Syrian ministers in Europe despite sanctions

Syria’s Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini, Minister of Education Darem Tabbaa, and Minister of Communications and Technology Iyad al-Khatib (edited by Enab Baladi)

Syria’s Minister of Tourism Mohammad Rami Martini, Minister of Education Darem Tabbaa, and Minister of Communications and Technology Iyad al-Khatib (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

“Today, we are witnessing a breakthrough, an acceptance. Most of our ministers are visiting countries we could not visit before. We have agreements,” said Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous in an interview on 3 January, in response to a question about his future outlook for what is ahead for Syria during 2022.

This time, Arnous’ statement was right on point, as several Syrian ministers listed on the European Union (EU)’s sanctions had visited certain EU countries to attend United Nations-sponsored conferences or other international events. 

Syrian ministers visit Europe despite sanctions

In December 2021, the Minister of Communications and Technology, Iyad al-Khatib, who is listed on the EU’s sanctions list, participated in the 16th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Katowice, Poland.

On 30 November, the Syrian Minister of Tourism, Mohammad Rami Martini, who is also sanctioned by the EU, announced his participation in the 24th session of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Madrid, as part of government steps to promote the recovery of Syria’s tourism sector.

During the session and in the presence of Spanish and international media, Martini talked about the “return of security and safety to Syria and the current reality there after the restoration and rehabilitation of tourist facilities to enter service again along with new ones,” as reported by the Syrian Prime Ministry’s website.

In November 2021, the Minister of Education, Darem Tabbaa, attended the 41st session of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the French capital of Paris, along with representatives of 193 Member States of the organization.

It is worth mentioning that Tabbaa has been included on the EU’s sanctions list since October 2020. 

Entering under UN pressures

Tabbaa was not the first Syrian Minister of Education to attend this event. In 2019, the former Syrian Education Minister Emad Muafak al-Azeb, whom the EU also sanctions, attended the 40th session of the General Conference of UNESCO in Paris.

Back then, the Alquds Alarabi newspaper cited sources who claimed that al-Azeb and his accompanying delegation entered France under pressure from UNESCO to attend the Conference’s meetings. 

“The French Interior Ministry was pressured by UNESCO to grant an entry visa to al-Azeb and his accompanying delegation and received a strongly worded letter telling the French government to abide by the Headquarters Agreement, requiring France to give entry visas to visiting delegations to participate in the UNESCO’s works,” the newspaper mentioned.

The EU included al-Azeb and several other Syrian regime officials on the European Union’s blacklist in March 2019.

The legality of Syrian regime ministers’ entrance to Europe

Enab Baladi contacted the European Union Press Office via email to inquire how some Syrian ministers could enter Europe despite sanctions imposed on them.

The response came that the ministers mentioned by Enab Baladi “are indeed subject to sanctions by the European Union and are part of the 287 persons targeted by travel bans and asset freezes.”

“The ban, however, does not impede on the ability of an individual to participate in an UN-led initiative occurring on the territory of an EU member state.”

“The goal of European sanctions remains the same: exercising pressure on the Syrian regime to halt repression and negotiate a lasting political settlement of the Syrian crisis in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” it added. 

Article 11 of the European Union law states that all Syrian ministers who took office after 2011 are on the EU’s sanctions list.

Necessitas non habet legem!

European sanctions prevent the Syrian regime’s ministers who came to office after May 2011 from entering or passing through any European Union country, Muhannad Sharabati, a lawyer at the British Business and Human Rights Resource Center, told Enab Baladi.

Sharabati pointed out that the European Union Council Decision No. 255 of 2013 concerning restrictive measures against Syria provides in Article 27 for granting exemptions to travel bans against sanctioned individuals and requires in paragraph 6 of the same article a conference meeting convened by or under the auspices of the UN.

Article 27 states that sanctioned Syrian ministers are included in the travel ban to Europe and the exceptions thereto.

The decision clarifies that exemptions must be on the grounds of attending intergovernmental meetings to promote humanitarian assistance and not for economic or political purposes.  

When can sanctioned persons enter Europe?

Paragraph 6 of Article 27 is also applicable in cases where the Member State is the host country to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council shall be duly informed in all cases where a Member State grants an exemption pursuant to paragraph 6, 7 or 8.

Member States may grant exemptions from the measures imposed under paragraphs 1 and 2 where travel is justified on the grounds of urgent humanitarian need, or on the grounds of attending intergovernmental meetings, including those promoted by the Union, or hosted by a Member State holding the Chairmanship in the office of the OSCE, where political dialogue is conducted that directly promotes democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Syria.

A Member State wishing to grant exemptions referred to in paragraph 6 shall notify the Council in writing. The exemption shall be deemed to be granted unless one or more of the Council members raises an objection in writing within two working days of receiving notification of the proposed exemption. Should one or more of the Council members raise an objection, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to grant the proposed exemption.

Pursuant to paragraphs 3 to 7, a Member State authorizes the entry into, or transit through, its territory of persons listed in Annex I, the authorization shall be limited to the purpose for which it is given and to the person concerned therewith.

According to Sharabati, the European Commission is authorized to investigate a particular violation that allowed the entry of a person listed on the sanctions list to Europe.

In the event of such violations, the European Commission is supposed to undertake necessary measures. Individuals or organizations can also object to a state’s decision allowing the entrance of a sanctioned person to its lands. These cases are discussed with the violating state and might develop into imposing sanctions on the state itself, Sharabati added.

A source of frustration to Syrian people

The travel ban against Syrian ministers is in the absolute interest of Europe and not of the Syrian people, who have been subjected to genocide, systematic attacks, and human rights violations, Syrian researcher and Ph.D. holder in Economics and research director at the Operations and Policy Center (OPC), Karam Shaar, told Enab Baladi

Shaar pointed out that the exemptions to the EU’s sanctions mean that the regime’s ministers are banned from living in Europe or obtaining a work permit, but they can visit Europe to attend work meetings with international and UN organizations to help the regime exit its economic isolation. 

The exemptions to the EU sanctions are a source of frustration to the Syrian people because they are more affected by the sanctions than Syrian officials.  

The United Nations’ dealings with the Syrian regime can be attributed to several reasons, including procedural ones that force the UN to deal only with state governments, and the Syrian regime government is the official representative of Syria to the UN. 

According to Shaar, these procedural reasons justify the UN’s dealings with the regime, as the UN’s position is based on a belief in the legitimacy of international consensus and not on unilateral positions, no matter how ethical.

For example, the UN can deliver cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria without the consent of Russia and China; however, the UN’s legal team has decided that a consensus and voting in the Security Council are needed to introduce this assistance.

This can be explained by a UN approach that calls for an international consensus on how to act in Syria, which stands as a violation of Syrian people’s rights in principle because the equalization between all conflict parties in Syria is an infringement on one party’s right at the expense of another party.

How effective are the sanctions amid continued violations?

 Shaar said that the sanctions are like a small stick that cannot intimidate the regime or force it to alter its behavior or accept some sort of political settlement. Other tools are required besides sanctions to achieve these ends, such as threats of armed action, political pressures from neighboring countries, and the suspension of the normalization process. 

Shaar added that despite the sanctions’ impact on civilians’ lives, their cancellation would open the door wide for further normalization agreements with additional countries. 

According to Shaar, the biggest problem in Syria is the international community’s indifference to the Syrian people and the absence of an integrated policy against the regime, for sanctions need other instruments besides them to pressure the regime and must be one of the solutions, not the only one.  

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