Kurds in Syria can face discrimination at every stage and in every area of life. A Kurdish child can be denied citizenship at birth, and can later risk torture and death at the hands of Syrian state agents for voicing peaceful political or cultural beliefs, deprived of his or her basic human rights and freedoms.
Syria has, as have so many other countries, taken on extensive obligations with regards to human rights within its borders. It has signed and ratified many of the central UN human rights treaties. Accepting a legal, as well as a moral and political responsibility towards every human being within its jurisdiction, is not reflected in the Syrian government’s treatment of its population.
Syrian human rights violations are in no way an exclusively Kurdish phenomenon; they can be carried out against every individual, irrespective of their ethnicity. At the same time, identity-based discrimination of the Kurds puts them in an especially vulnerable position.
With regards to torture and ill-treatment, Syria consistently fails to adhere to its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture. The condition of its prisons are still of grave concern and the use of torture against detainees is widespread.
Despite legislation outlawing arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and the use of force against detainees, the use of these practices, particularly against politically active Kurds, is widespread and habitual. The imprisonment of Kurdish activists and human rights defenders for vague offences such as “weakening nationalist sentiment” is widespread.
Even though allegations of torture are often substantiated by testimony, interrogators in court, medical evidence and reports by human rights bodies, no disciplinary action or prosecutions have ensued against public officials. Such cases form a body of examples of credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment not being effectively investigated.
The Syrian legislative framework also falls short of preventing torture and ill-treatment. A presidential decree from September 2008 provides police, state security forces, and customs police personnel with state immunity while they carry out their duties. Also, there appears to be no law regulating the admissibility of out-of-court statements by an accomplice. This allows the court to consider confessions extracted from defendants or witnesses under torture or other ill-treatment.
Other rights under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are similarly infringed. There are numerous examples of violations of the right to life. The death of Kurdish conscripts, especially those being politically active, under suspicious circumstances whilst carrying out their mandatory military service is a frequent occurrence in the Syrian military, and no investigation is carried out by the Syrian authorities into these deaths. Each year, the celebration of the Kurdish New Year ‘Newroz’ brings reports of brutality against Kurdish people. In 2010, KHRP received reports of death, serious injuries, and arbitrary detentions of Kurdish civilians after celebrating the Newroz festival in the Kurdish area of al-Raqqa, Syria.
The freedom of expression is restricted under equally harsh measures from the regime, giving little or no room for open and peaceful exchange of ideas and political opinions. Consequently, political activity outside the auspices of the Ba’th Party or PNF, remains illegal. Kurdish political parties operate covertly, but members are vulnerable to prosecution, arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention. Human rights activists’ activities are also severely limited. Human rights organizations are usually denied the required registration as a private association, and human rights activists are prevented from travelling abroad and are targeted and harassed by the Syrian government.
Similarly, many Kurds in Syria are deprived of their economic, social and cultural rights. Issues with regards to these rights are especially severe for those who are stateless. The fact that many Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship following the 1962 census constitutes in itself a violation of the right to a nationality under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Deprived of their citizenship, they were divided into two sub-groups, the ajanib or ‘foreign’ and the maktoumeen or ‘unregistered’ and underwent a corresponding reduction in their rights.
Being stateless they are unable to legally own land, housing or businesses. As a result, their children cannot inherit their land or other property. Lacking passports or other adequate travel documents, they are effectively trapped in Syria, risking torture or ill-treatment if caught trying to leave the country illegally.
Not being recognised as citizens also means that the stateless Kurds can suffer in relation to remuneration as employers often exploit the vulnerable situation of stateless Kurds with a lack of official documentation..
Kurdish children constitute another particularly vulnerable group in Syrian society. Children deemed to be maktoumeen are unable to acquire Syrian citizenship, and do not have the rights inherit their maktoum father’s property, although they automatically inherit his lack of citizenship. Stateless children also have restricted access to education. Efforts made to ensure all Arab children are educated are not made for Kurdish children, and even though stateless children are allowed primary education, there is a distinction between no certificate given to maktoumeen, and a certificate stating that the student is ‘foreign’ given to ajanib. Since the classes are taught in Arabic and the teaching of Kurdish is illegal, children only speaking Kurdish will have further restrictions on gaining an education.
As one can see, the examples of human rights violations against the Syrian Kurds are numerous, systematic and grave. The will of the Syrian government to remedy the situation, to reform the laws and to implement them properly, to recognize its Kurdish minority, and to ensure a better life for its citizens, seems to be completely absent.
The international community must continue and increase its pressure on Syria to bring about changes in the human rights situation. Specifically, the Syrian government must be urged to:
• End the state of emergency that has been in force since 1963;
• Recognize the existence of the Kurdish ethnic minority and guarantee Kurdish political and cultural rights in the Syrian
• Grant permission for an international committee of human rights organizations to visit Syria and investigate the situation
of the Kurdish minority; and to
• Release Kurdish and other political prisoners in Syria.