On Wednesday 11 October, the APPG Friends of Syria and APPG on Women, Peace and Security hosted an event with Families For Freedom – a women-led campaign for the rights of all detainees in Syria. They call for the issue of detainees to be treated as a humanitarian priority, separate from political and military bargaining. Their three main demands are as follows:
1) The right to know the fate of detained and disappeared people;
2) Detainees’ right to decent living conditions and freedom from torture and abuse;
3) The abolition of exceptional courts, especially Military Field Courts.
Baroness Hodgson of Abinger, co-chair of the APPG on Women, Peace and Security, briefly outlined the use of arbitrary detention and abuse and torture of detainees in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian Network of Human Rights has recorded more than 117,000 detainees, but some estimates place the number as high as 215,000. Amnesty International has reported that as many as 13,000 people, mostly civilians, were hanged in secret at one prison over a period of five years. Human Rights Watch revealed that at least 6,786 people have died in detention because of torture and abuse. Detention and disappearances affect not only the detainees, but also families left for years with no certain knowledge of their fate. Survivors of detention, and their families, suffer lifelong consequences.
Baroness Hodgson introduced three speakers from Families For Freedom: Amina, Noura and Ghada. Amina experienced detention herself, and three of her brothers were forcibly disappeared in 2011. Amina spoke about the origins of Families For Freedom’s campaign in Geneva, and appealed to the UK media to raise awareness about detainees in Syria, including the circumstances of their arrest and detention. Amina highlighted that the women of Families For Freedom have to struggle against gendered community pressures in order to be able to do their work. She described Families For Freedom as a “revolution against tyranny and traditions.”
Noura, a human rights lawyer and activist for women’s rights, recently learned that her husband Bassel Khartabil, detained in 2012, was executed. She spoke of her personal experience of being denied visiting rights to, and then all communications from, her husband. Noura expressed frustration at the inaction from the international community on Syria’s detained and disappeared. “We appreciate solidarity,” she said, “but we need action.” Ghada sees Families For Freedom as a means to feel stronger together. Since her husband’s detention, Ghada has been determined to spread the message about unjustifiable detention: “I feel very strong, because I have a message, and I have learnt that I always have to talk about it.” Families For Freedom has helped her to do this.
Laila Alodaat, Programme Manager for Crisis Response at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), spoke on consultations that WILPF and Amnesty International UK ran in conjunction with GAPS. The consultations were held to inform the new UK National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace and Security, but they have wide-ranging recommendations on support for women’s rights and women’s rights organisations that have application beyond a NAP. Women’s civil society organisations have the largest impact in their communities, but they are limited by a lack of financial and technical support. Women’s participation is also essential for the Syrian peace processes. The women from Families For Freedom, active community leaders working for peace, are excluded from the negotiating table. For this to change, the international community needs to start asking how the conflict in Syria is impacting women differently. This needs to be documented and implemented in policies to have accountability.
Baroness Hodgson thanked the speakers for bringing the situation of detention and forced disappearance to the attention of this audience, and for sharing such difficult personal stories. The event was also a powerful reminder of the specific barriers that women’s rights organising faces in the context of conflict, and that the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda still has far to go to be fully realised.