Executive summary - SACD-led conference in Geneva marks the beginning of a new phase in the fight for rights of displaced Syrians
In a first event of this kind, displaced Syrians convened a high-level international conference in Geneva to address a dangerous paralysis in the political process and offer a roadmap for a political framework for establishing a safe environment needed for return of some 13 million refugees and IDPs.
The conference gathered prominent Syrian figures from displaced communities in Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, France, Austria, United States, UK and inside Syria, as well as international experts to discuss the stagnation of the political process and the way forward.
The discussions were based on a substantive document titled “Roadmap for a safe environment in Syria” produced by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), as a result of three years of consultations with displaced Syrians and experts to detail what needs to happen before return becomes possible, during and after return of the displaced.
The conference in Geneva, co-organised by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, European Institute of Peace and the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, issued a strong and unified message on the need for a ‘safe environment’ in Syria before return, with details discussed and debated over the course of the two days. The conference comes in a context in which, amidst the stagnation of the political process on Syria, politicians from several countries hosting large populations of Syrians have politically stated an intent for, and in some cases have begun actively pursuing, a policy of forcibly returning Syrians to what is clearly an unsafe Syria.
SACD has consistently held the position, in accordance with international law and UNSCR 2254, that the establishment of a safe environment in Syria is a prerequisite for the return of the Syrian people to their country, and that Syrians themselves must be involved, consulted, and must be the final arbiters of what constitutes a truly ‘safe environment’. SACD has conducted more than two years of consultations and surveying how Syrians—both inside and outside of Syrian territory—would define a ‘safe environment’ for themselves and their families. SACD then engaged Syrian and international experts to translate their responses into the concrete policy language of SACD’s position paper which was the subject of the conference.
The conference centered around five panels that explored different aspects of this question of a safe return. The first two panels focused especially on why and how it is important to achieve a safe environment before the return of Syrians. The sessions explored, from various perspectives, the importance of elevating safe environment to the top of the political process on Syria and the possible ways through which this can be achieved, as well as the concrete steps and measures that need to be taken in order for a safe, voluntary and dignified return to become possible, as well as the implications of the failure to pursue return without safe environment being established.
Multiple speakers noted how the refugee issue has been politicized by neighboring countries that are facing economic difficulties and political turmoil of their own. They explained how Syrians are facing dire economic situations in these countries and are increasingly subjected to racism and political/legal difficulties which are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) designed to pressure them to return. Yet despite this, Syrians continue to reject a return, a sign of how dangerous the situation awaiting them would be.
Panelists also noted that funding for Syrians in refugee camps has continued dropping, further exacerbating these tensions within host countries and escalating pressure on refugees to return. Panelists discussed how Assad and Russia have also politicized the question of return in order to give the regime legitimacy and to attract international aid; in practice Assad has shown no willingness to effect the reforms necessary for a real return, and in fact does not want their return.
These first two panels, as well as the fourth panel, also discussed the available political methods of achieving the goal of a safe environment. Several speakers emphasized the need for a monitored political agreement with guarantees backed by international stakeholders if safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return is to become possible. Panelists noted how nations outside of the Middle East have largely turned toward other priorities and that the international interest in negotiating such a solution must be renewed. There was agreement that ignoring Syria will result in a dangerous situation in neighboring countries that will inevitably have ripple effects in Europe and around the world.
One focus was the emphasis that states around the world must understand that a safe environment in Syria would be in their own interests, and would result in a more stable region and thus a more stable and prosperous globe. Conversely, that a return without proper reforms and guarantees would only lead to more refugees, more migrants, and more destabilization in the long-run. Therefore, any agreement must not be merely reactive or superficial, but must be a proactive and comprehensive effort at addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, especially the crimes of the Syrian regime.
The third and fifth panels focused on specific aspects of the reforms necessary for a political agreement: the threat of arbitrary detention, and the need for justice, respectively. The sessions discussed a set of legal corrections and measures that must be immediately enforced as part of a genuine general amnesty to regulate the legal and security situation of hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been unlawfully and illegally persecuted and targeted by the Syrian regime. Such general amnesty will require the appropriate guarantees and monitoring mechanisms to oversee its complete execution. The Syrian regime has rolled out a number of false amnesties over the last few years for political and public relations purposes. Therefore, the success of the proposed amnesty would be the first meaningful set of true confidence-building measures to signal to the Syrian people the serious commitment of the states backing the political process and the implementation of a safe environment for all Syrians.
Speakers noted the crucial importance of the issue of detainees and general amnesty as a part of the political agreement on safe environment and a key pre-condition for any possibility of a safe and dignified return. They emphasized the reality in which thousands of forcibly disappeared Syrians who are still unaccounted for, and the ongoing threat of detention for those who attempt to return. They discussed the well-documented physical and psychological torture, and the conference was even addressed—through video—by Caesar, the former photographer in Syrian security services who smuggled out evidence of 11000 Syrians killed in Assad’s prisons.
Finally, there was a discussion of the importance of justice, and a reckoning with the crimes and criminals of all parties in the Syrian conflict. In the consultations conducted by SACD, it has been clearly established that a process for developing accountability mechanisms to address violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict should be developed as a confidence-building measure to remove perpetrators and rights violators from positions of authority in the returnees’ communities. The conference asked how can this be done in the context of establishing a safe environment in Syria?
There was agreement that any return must include the release of all those currently detained, and clear mechanism to determine the fate for those who are missing. Although there are currently limited avenues for prosecution other than outside of Syria, panelists noted that detailed documentation of crimes is ongoing, and will be invaluable for the eventual prosecutions that will be necessary for recovery and rebuilding of Syrian social cohesion.
The conference closed with a reaffirmation of the need for a political agreement in Syria that creates a safe environment as defined by the Syrians themselves and issued a strong call for mobilization of displaced Syrians into a unified, strong voice which will be capable of disturbing the current stagnation of the political process and fill the representation gap which has left them voiceless in some of the most important discussions on the future of Syria. While the overwhelming majority of Syrians reject the prospect of a return to Syria under current conditions, most express a hope to eventually return to Syria once it is safe and string international guarantees are in place to monitor the political agreement which will guarantee their rights. The overall impression emanating from the SACD’s conference in Geneva was that it marked the beginning of a new era in discussions on Syria, in which the voices of displaced Syrians are placed front and center.