreements for the return of refugees, or pushing their cause forward to cover up their internal problems. However, this must not be carried out under forced deportation.
The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951
The convention defines who the “refugee” is, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum. Under this convention, the refugees have the freedom of belief and movement from one place to another, the right to education, travel documents, and the opportunity to work. It also stresses the importance of his/ her obligations towards the host government.
One of the main provisions of this convention states that refugees may not be returned to a country where he/she fears being persecuted the legal term is to prohibit expulsion or refoulement. The meeting equally identifies persons or groups of persons not covered by this agreement.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Proof of Ownership
The director of “Syrians for Truth and Justice” organization stressed on the importance that people keep their property documents to be able to return to them after the deportation.
In the Syrian case, many people did not have enough time or sufficient awareness about the importance of taking identification documents with them, or that they were exposed to displacement several times and lost their ownership documents.
He pointed out that keeping identification documents is one of the fundamental issues that deportees must take into consideration, as establishing ownership is not an easy matter after nine years of war and the many cases of displacement that have occurred during it, especially in light of the existence of a covert war aimed at achieving demographic change behind the displacement operations.
Al-Ahmad explained that accountability procedures for the crime of forced displacement are similar to those of any other violation, as it must first prove the existence of forced displacement or illegal evictions, and then ensure that it targeted a civilian population on a large scale, to be classified as a crime against humanity.
Forced displacement in Syria can be considered as a crime against humanity categorically. According to al-Ahmad, individual cases may later be viewed as a form of ethnic cleansing, but this term has not yet been used in this sense.
As for prosecution of criminals, it needs to prove and collect evidence, then to consider the jurisdiction that can deal with these cases, because there currently are no specialized courts in Syria, but it is possible to benefit from Myanmar’s example, in this regard.
In an incident that marked a qualitative transformation toward achieving justice in Syria, the Guernica Center for International Justice presented a memorandum to the Public Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, calling for it to consider committing “crimes against humanity” in Syria.
In a statement issued on March 4, 2019, the Center said that the International Criminal Court should investigate the exposure of a million Syrian civilians to forced displacement from Syria to Jordan, as a result of being exposed to bombing and torture by parties to the conflict, including the Syrian regime.
The memo considered that a million Syrians in Daraa Governorate, in southern Syria, were subjected to “widespread and systematic” attacks, including intentional air targeting against civilians and residential neighborhoods, which also affected schools and hospitals, as well as the use of internationally prohibited weapons and following a policy of arbitrary arrests and field executions, which led one million civilians in that governorate to ask for asylum in Jordan.
Charges for these violations were brought against the Syrian regime. The memo singled out the head of the government, Bashar al-Assad and called on the International Criminal Court to hold the parties to the conflict behind these actions accountable and bring them to justice to end impunity.
Since Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court does not have the authority to consider crimes and violations committed within Syrian territory, which led to impunity for many individuals and parties to the conflict and prompted some human rights centers to demand consideration of violations of Syrians in countries considered as parts to the Rome Statute.
The Guernica Center cited the displacement of the Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, as the International Criminal Court announced, in September 2019, that it had launched a preliminary investigation regarding the deportation of the Muslim Rohingya minority to Bangladesh by the Myanmar government.
Bangladesh, which is adjacent to Myanmar, is a state party to the criminal court, which has allowed the latter powers to consider “crimes against humanity” against the Rohingya.
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