Professor Ertürk: No plan B yet for settlement in Syria

Professor Ertürk: No plan B yet for settlement in Syria

Yakın Ertürk (Photo: Today's Zaman)

April 29, 2012, Sunday/ 16:35:00

An academic and a former member of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria has said that Syria could fall into an outright civil war if the fragile peace plan brokered by international peace envoy Kofi Annan fails, and unfortunately there is no Plan B.

“The bad news is there is no plan B for a negotiated settlement. So if this [Annan plan] fails, I fear militarized options like arming the opposition, creating a safe zone or a humanitarian corridor, and the like will gain momentum and Syria could fall into an outright civil war,” said Yakın Ertürk to Monday Talk.

On Thursday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that Syria's government was "in contravention" of a UN and Arab League-backed peace plan. The UN currently has about 15 observers in Syria monitoring a shaky ceasefire, which came into force on April 12, and hopes to have the full advance team of 30 in place by Monday.

However, violence has been continuing despite the truce.

‘The bad news is there is no plan B for a negotiated settlement. So if this [Annan plan] fails, I fear militarized options like arming the opposition, creating a safe zone or a humanitarian corridor, and the like will gain momentum and Syria could fall into an outright civil war. Just remember the former Yugoslavia, it took four years of killing before the international community could act’

The Security Council has approved the deployment of up to 300 monitors. Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, who is to lead the team, was heading to Damascus on Saturday, according to news reports.

Ertürk, who was one of the three panel members of the International Commission of Inquiry (COI) established for a period of six months in September 2011 by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to investigate the situation in Syria, told us about her work and the process which lead to her resignation.

Ertürk responded to our questions on the state of affairs in Syria, accounts of the victims of violence in the country, her view on a possible military intervention in Syria by foreign powers and other issues that are crucial to the future of Syria and the region.

How were you able to reach the victims of crimes against humanity in Syria?

The Syrian government did not give the commission access to the country, therefore we were only able to reach witnesses and army defectors who had fled the country. We also tried to reach people inside the country through e-mail, Skype or by phone. Our investigators interviewed 369 people and used other available information to corroborate the testimonies. On the basis of such evidence we prepared two reports and submitted them to the HRC. The first report [Nov. 28, 2011] focused on identifying human rights violations and crimes against humanity by state forces and the second report [Feb. 22, 2012] on responsibility and accountability. On March 23 the HRC extended the length of the inquiry until September 2012, at which time a final report will be presented updating the situation in Syria.

Why have you resigned from the Commission?

My personal opinion was that without access to the country, the commission cannot go beyond what it has already done because at this point there is an urgent need for human rights monitors to enter the country in order to do a comprehensive investigation in detention centers, places of torture houses and hospitals among other urgent matters. Unfortunately the six-point Annan plan does not have a human rights component, consequently human rights investigators are not included among the monitors who have been dispatched to Syria. No doubt, with or without access to the country, documentation of human rights violations needs to continue and the commission is currently carrying out this important task. But I felt that I would not be able contribute further to the process.

‘Caution needed about foreign military intervention, arming of the opposition’

What have you found so far in the reports? Have you also identified names?

As you know the Syrian Government has been arguing that they are fighting terrorist armed gangs. While there may be criminal elements and infiltration of radical groups, such as al-Qaeda, as has been claimed, the crisis started a year ago with peaceful demonstrations. The state responded by using force and this has provoked armed resistance and escalated the violence in the country. The main finding of our first report is that the state forces have committed gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The evidence indicates that these were not random acts but part of state policy. In the second report we also documented abuses of armed opposition groups, although these are in no way comparable to the violations of state forces. We also prepared a confidential list containing names of individuals, army units and security forces believed to be responsible for the crime and submitted it to the High Commissioner for Human rights in a sealed envelope to be made available for a future credible investigation by competent and independent courts.

Do you think the ceasefire initiated by the Annan plan will last?

The commission from the beginning has been advocating for a broad-based negotiated settlement and cautioned against foreign military intervention, including the arming of the opposition. I believe the latter will only militarize the country and empower radical political groups whose agendas endanger the pluralist social fabric of Syria as well as women's rights. In this regard the Annan mission is important. But unfortunately the international community has been deeply divided on Syria which hinders a common position to stop the violence. The UN Security Council presidential statement of March 23 that endorsed the Annan plan was the first and only consensus among states. The modest statement has to some extent empowered the joint UN-Arab League mission. The ceasefire has been extremely fragile, while it is still in force, violence is continuing even with UN observers on the ground. The bad news is there is no plan B for a negotiated settlement. So if this fails, I fear militarized options like arming the opposition, creating a safe zone or a humanitarian corridor, and the like will gain momentum and Syria could fall into an outright civil war. Just remember the former Yugoslavia, it took four years of killing before the international community could act.

‘Human rights often become entangled within interstate politicking’

What differences do you see in the situation of Syria and Libya, the international community was quick in intervening in the latter case?

