Who controls and monitors behavior of volunteers of humanitarian organizations in Syria?  

Displaced people from "al-Omran" camp, west of Harbanoush, raise a banner "We appeal to NGOs" in a demonstration demanding the provision of food, water, bread, and services - 10 May (Enab Baladi)

Displaced people from "al-Omran" camp, west of Harbanoush, raise a banner "We appeal to NGOs" in a demonstration demanding the provision of food, water, bread, and services - 10 May (Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Yamen Moghrabi 

The phrase “Feeling sad with 99 others,” was attached to a photo of the current Pope of the Vatican, Pope Francis, on the Facebook personal page of a volunteer in one of the humanitarian organizations, to mock the opponents of the Turkish government’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. 

The post sparked condemnation among activists, who accused its publisher of sectarian incitement and insulting the Christian religion. This came shortly after a similar story of another volunteer, accused of bullying Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy because of her sexual orientation after she took her own life last June, amid an explosive controversy mainly about Hegazy on social media sites.

Furthermore, social media networks saw a widespread controversy after some activists mocked the Syrian women wearing the Islamic niqab (a veil which covers the face of a woman) several times; some believe that the niqab is not an obligation in Islam, linking it to religious extremism in Syria while others see the mockery of a religious matter as an encroachment on the Islamic religion, and propagation of hate speech.  

The accusations directed against the volunteers because of their acts of racial discrimination, sectarian harassment and hate speech, raised the questions about who is controlling and monitoring the behavior of workers and volunteers on social media platforms, and whether the accusations against them are true or they come under the concept of freedom of opinion and expression.

How do organizations control their volunteers?

Social media sites give ample space for their users to express their opinions and ideas, and to discuss with others. However, some social media posts turn into a kind of skirmish in a battle, which is directly reflected in the ability of civil society organizations to control volunteer behaviors through their internal systems.

Organizations and institutions have developed a set of “rules of conduct and behavior,” which define the behavior of employees during and outside the official working hours, taking into account that some actions affect their image and work directly.

The “codes of conduct” are ethical principles, which include workplace behaviors and respect for all people and employees, in addition to determinants of media appearances, and opinions that are allowed to be published on social media networks.  

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the director of Molham Volunteering Team (MVT),  Atef Na’noua’, believes that no organization or company is truly capable of fully controlling the behavior of its workers, especially organizations working in public affairs, which use social media to collect and boost their donations and conduct campaigns, within particular situations and areas.

 Na’noua’ added that the main foundation of these organizations is the human capital, and they are directly responsible for controlling the behavior of their employees. However, this cannot be implemented due to a large number of workers coming from different areas and sects; in addition, there are differences in customs, traditions, and political ideas, Na’noua’ highlighted. 

For her part, human rights activist and researcher at the “East Studies Center” Dima Dahni told Enab Baladi that the control of activity and behavior within organizations is a cumulative process, meaning, if humanitarian workers have sufficient awareness of the values and principles of any organization operating on the ground, the organization will not need to impose internal policies on their behavior, and volunteers and workers will have this moral obligation on their own. 

Dahni believes that the code of conduct is first established by the organization itself, through employment interviews and an explanation of the organization’s values and principles.

When this code of ethics is spread and exchanged permanently among its employees, some values will be set in the self-consciousness of the worker, which will hold him responsible for his acts. 

For his part, a member of the board of Violet Humanitarian Organization, Fouad Sayed Issa, told Enab Baladi that every organization has necessary regulations and policies that the employee must respect and obey, meaning that when implementing any project, an employee should adhere to humanitarian principles, values, neutrality, and impartiality towards the beneficiaries. 

However, according to Issa, the problem lies outside working hours, primarily through social media sites, where volunteers express their ideas, religious or political affiliations, or personal thoughts. Here comes the organization’s mission to control non-alignment and abuse of others by its employees, especially as the matter harms the organization itself, and this is not easy.

Volunteers should be completely neutral

Humanitarian organizations seek to meet the needs of those affected by military operations in conflict zones, regardless of religion, sect, and ethnic origin of the conflict-affected people. 

On the other hand, the posts written by some humanitarian workers raise concerns about affecting the impartiality and the fulfillment of their organizations to the needs of those affected in accordance with humanitarian rules.

Commenting on some volunteers’ publications that caused controversy earlier, the director of Molham Volunteering Team (MVT), Atef Na’noua’, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian people in general “have little experience working for humanitarian organizations, and this current work resulted in dozens of citizens in Syria after the revolution started.”

