U.S. Democrats and Syria's Human Rights

Human rights in Syria; Pelosi's silence

By Nadim Houry and Radwan Ziadeh

Daily Star
April 6, 2007

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus this week caused quite a stir. Before she even landed in Syria, the White House was calling her decision a "really bad idea." Pelosi's spokesman was quick to defend the visit by saying that the speaker intended to use her trip "to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East." No one doubts that security is essential in the region. But Pelosi appears to have committed the same mistake as other recent visitors to Damascus, who decided not to raise the issue of Syria's appalling human rights record.

Pelosi was the most senior American public figure to visit Damascus since Colin Powell visited in 2003 as secretary of state, but she came on the heels of other high-profile visitors. Last weekend, three Republican congressmen, Frank Wolf, Joe Pitts and Robert Aderholt, traveled to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad. Last month, Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, also paid a visit. The message from these various visitors has generally been consistent: Syria needs to cooperate on Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq.

Pelosi's visit fits the mold. At a press conference in Damascus, Pelosi told reporters that the she had expressed to Assad her concern about Syria's support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and that they discussed the "issue of fighters slipping across the Syrian border into Iraq." Pelosi also reportedly passed a message from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about Israel's readiness to engage in peace talks, and she raised the issue of three Israeli soldiers abducted by Palestinian militants in Gaza and by Hizbullah in Lebanon. There is no indication, however, that she told Assad or other Syrian officials that Syria needed to improve its human rights record to truly become a positive player in the region.

The Syrian government strictly limits freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Emergency powers, imposed in 1963, remain in effect, and the government bans hundreds of political and human rights activists from traveling. The authorities treat Kurds, Syria's largest non-Arab minority, as second-class citizens subject to systematic discrimination.

Pelosi's visit took place at a time when several Syrian political and human rights activists are facing trial for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Former prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani is due back in court on April 10. He was arrested in November 2005, on his return to Syria after several months in Europe and the United States, where he met with officials to call for peaceful democratic reform inside Syria. He is charged with "encouraging foreign aggression against Syria." Prominent writer Michel Kilo and human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni have been detained since May 2006, following their signature of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for improved relations between Syria and Lebanon.

Many analysts fear that emphasizing human rights concerns will weaken the objective of getting Syria to change its regional behavior. Better not anger Damascus by asking for internal reforms, they argue. But these fears are misplaced. First, US foreign policy behavior has often addressed this "tension" by reflecting both a concern for security cooperation and respect for human rights. Pelosi herself is a staunch advocate of human rights in China at a time when the US and China need to cooperate on many critical security issues, including the rise of North Korea as a nuclear player.

Second, more democratic governance and rule of law in Syria will surely be a more positive influence in the Middle East.

Journalists and commentators will use a lot of ink debating the merits of Pelosi's visit. But one thing is clear. She missed an opportunity to send a strong message to the Syrian authorities that Washington's desire to cooperate with Syria does not mean it will turn a blind eye to Syria's human rights violations. She also missed the opportunity to send a message to Syrians and other Arabs that the US still values respect for human rights.

Nadim Houry is Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. Radwan Ziadeh is director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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