Aside from the purely practical difficulties in a Libya type operation, the international community is not ready to rush into military action in Syria. I think the disastrous consequences of military interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are recognized even by their proponents. Furthermore, the Syrian government is still enjoying (either out of fear or loyalty) support from the people. There have been no major defections from either the army or from the civilian hierarchy. The opposition continues to be fragmented and unable to offer a reassuring alternative to the silent majority. Nonetheless, the regime has delegitimized itself and can only persist by use of violence. Unlike in 1982 when about 20,000 people were killed in an uprising in Homs, today democratic aspirations have become popularized and the rational for totalitarian regimes unsustainable. The notion of national sovereignty provided a shield for the 1982 atrocities but times have changed. Today, there is an international responsibility to protect people from violation of human rights. Yet, international mechanisms for ensuring this responsibility are still problematic. Human rights often become entangled within interstate politicking.

If we go back to other options again what would you say are the prospects for negotiated peace for Syria given the suffering?

People who have experienced conflict, such as Bosnians and now the Syrian opposition groups are rightfully impatient. They see the call for negotiated peace where crimes against humanity have been committed a contradiction, for them the only option is outside intervention. This of course is easier said than done. As I have said earlier, the international system is still made up of “sovereign states” with their own agendas. We are responding to transnational problems with state-based solutions. While the standards are in place there is no international government as such to implement these standards. This is why there is an impasse at the moment with some states supporting the Syrian government and others the opposition -- each for their diverse interests. Human rights and democracy are rarely the motivation behind the various state policies. As difficult as it may be there is no real alternative to a negotiated settlement where the Syrian people, minorities, women, opposition groups and victims of the violence have a voice in determining their future. Of course we cannot forget that serious crimes have been committed in Syria so ensuring accountability must take place in parallel with reconciliation and this is a real challenge. The international community must act in unison, putting aside their conditions and interests to facilitate this process.

‘Unless women are empowered violence will not stop’

You did a lot of work as a former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women. First of all, as there are more and more media reports on violence against women, is there an increase of violence against women or are we becoming more aware of it?

This is something people always question. Women have always experienced violence of different sorts. Violence has been the tool of patriarchy to keep women in their place whether we're talking about physical violence or other forms of control. But why has it been occupying the agenda particularly in the past two decades? The answers are varied. There may be increases as women challenge male authority, but there is also more awareness. The global women's human rights movement for the past 30 years has used violence against women as its entry point to draw attention to the problem as a public policy and human rights issue and have lobbied for the creation of international mechanisms for its elimination. Such mechanisms are invaluable tools for local women's groups to demand action from their governments. Violence against women was one of the first issues the Turkish women's movement organized around in the 1980s. But it wasn't until 2006 when this issue became integrated into state policy with the prime minister's circular. Thanks to the efforts of women's groups during the criminal code reform in Turkey the problem gained recognition. In the course of the debates during those days I recall some parliamentarians and other public figures who would say that such things don't happen in Turkey because this is a country of clemency! Others would justify discriminatory laws and practices against women with culture, tradition or public morality. This is not the case anymore.

Why are we preoccupied with the problem now?

My argument is that violence against women is not an isolated case; it is linked with other forms of violence because women live under multiple systems of inequality. With globalization and the end of the Cold War period, we've seen an increase in interstate violence. Despite the political polarization and the threat of war of the Cold War period, there were balances of power and strong state mechanisms of control that kept things more or less in place in public and private life. In the post Cold War era, stones have been shaken, there has been an earthquake. Power and authority is challenged at all levels resulting in the weakening of unifying political and social forces. This is the source of conflict today. Violence becomes a means to restore order when order is challenged. We are experiencing the making of a new world order and the stakes are high for hegemonic powers. Global capitalism has penetrated into the most intimate levels of relationships. Livelihoods have been destroyed, young men have become dispossessed; they have broken away from traditional family structures and joined radical political movements or integrated into the illegal transnational trade of arms, drugs and people, all entailing violence. Parallel to this, the flexible and cheap labor demand of globalization has attracted women of the south into the labor force in free trade zones or into the service sector in global cities. These processes have destabilized patriarchal gender relations, increasing the risks for violence. It is a global problem with local specificities in all countries whether in the north or the south.

Turkey now has a new law to combat violence against women. What is your opinion on that?

The new law is a hard won victory for Turkish women. I must also acknowledge the role of Fatma Şahin, the minister for family and social policy, in the adoption of the law. However, there is need to emphasize once more that violence against women cannot be treated in isolation and perceived within a victimization approach. The problem cannot be prevented by coercive police methods unless women's empowerment is supported -- granted economic, political and social rights. Gender development indicators in Turkey are scandalous. Turkey ranks among the lowest in the gender-equality indexes. Women's labor force participation is barely 25 percent, representation in Parliament has reached 10 percent only in the last elections, and close to 20 percent of women are still illiterate. We should not be surprised that women in this country live with endemic violence! Turkey has no excuse for such a poor performance. key has no excuse for such poor performance.


