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Statements Independent investigation

“It is a Forever Stigma: The Role of Gender Discrimination in the Syrian Government’s Detention and Torture System”

26 June 2024

Delivered by

Commissioner Lynn Welchman to seminar

Legal Action Worldwide and Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research (June 2024)

Thank you for your invitation, and on behalf of the Commission on Syria I would like to commend the convenors of this event, the researchers and writers of this report and, most of all, the victims and survivors whose tremendous courage underlies the testimonies on which it is based. The report provides us with detailed analysis into the gendered experience of detention in Syria, documenting and clarifying additional layers of gender discrimination within the Syrian detention structures. It stands to be critical in bringing urgent attention to what thousands of victims are going through still. The journeys described in this report, from initial arrest through horrendous sexual violence during detention, are followed by the deeply gendered, long term and life altering impact on victims of detention. The report is not easy reading, but it is a vital contribution.

The Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was established by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to investigate crimes and violations of international law in Syria. Since its first report, the Commission has documented torture and ill-treatment, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, occurring in Government detention (as well as, subsequently, under other detaining authorities beyond government territorial control).

In areas controlled by the government, the Commission has documented sexual violence being used to force confessions, to extract information, as punishment, and to terrorise opposition communities. Rape and other acts of sexual violence have been carried out by Government forces and associated militias during ground operations, house raids, at checkpoints, and during detention. Through thousands of interviews with former detainees down the years, the Commission’s findings leave no doubt that rape and sexual violence against men, women, boys and girls are used by Government security agencies as a weapon of war, to humiliate, punish and instil fear in entire communities perceived to be opposing Government rule. We have documented rape occurring in at least 30 Government intelligence branches and military prisons, and sexual violence continues in recent years.

Furthermore, as so clearly described in this report, the motivation, treatment and purpose of detention is deeply gendered, with State agents instrumentalizing the socially constructed gender roles of men, women, boys and girls in order to inflict the maximum level of physical and mental harm, not only on the victim, but also their families, and indeed the wider community. The effects of the crime are perpetuated through the societal stigmatization of survivors of sexual violence.

Women and girls tell the Commission they feel responsible for dishonouring their families and they often hide what happened to them from their relatives. Women rape survivors may be at risk of being disowned by their families, rejected by their husbands and deprived of custody of their children.

At the same time, under-reporting of rape is exacerbated by a common although flawed societal presumption that women in detention are invariably subject to sexual assault. Female detention survivors have highlighted the tremendous challenges of such presumptions when they return to their communities after being released. Men and boys say they feel they lost their masculinity through their treatment, and they too were unable to confide in relatives or friends about what had happened to them. While victims and survivors of other human rights violations and acts of violence in Syria are encouraged by society to tell their stories publicly, victims of sexual violence often suffer in silence. Given the stigmatization of survivors, recognizing them as victims of crimes under international law, at the same level as other victims, is therefore all the more important.

Acts of rape and sexual violence such as those documented in this report have been perpetrated with complete impunity at the Syrian national level. We have however recently seen some progress at the international level, where processes of accountability treat rape and sexual violence as a crime against the victim, indeed a crime of such severity that it merits accountability at the international level, thus contributing powerfully to re-framing both the acts and the survivors, and honouring the victims.

Two examples of this as we heard in the opening remarks are the 2022 conviction of a former Syrian intelligence officer in Koblenz: and the ICJ ruling for provisional measures in the claim against Syria brought by Canada and the Netherlands for breaches of the Convention Against Torture. The first action pursues accountability of the individual perpetrator; the second, the Syrian state.

Although the various international justice processes progress slowly, and address only a fraction of the crimes committed by Government agents in Syrian detention facilities, these proceedings will hopefully bring some solace, recognition, and a sense of justice for the thousands who have suffered rape and sexual violence, and further empower them to seek accountability for the appalling crimes committed against them. We salute them, we stand with them, and we thank Legal Action Worldwide and the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research for this report.

Thank you.