The UK-based “Christian Aid” organization carried out a study on the development of Syrian civil society since 2011 for seven months. The research included interviews with 25 participants from Syrian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Thus, the study, which was published on 19 September 2019, said that the repressive environment that the former Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad managed, has not had since the 1970s, the necessary ingredients for the formation of an independent free civil society. Although there were 550 licensed organizations in 2000, they did not provide social services to the Syrian people for being surrounded by “red lines.”

For her part, Dima Dahni believes that there must be clear policies, particularly in the humanitarian sector, and that the volunteer should be able to make decisions with no religious or ethnic views or any type of opinion towards the needy.

 This is due to a series of standards that are not discussed or deliberated in the organizations, and most of the discussions and debates are about the job position, financial returns, and tasks, according to Dahni.

The absence of discussion about the values of the organization directly affects the volunteers as well, because they will see themselves as mere people who can be used in the time of need rather than partners in the organization itself.

Hate speech

In 1948, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly proclaimed and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is a milestone document of human rights. Article 19 of the UDHR stated: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. 

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (1965), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1965, is the first international treaty to directly address the issue of hate speech. States “shall declare a criminal offense punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as every act of violence or incitement to such acts committed against any race or group of persons of another color or ethnic origin.”

As for the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, it calls for the necessity to strip media messages of the tools of hatred, as Article 19 of the ICCPR stipulates “respecting the rights and reputations of others.”

Besides, Article 20 of the Covenant states that “any propaganda for war and any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

In addition to these resolutions, several countries and federations around the world have adopted charters on freedom of expression, but they generally seem not detailed with regard to hate speech, according to a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) entitled “Incitement to racial and religious hatred and the promotion of tolerance” (2006).

“Opinions” affect the image and credibility of NGOs adversely before people and donors

Civil society developed rapidly during the years of the Syrian conflict, taking advantage of the absence of security authorities, and serving people’s urgent needs created by chaos and human suffering. NGOs spread widely with the eruption of the Syrian uprising, reaching 1,040 organizations until 2017, according to a survey conducted by “Citizens for Syria.”

NGOs had spread across Syria when the role of peaceful activists was declined with the tendency of the popular movement towards militarization, and an increase in service-based needs that accompanied the reduction of the role of the state in various regions of Syria.

Most NGOs depended on support from international organizations to finance their projects, and some relied on popular donation campaigns.

 Social media posts, which include hate speech, bullying and racial discrimination, put NGOs in an embarrassing situation and caused harm to their image before their supporters and beneficiaries alike, especially with their reliance on the external funding and donation campaigns as non-profit organizations.

Hate speech negatively impacts both the organizations’ supporters and workers, as the negative image is generalized to everyone.

The MVT director, Atef Na’noua’ said that “People should be aware that a volunteer may not have sufficient experience to realize the sensitivity of his work,” stressing the importance of providing guidance notes to any organization through its official social media accounts, in order to avoid defamation. 

Na’noua’added, “I am against defamation because we all made mistakes. However, we should continue correcting these mistakes. Some people realize certain organizations only when mistakes are made. Plus, there are people on social media sites, whose mission is to attack only.”

Dima Dahni referred to the confusion between freedom of expression and criticism, and what is understood from them.

She added, “Sometimes a person expresses his opinion freely, and when we say freedom, this means that he should respect its standards; he shall not curse, swear or insult another person or bully him. Nonetheless, the Facebook audience does not accept this because it contradicts his ideas,  launching a counterattack on the opinion holder with the misuse of the term “bullying.”

Impacts of hate speech on civil peace

The spread of racism and hate speech among people raises fears for civil peace, especially in countries that are made up of different races, religions, and sects.

Dima Dahni believes that the violations and negative behaviors on social media platforms have a direct impact on civil peace.

Here the media play a significant role in raising awareness about the importance of reducing hate speech on social media. In addition, workshops and conferences must include in-depth discussions, and here citizens must also protect and promote civil peace.

Civil peace is to renounce all forms of conflict and fighting or even merely call, incite or justify them, or consolidate the culture of hatred and determinations of clashes, or turning difference into an ideology, theorizing and disseminating it.

Civil peace is to prevent civil war in society. The existence of civil peace within a society is a sign of health and strength, and it indicates the ability of this society or entity to work, progress and development, unlike societies, which are dominated by quarrels, ethnic and religious tensions, or even the tremendous economic contradictions between the components and segments of society.

The MVT director, Atef Na’noua’ agrees with Dima Dahni about the extent of the impact of hate speech on civil peace, considering that this speech “is not less dangerous than weapons.”


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