Amnesty International senior director Widney Brown describes the group’s findings to ABC’s TONY JONES on the escalating violence in Syria.
TONY JONES, PRESENTER: To discuss the situation in Syria we’re joined now in the studio by Widney Brown, the senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International.
Thanks for being here.
WIDNEY BROWN, GLOBAL HEAD OF POLICY, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: Thank you.
TONY JONES: Now, your field investigator – I gather there’s only one of them, is that right?
WIDNEY BROWN: Correct.
TONY JONES: Was she able to make any estimate of the scale of the summary executions in these towns and villages?
WIDNEY BROWN: No, she wasn’t. We collected numbers from the people in the towns, but we did not have necessarily independent collaboration because the burials happened very rapidly and then some are just disappeared. A lot of times the young men were taken out, shot and burned and their bodies were found later so you don’t know how many bodies were never found.
TONY JONES: And the allegation that many of the people detained were tortured, many of them tortured to death, has that come from eyewitness accounts or the relatives of people who just never returned?
WIDNEY BROWN: Yes, the relatives of people who then saw the bodies when they were released to them for burial and so that we were able to do document the nature of the torture there as well as some of the people who survived and were released.
TONY JONES: Now Amnesty in its report states unequivocally that the investigator found disturbing new evidence of grave abuses by the Syrian Army which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Now, does this evidence point to a more systematic and murderous campaign than the world has currently heard about?
WIDNEY BROWN: It absolutely reinforces what we’ve heard before, but we are able to now, based on our investigation, is establish that there’s a pattern. They go in, they surround the villages on three sides, they shell. Then they walk in with everything totally under control and they systematically pull out the men, young men and older men too – we also documented the murders of men in their 80s, 70s, 60s. There’s a touching case of a 54-year-old police person – policeman who had actually quit his job because he had a nervous breakdown being found shot as he huddled under his blanket in a bed in a house he never left. Then the burning of the bodies and the burning often of the houses as well, so destruction of the property. Additionally in some cases we saw the attacks on women and children. And then the other thing that we saw that makes it so clear that this is part of a pattern and a practice was the targeting of all medical clinics. So, the houses are being destroyed, but they’re absolutely picking out medical clinics, doctors, any place that somebody might go for help.
TONY JONES: It sounds like it almost comes out of a playbook that we’ve seen in Darfur and many years earlier in Bosnia.
WIDNEY BROWN: True. In many ways the use of the militia – there’s a militia that is somewhat – that is arguably independent of the Syrian regular army, but absolutely is taking orders from the central government. Very much reflects what we saw with the Janjaweed in Darfur and of course the extra-judicial execution of men and boys is very similar to what we saw in the former Yugoslavia. But I’d also point out that since Putin and his government is supplying the arms to Assad, look at what happened in Chechnya when Putin was previously the president of Russia.
TONY JONES: Now, is there clear evidence that these militias are under orders. I know you’ve stated the case and it seems pretty clear, but has anyone come across written orders or have there been defectors from the militia who explained where their orders are coming from?
WIDNEY BROWN: What we saw is the militias actually acting side by side with the regular Army and the security forces, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not. When they’re acting in concert with them, I think there’s no question that they are receiving orders from the central government. Now there have been some allegations that some of them are going rogue. This does not release the government from its responsibility. You can’t create a death squad in essence or a militia, give them free rein to kill people, civilians and then say, “Oops, I’m sorry, they got out of control.” There’s a still responsibility there.
TONY JONES: Now how did your investigator get in to – we’re talking about northern Syria here and there’s evidence of atrocities happening in the towns and villages around Idlib and Aleppo and in other areas north of Hama. How did your investigator get in and come out with all this evidence?
WIDNEY BROWN: Well as you know, the Syrian government is not allowing independent journalists, independent human rights monitors such as Amnesty International in, and so while we rarely do this, we normally get permission from a government to go in, we went in across the very ways that refugees are coming out.
TONY JONES: OK. The report is titled ‘Deadly Reprisals’. Now, obviously there seems to be a conclusion here that these attacks are in reprisal for some of these villagers having rebel sympathies, is that correct?
