Repression of Kurds in Syria (from new HRW report)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a new report earlier this month, A Wasted Decade: Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad’s First Ten Years in Power. This 35-page report reviews al-Asad’s human rights record in five key areas: repression of political and human rights activism; restrictions on freedom of expression; torture; treatment of the Kurds; and Syria’s legacy of enforced disappearances. HRW’s verdict is bleak, but comes as no surprise.

As HRW notes, Asad has focused more on economic reform in his first decade in power. Subsequently, the report observes that ‘while visitors to Damascus are likely to stay in smart boutique hotels and dine in shiny new restaurants, ordinary Syrians continue to risk jail merely for criticizing their president, starting a blog, or protesting government policies.’

Below is Part IV of the report (pp 23-24), which looks at the repression of Kurds in Syria.

IV. Repression of Kurds

Kurds are the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in Syria; estimated at approximately 1.7 million, they make up roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population. Since the 1950s, successive Syrian governments have pursued a policy of repressing Kurdish identity because they perceived it to be a threat to the unity of an Arab Syria. Under Bashar al-Asad, Syrian authorities have continued to suppress the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish minority, including banning the teaching of Kurdish in schools and regularly disrupting gatherings to celebrate Kurdish festivals such as Nowruz (the Kurdish New Year).

Harassment of Syrian Kurds increased further after they held large-scale demonstrations, some violent, throughout northern Syria in March 2004 to voice long-simmering grievances. Syrian authorities reacted to the protests with lethal force, killing at least 36 people, injuring over 160, and detaining more than 2,000, amidst widespread reports of torture and ill- treatment of detainees. Most detainees were eventually released, including 312 who were freed under an amnesty announced by al-Asad on March 30, 2005.

However, since then, the Syrian government has maintained a policy of banning Kurdish political and cultural gatherings. Human Rights Watch has documented the repression of at least 14 Kurdish political and cultural gatherings since 2005. The security forces also have detained a number of leading Kurdish political activists and referred them to military courts or the SSSC for prosecution under charges of “inciting strife” or “weakening national sentiment.” (For more details on the repression of Kurdish activism following the 2004 riots, see Human Rights Watch, Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria; see also Kurdistan Commentary’s view on this report here).

In addition, large numbers of Kurds are stateless and consequently face a range of difficulties, from getting jobs and registering weddings to obtaining state services. In 1962, an exceptional census stripped some 120,000 Syrian Kurds—20 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population—of their Syrian citizenship. By many accounts, the special census was carried out in an arbitrary manner. Brothers from the same family, born in the same Syrian village, were classified differently. Fathers became foreigners while their sons remained citizens. The number of stateless Kurds grew with time as descendants of those who lost citizenship in 1962 multiplied; as a result, their number is now estimated at 300,000. (For a review of the stateless Kurds’ situation, see: Human Rights Watch, Syria: The Silenced Kurds, vol. 8, no. 4(E), October 1996; Maureen Lynch and Perveen Ali, Refugees International, “Buried Alive: Stateless Kurds in Syria,” (.pdf) January 2006; Kurd Watch, Stateless Kurds in Syria: Illegal Invaders or Victims of a Nationalistic Policy?, (.pdf) Report 5, March 2010.

Al-Asad has repeatedly promised Kurdish leaders a solution to the plight of the stateless Kurds, but a decade later, they are still waiting. He first promised to tackle the issue when he visited the largely Kurdish-populated region of al-Hasaka on August 18, 2002, and met with a number of Kurdish leaders. (Human Rights Watch interview with Kurdish political activist in Azadi party, Damascus , November 1, 2009; Human Rights Watch interview with Kurdish political activist in Yekiti party, Ras al-Ain, October 6, 2009; Kurd Watch, Stateless Kurds in Syria, pp. 21-22.)

In his second inaugural speech on July 17, 2007, he mentioned the promise he made in 2002, but noted that political developments had prevented progress in this area:

I visited al-Hasaka governorate in August 2002 and met representatives of the community there. All of them without exception talked about this issue [the 1962 census]. I told them, “we have no problem, we will start working on it.” That was the time when the United States was preparing to invade Iraq…. We started moving slowly, the Iraq war happened, and there were different circumstances which stopped many things concerning internal reform. In 2004, the riots in al-Qamishli governorate happened, and we did not exactly know the background of the riots, because some people took advantage of the events for non-patriotic purposes…. We restarted the process last year on the government’s initiative since the events have gone and it was shown that there were no non-patriotic implications. (Bashar al-Asad second inaugural speech, July 17, 2007).

Later in his speech, al-Asad referred to a draft law that would solve the problem for some stateless Kurds, namely those who became stateless even though other members of their family obtained citizenship. (Also from above inaugural speech: He indicated that the law would not grant any rights to those who are considered Maktumeen, stateless Kurds who are not listed on any register in Syria). He concluded by saying that “the consultations continue…and when we are done with those…the law is ready.” Three years later, and despite the fact that the political justifications for the delays have long ceased to exist, there is no new law, and no steps have been taken to address Kurdish grievances.

Accordingly, we urge President Bashar al-Asad to:

• Set up a commission tasked with addressing the underlying grievances of the Kurdish minority in Syria and make public the results of its findings and recommendations. The commission should include members of Syria’s Kurdish political parties.

• Redress the status of all Kurds who were born in Syria but are stateless by offering citizenship to any person with strong ties to Syria by reason of birth, marriage, or long residence in the country and who is not otherwise entitled to citizenship in another country.

• Identify and remove discriminatory laws and policies on Kurds, including reviewing all government decrees and directives that apply uniquely to the Kurdish minority in Syria or have a disproportionate impact on them.

• Ensure that Syria’s Kurds have the right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language; likewise, ensure freedom of expression, including the right to celebrate cultural holidays and learn Kurdish in schools.

• Invite the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues to visit Syria.

The full report can be read or downloaded on the HRW website.

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