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Syria: extrajudicial killings imply major human rights crisis

July 31, 2013   ·   0 Comments


The high number of killings committed outside the law in Syria by all sides of the conflict visualise the failure of the judiciary system and the underlying major human rights crisis in the country. This article provides background information on the issue of extrajudicial killings in Syria, its reasons and implications for the country.

Research carried out by Amnesty International over the past few months shows that pro-government forces are responsible for the death of 138 citizens in Banias and 130 in al-Baydah on the 2nd and 3rd of May of this year. According to Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme Director, ‘pro-government forces seem to be targeting civilians in these areas with total impunity’.

He further states that ‘this raises serious concerns that civilians in al-Baydah and Banias, particularly those in vicinity of opposition fighters, are being targeted as a deliberate tactic to forcibly displace as many civilians as possible in order to leave opposition fighters more exposed and without a local support base.’

What are ‘extrajudicial killings’?

The term ‘extrajudicial killings’ in its original definition, refers to executions, which are undertaken outside the legal system of the country in which they take place. Therefore, the victim is not officially charged with a crime and no court hearing will occur prior to the execution. In addition to this very general definition of the term, there is a more narrow view on the question of what ‘extrajudicial killings’ encompass.

In its narrow definition ‘extrajudicial killing’ is used to describe a politically motivated execution with the involvement of the state, either actively or through tacit agreement. This makes ‘extrajudicial killing’ a synonym of ‘political killing’. For the case of Syria the broader original definition of the term is more suitable as this also includes political killings. In Syria both sides of the conflict are using extrajudicial killings as a tool of warfare, they are therefore not just committed by the state.

It can be observed around the world that the perpetrators of extrajudicial killings can rarely be identified. This is demonstrated by the difficulties that international observers face to identify the groups behind the summary execution of civilians in Syria in the past year. This, together with the malfunction of the state’s judiciary system creates a climate of impunity within the state. In several of these cases of mass execution it was assumed that pro-government forces are responsible, but despite the death of hundreds of civilians no one has ever been punished for the killings.

The reasons for extrajudicial killings in Syria

Extrajudicial killings committed by both sides in the Syrian conflict have different underlying reasons. They are used as a tool to gain military advantage in the conflict, can be politically motivated in the targeting of journalists and activists or they are used to demonstrate power.

6809376000_7b374ffa42_zAs mentioned above, Amnesty International found that civilians are targeted if they find themselves close to opposition groups. The aim of pro-government forces in that case is to displace as many civilians as possible in order to approach the opposition fighters. Other research shows that women and children have been used as human shields by government forces to contain rebel attacks. Another worrisome phenomena, which is militarily motivated, are summary executions conducted by pro-government militia targeting villagers accused of sympathising with the opposition. On the side of the rebel forces, the reasons for extrajudicial killings are not as well researched. Possible options are the demonstration of military power and punishment of civilians for supporting the government. In all these cases extrajudicial killings are used as military tactics in order to gain territorial and psychological advantage compared to the other side in the conflict.

Politically motivated killings on the other hand are targeting a certain group of people: journalists and human rights defenders, who risk their lives to provide on the ground reports so that the world is aware of what is happening in Syria. They have increasingly been subjected to extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture over the last two years while reporting human rights abuses in Syria. The motive behind targeting journalists and human rights activists is political, especially if the state has an interest that no information about the ongoing conflict and the human rights abuses committed reaches the international community.

What are the implications of the prevalence of extrajudicial killings?

As mentioned above, the prevalence of extrajudicial killings in a country generally signifies a failure of the judiciary system to prosecute criminal cases equally on all levels. According to the Syrian constitution the judiciary is independent from the government. However, in conflict and post-conflict situations, as it is the case in Syria, state institutions are often flawed and do not function properly. massacre

In Syria the on-going conflict led the country to an unstable political situation, where the state is unable to provide basic services and infrastructure to its citizens as well as enforcing the rule of law. Extrajudicial killings as they have been documented over the past years are a visualisation of the underlying human rights crisis the country faces. The Arab Republic of Syria is not able to protect the rights of its citizens to physical integrity and cannot guarantee their enjoyment of basic human rights.

It is obvious that neither side in the conflict has faith in the functioning of the Syrian judicial system, as both commit extrajudicial killings. Pro-government forces as well as rebel groups are only too aware of the prevalence of impunity in the country, which allows them to commit crimes without being punished. This can be traced back to the general situation of civil war in the country, where government-led policing forces have lost the territorial power to enforce the rule of law, that guarantees the functioning of the independent judiciary system in Syria.

Impunity is one of the reasons why the international community has repeatedly called for the intervention of the International Criminal Court to bring perpetrators of extrajudicial killings, summary executions and war crimes to justice. Any progress made on the reinstatement of human rights for the citizens of Syria will have to include a solution to end impunity. Therefore, the issue of transitional justice becomes more important with every month the Syrian conflict continues. For more information on transitional justice in Syria see The World Outline – Seeking justice in post-conflict Syria.

PhotoCredit: FreedomHouse

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Stephanie Rutz

Stephanie recently graduated from King’s College London with a MA in International Relations, focusing on Middle Eastern politics and complex political emergencies. Her areas of interest include democratisation and especially the implementation and working manner of electoral systems in developing countries and countries in post-conflict transition. Furthermore, she is interested in human rights issues around the world, such as the implementation of human rights policies on a national level and in combination with democratisation.