Syria’s ten years of conflict has left 6.2 million Syrians internally displaced and forced almost 5.6 million to flee the country. The conflict has also resulted in HLP rights violations, perpetuated by the Syrian government and other parties of the conflict.
Although HLP rights violations by the Syrian government did not start with the onset of the conflict, they intensified throughout the war, especially with the government’s reconstruction efforts and the return of some displaced Syrians. The Syrian government has confiscated Syrians’ properties through a number of different means in recent years. Property rights abuses—including the confiscations of property—have been used by the government, mainly as a tool to punish government opponents, detainees and their families, and displaced Syrians. The Syrian government has also utilized HLP rights violation for military purposes and as a tool to bolster the regime and its allies’ influence throughout Syria, ensuring that key locations—particularly those close to Damascus city center—are populated by government loyalists.
HLP rights are also being violated in regions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has used HLP rights violations—including unlawful seizures of civilian homes and properties, leasing and investing properties of civilians outside Syria without their consent, and preventing civilians from returning to their properties—as a tool of intimidating opponents and subjugating civilians in their areas of control. In addition, Turkish forces and Turkish-affiliated Syrian opposition groups have also been involved in widespread HLP rights abuses. Turkish forces have confiscated properties for military use and to house their families as well as displaced Syrians from other parts of the country; they have also engaged in what has been referred to as an “Arabization” of northern Syria, displacing Kurdish residents of the region and confiscating their properties.
Moreover, Hayyet Tahrir Al-Sham, as well as other armed opposition groups, have seized the properties of Christians in Idlib, often using them for investments or to house the families of the group’s fighters.
Syrians’ HLP rights have been systematically violated by most parties to the conflict. Yet, and despite the widespread displacement of Syrians and the ongoing violations of HLP rights throughout the country, the topic of HLP rights does not receive proper attention in the political process. Concrete measures must therefore be taken by policy makers, the international community, UN, and civil society organizations to tackle the issue.
To policy makers and governments:
- Support Syrian civil society efforts to document HLP rights abuses throughout Syria.
- Support efforts to create and implement transitional justice mechanisms that address property rights concerns, including through restitution of properties or reparations for lost property.
- Identify and hold accountable perpetrators of HLP rights abuses in Syria through:
- Targeted individual sanctions, including sanctions imposed on those engaged in reconstruction activities in Syria.
- Cases through principles like Universal Jurisdiction and others that hold Syrian perpetrators abroad accountable.
- Identifying businesses within the state’s jurisdiction which are contributing to or participating in reconstruction-related business activity in Syria which results in or contributes to HLP rights violations.
- Avoid taking part in reconstruction projects that further HLP violations or normalize them and hold businesses operating in their jurisdictions accountable for business practices that violate HLP rights in Syria.
To international organizations:
- Work closely with Syrian civil society and Syrians on the ground toward transitional justice mechanisms to restitute or otherwise provide reparations for lost property.
- Provide support to Syrian civil society in documenting HLP rights violations in a way that meets judicial and evidentiary standards for international and domestic courts to ensure the use of documented information in future justice efforts.
To the UN:
- Ensure that HLP rights issues are addressed in political negotiations, as well as in the constitutional drafting process.
- Ensure that UN organizations working in Syria are not involved in any rehabilitation plans or projects that may violate HLP rights and that projects with other entities/organizations that involve such violations cease.
To Syrian civil society organizations:
- Work with local populations to develop localized transitional justice and property restitution or reparations mechanisms and build on the experience of relevant property restitution mechanisms used in previous contexts such as in Bosnia and Germany.
- Engage with Syrians, including displaced Syrians, to document HLP rights violations to be used in future justice and accountability efforts.
- Provide Know Your Rights trainings/campaigns for Syrians and ensure they have proper documentation when possible.
To businesses engaging in reconstruction in Syria:
- Refrain from participating in reconstruction activities that may include stolen or confiscated property or otherwise involve abuses of HLP rights.
- Ensure that any reconstruction activities that businesses are involved in abide by the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights and engage in heightened due diligence, as described by the UN Working Group Report titled “Business, human rights and conflict-affected regions: towards heightened action.”
To the U.S. and countries affiliated with the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS that consider the Syrian Democratic Forces to be a partner in Syria:
- Pressure the SDF to return property to its owners and refrain from using civilian property for military purposes.
- Conduct a transparent investigation of property rights violations and hold accountable those responsible for committing these violations and remove them from leadership positions.
- Obtain guarantees from the leaders of the SDF and the Syrian Democratic Council that such violations do not happen again.
HLP rights violations that have been perpetrated during the Syrian conflict will have lasting impacts on Syrians. Displacement, as well as the confiscation and demolition of properties, have completely uprooted entire communities. These violations highlight the extent to which almost all parties of the conflict have violated civilians’ property rights, ignoring long-held principles of international humanitarian law. It is essential not only to hold perpetrators accountable, but also to recognize the massive impact that HLP rights violations have had on Syrians and to provide them with reparations and justice. Addressing these violations is thus essential to a successful post-conflict political transition and a transitional justice phase.
This is the final piece of a three-part series on HLP rights violations in Syria.