HRW to release map of torture centers in Syria
Carroll Bogert (Photo: Today's Zaman, Turgut Engin)
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based international watchdog dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, is about to release a detailed map of the torture and detention centers in Syria where dissent has been violently crushed by government forces.
“I am very proud of the report that we will release soon. It tells you in great detail about who is responsible. It's like a map of the torture and detention centers,” said Carroll Bogert, deputy executive director for external relations of HRW.
During her working visit to Turkey, she told Today's Zaman that the new HRW report, expected to come out on Tuesday, has many details that could prompt the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action.
“It gives you the GPS [Global Positioning System] location of the place, the name of the commander, the names of the people involved in the torture, the kind of torture they commit,” she said. “This is why we think that the ICC is so important because it can assign specific criminal responsibility to individuals. These people must be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades. A plan by the international mediator Kofi Annan calls for the formation of a national unity government that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and elections in Syria.
At a high-level meeting in Geneva on Saturday, five veto-wielding UN Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the US -- as well as Turkey and Arab League representatives Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar are trying to map out a strategy to end the bloodshed in Syria.
The United States, Britain and France have said that Assad is responsible for the violence, which the United Nations estimates has killed at least 10,000 people, and is no longer fit to govern. Russia and China, however, reject what they describe as Western calls for "regime change."
Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Turkey, a former ally, has become one of the strongest critics of the Assad regime. Tensions between the two countries spiked following the Syrian downing of a Turkish plane last week.
Bogert, who has had frequent visits to Russia to talk about Russia's policy in Syria, answered our questions in that regard and elaborated on what Turkey can do.
Recently and in the past, you have been to Russia to talk about its policy in regards to Syria. What were the challenges?
This isn't easy. It's difficult for Human Rights Watch to get access at the top levels. We get this access much easier in other countries. We saw the French foreign minister two days ago, but this is harder with the Russian foreign minister. But it is possible to talk to people at the Russian Foreign Ministry, foreign policy experts in Russia and media. There are a lot of Russians in Syria, but they don't have a lot of correspondents in Syria. I feel like their information is not balanced. Russian people in Damascus tell the Russian officials about the government side, but they don't have a lot of information on what's going on in different towns like Homs, Hama and Idlib. We are trying to balance the picture by giving Russian leaders a more diverse range of information.
What do you tell the Russians?
We tell them about the findings of Human Rights Watch, what we have seen, what we have documented, what evidence we gathered. We have gathered evidence of crimes against humanity by the Syrian government forces, very serious crimes. We ask that Russia support referral to the International Criminal Court by the Security Council. Russians feel strongly that this is a civil war, there are violations on both sides; both sides should be judged. We say that the ICC has the capacity, the obligation to examine crimes on both sides. We ask that they support peaceful measures -- sanctions or embargoes, travel sanctions -- to resolve the Syrian crisis. The Russians always say if we have sanctions at the UN, then the Western powers will turn the UN resolution into a green light for military action, like they did in Libya. But we say if you block the UN resolution, block all of these measures, then you leave nothing but a military option.
‘Many Syrians furious with Russian policy'
What do you think is motivating the Russian policy toward Syria?
[Vladimir] Putin decides everything; these things are not decided at the Russian Foreign Ministry. Putin and people around Putin generally do not like the United States. If the US wants something, they want the opposite. Also they say they feel betrayed in regards to the situation in Libya. So, partly their policy is motivated by resentment, partly it is motivated by concern about who comes after Assad. Actually, that's a good question. But they have said from the beginning that this is a civil war and opposition members are terrorists. In the beginning this was not true; this was a peaceful uprising until last fall. Because there was no peaceful resolution, because there was no UN action, because Russians blocked any serious response, then the opposition did begin to arm itself. So the longer the Russians maintain their position, the more it becomes true that we look at a civil war in Syria. At the same time, they must see that their policy will not end in the long term with benefits for Russia. Many people in Syria are furious with the Russian policy. If they are betting on Assad, if they bet that Assad will survive, I'm not sure they will win this bet, I'm not sure it's a good bet. And there are people in Moscow who know that, who understand that.
*** What are your observations regarding the Turkish policy in relation to Syria?
We are very glad to see that the Turkish government is so critical of the Syrian government. The Turkish government is right. It's good to see that neighbors of Syria recognize the root of the problem, which is the repressive government in Syria. That is how everything began. It's good to see the Turkish government recognize that, just as the Arab League has also been very critical of Assad. We would like to see the Turkish government engage more with the Russians.
Why do you think so?
It's not very productive when the Americans criticize Moscow and say you must change your Syria policy. I don't think Putin listens to that. But Turkey can speak with Russia as a neighbor, as another power in the region, as a country with legitimate concerns about what is happening in Syria. Turkey has a different voice in this situation than the United States, the United Kingdom and France. It's important that Turkey uses this voice.
‘Turkey should discourage sectarianism'
What kind of voice is this?
It is the voice of a neighbor. It is the voice of a country which has received about 30,000 refugees on its own territory. It is the voice of a country which is directly affected by the conflict. It is the voice of a country which has spoken critically of the Syrian government. So it has a different kind of legitimacy in this situation, and it must use this legitimacy with Moscow.
Would you tell us about the upcoming report of HRW on Syria?
There is so much video, so many reports coming from Syria. All of that seems really horrible. I am very proud of the report that we will release soon. It tells you in great detail about who is responsible. We have produced detailed maps showing where the torture and detention centers are. It gives you the GPS [Global Positioning System] location of the place, the name of the commander, the names of the people involved in the torture, the kind of torture they commit. This is why we think that the ICC is so important because it can assign specific criminal responsibility to individuals. These people must be held accountable.
How did you come up with such an important and detailed report?
It took us many months; we interviewed dozens of people. Mostly we spoke directly to refugees in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Turkey. In some cases we contacted people via Skype, sometimes by telephone. We mostly relied on the accounts of people who had their own direct experience of what happened. It's not hearsay. We had to take time with those people to make sure their accounts were true and that they were not exaggerating. We checked their stories with the stories of others.
We do believe that Turkey has a role to play in discouraging sectarianism and strife among different groups inside Syria. Turkey can stand for that in principle and encourage non-sectarian, inclusive behavior by opposition and government. If Turkey says that forcefully, it's important. We also would like to have better access to the Syrian refugees inside Turkey. It's through these refugees that we hear about what's happening inside Syria.
‘Opposition must recognize minority rights in Syria'
You also have concerns about the opposition in Syria.
Yes, we have concerns about the opposition. We have documented torture, kidnapping, executions. And we are very concerned that the opposition must recognize minority rights in Syria. We have been pressing the opposition for that. I don't mean to say that the government and the opposition are equal. There is no question that the problem begins with repression from the government. We see attacks on civilian areas by government forces, heavy artillery tanks in civilian areas; these are government abuses. But we don't want to give the opposition a clean bill of health. We have written to the Syrian National Council [SNC]. We know that not all the fighters in the Free Syrian Army [FSA] or under the SNC are really controlled from outside, so we are not naïve about that. But we think it's important that the leadership that exists among the SNC should be very strong in taking the stance and saying publicly that they will not torture, not kidnap and that they will respect everyone, not just Sunnis.