‘Turkey was too quick in calling for the downfall of Assad’

What are the risks confronting Turkey?

Turkey is very much engaged with Syria; we are neighbors; we have historic ties. What happens in Syria has implications for Turkey. And the Kurdish issue is one of the important issues. Syrian Kurds have been more cautious with Turkish involvement because their agenda conflicts with the Turkish position on the Kurds. That's an area of tension. In addition, Turkey was too quick in taking an aggressive position in calling for the downfall of Assad, thus giving it little space to maneuver in its response as the dynamics change. This may have jeopardized Turkey's future role once peace negotiations start. The Syria crisis is not a “simply” a matter of bad government denying the rights of its people. First of all, from the point of view of the wider Middle East project, the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah bloc is a hindrance. Getting rid of the Assad regime will weaken this bloc. Secondly, the sectarian issue concerns the Muslim world at large. The Arab Gulf countries supporting the Syrian Opposition have their own Shiite minority to worry about. Syria is central to the Arab world as well as a key in the geopolitics of the region. The situation is very complex. The kind of consensus that the Libya situation generated is not present, inside or outside.


‘Breivik should not receive special treatment in prison’

What countries did you visit as part of your work on the Committee for the Prevention of Torture [CPT], which is a part of the Council of Europe [CoE]?

Members of the CPT visit places of detention to assess how persons deprived of their liberty are treated, and those places include prisons, juvenile detention centers, police stations, holding centers for immigration detainees, psychiatric hospitals, social care homes, etc. The CPT's members are independent and impartial experts, and they may visit countries as part of their jobs other than their own. I went to Germany and the Netherlands in that regard.

What have you found regarding those two countries? They are known to be democratically developed, but what type of problems do they have in this area?

We cannot say that physical violence against people in detention does not occur at all in those countries even though it is rare to see people's ribs being broken; if we do see such cases, it would be scandalous. On the other hand, practices or treatment in these countries can mount to ill and degrading treatment. Material conditions in the detention centers in the two countries I visited are quite good. In some cases they are excellent. Compared to some prisons I have visited in the developing world, one could say these are five-star hotels.

We read in the press that the prison conditions of Anders Behring Breivik [who has been charged with committing acts of terror as he has confessed to murdering 77 people in two attacks in Norway in last July] are extremely good.

According to CPT standards every inmate is entitled to their human rights irrespective of his/her crime. The CPT would be critical of any detainee receiving special treatment, whether this means negative or positive discrimination. When it comes to treatment of people in prisons, a lot of problems have been solved in the Western European countries. However, that does not mean bad treatment does not occur. Due to certain practices or mind sets and the behavior of police, prison guards and others who have direct contact with detainees, ill-treatment and even torture may intentionally or unintentionally be observed. In one of my CPT visits a detainee said, “They don't torture you here, they destroy your psyche and self-esteem by way of discrete acts that do not constitute an act of wrong doing, so you can't even complain about it.” National security and public safety concerns are often providing justifications for states to adopt measures that contradict human rights standards when apprehending a suspect or in treating a “difficult” detainee. The CPT is increasingly having to address problems with respect to the treatment of foreigners detained under the aliens act in countries that otherwise have achieved impressive outcomes in implementing CPT standards. Similarly, the fight against terrorism acts as a major constrain in the states' willingness to abide by CPT requirements.

What does the CPT find in Turkey?

Turkey's cooperation with the CPT delegations is really appreciated. Some experts who have visited Turkey over the past 20 years are very impressed with the progress Turkey has made towards ending torture. According to them, Turkey's performance in implementing CPT recommendations, its readiness to make CPT reports public and the improvements in the treatment of detainees clearly is a leap forward compared to its former record. However, recently there has been worrying news regarding arbitrary arrests, torture and ill treatment in Turkey. For example, the sexual abuse of minors in Pozantı [juvenile detention center] and the situation of chronically ill detainees are particularly disturbing. Human rights protection requires a strong political will and continuing commitment on the part of the authorities, otherwise things can easily go wrong.


[PROFILE] Professor Yakın Ertürk

After receiving her PhD in development sociology from Cornell University in 1980, she served as a faculty member in the department of sociology, Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey (Sept. 1986-Oct. 2010). In addition to her academic career, she has worked for various national and international agencies on rural development and women in development projects (1986-2003). She has also undertaken numerous international assignments, including director of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (Oct. 1997-Feb. 1999); director of the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) at UN Headquarters in New York (March 1999-Oct. 2001); UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (SRVAW) (2003-2006); member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry into events in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 (Oct. 2010-April 2011); member of the international independent commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic of the UN Human Rights Council (Sept. 12, 2011-March 23, 2012). In her capacity as SRVAW director she visited 17 countries at the invitation of the governments concerned. Since November 2009 she has been serving on the Council of Europe's CPT.