WIDNEY BROWN: Well the first reprisal was that Syrians dared to stand up to the Assad government and say, “Like the people in Tunisia, like the people in Egypt, we actually want our freedom too. We want freedom from fear,” it’s a very repressive government. “We want the right to express our own opinions, we want political participation and we want freedom from want.” So the initial reprisal is actually that somebody dared to challenge the absolute authority of the government. Now what we’re seeing is any village that’s seen as at all supportive of the protestors are now in the crosshairs.
TONY JONES: Now, does Amnesty believe that the people in these towns and villages have the right to obtain weapons to protect themselves from these kind of reprisals and attacks and murder?
WIDNEY BROWN: Well we’re not calling for the Free Syrian Army or others to be armed. We are calling for an absolute embargo against any arms transfers to the Syrian Government ’cause it’s patently obvious that they’re using them to commit these crimes against humanity and war crimes. And arms are continuing to flow in both from Iran and Russia to the Syrian government.
TONY JONES: What’s Amnesty’s position, though, on arms going to people who are under attack like this? I mean, for example, would you want your own family to have the ability to protect themselves if the military and militias were coming in and killing members of your family?
WIDNEY BROWN: Of course I think it’s absolutely a gut response to say you want people to be able to defend themselves, but the truth is that the Syrian army is so much better armed that basically it would be having a water pistol against the sort of artillery that they have. So, it begs the questions in some ways. You can talk about whether you want to arm the civilians or the Free Syrian Army, but we’re talking about massive arms and significant arms flow from Russia and Iran to the government, which is why we’re seeing the devastating shelling.
TONY JONES: Yeah, I mean, civil conflicts like this one in Syria do tend to throw up moral dilemmas for organisations like yours, don’t they? I mean, it is a real problem. I mean, as we know, there are some countries who’ve decided differently that the rebel forces facing annihilation should be armed and they are doing that. They’re arming them at the same time you’re calling for a treaty to stop light arms transfers.
WIDNEY BROWN: We are. We are using the example of Syria, but it’s not just Syria. It’s Sudan. It’s the Democratic Republic of Congo. These are countries in which the flow of arms into the country has led to vast violations of human rights and of humanitarian law with huge consequences for civilians. You know, the statistics on the number of people who’ve died either directly as a result of the conflict or for related causes in the DRC over the last decade is huge. It actually dwarfs what we see in Syria. But the whole point is: nobody should be making a profit by having arms transfers to governments or armed groups that are gonna use them to attack civilians and that’s what we’re seeing. In this case it’s particularly related because the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany account for 74 per cent of all arms deal, but the five permanent members are also charged with maintaining peace and security. So, peace, profit – there’s a conflict.
TONY JONES: Yeah, I know it is extraordinary when you actually look at the percentages – and the largest percentage of arms is coming from the United States.
WIDNEY BROWN: 40 per cent.
TONY JONES: The second largest I think from Russia …
WIDNEY BROWN: Absolutely.
TONY JONES: … and then right down the scale to Germany. But – so, yes, of course there’s hypocrisy, but what about the responsibility to protect this doctrine which is supposed to be able to protect civilians from being murdered by their own rulers?
WIDNEY BROWN: Right. The international community came up with that idea in the wake of for instance Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia with the idea that when there was a failure of the Security Council under Chapter Seven, to actually act aggressively to stop these sorts of attacks, that there was an obligation on the entire international community. That’s a good idea and you need to intervene sooner ran than later and the idea is to do interventions prior to the point that you actually need a military invention. We’ve seen both with the responsibility to protect and with the Security Council, a tendency not to take strong action until things are in a really bad shape like what we have with Syria now and then the tendency to say, “Well the only answer is military or we can’t do anything,” and neither is a good solution. So the responsibility to protect doctrine is not enshrined in law now, but it does try to create an alternative when you have the failure that we are seeing now with the Security Council.
TONY JONES: And what about when you reach this point? I mean, for example, does Amnesty have a position on what should actually happen now? I mean, is there any other alternative than an armed invention to protect the civilian population?
WIDNEY BROWN: We are calling for additional measures and we are not calling for armed intervention at this point. What we’re calling for is to strengthen – well, first of all to stop the flow of arms again, to strengthen the mandate of the monitors on the ground and decrease the number. At this point it’s a very small number and there’s the ability of the Syrian government to actually sort of corral them in one area of the country while atrocities are happening in another area, so they’re always there after the fact.
TONY JONES: Except we know from the terrible experience in Bosnia that even when you have armed peacekeepers there, such as the Dutch in Srebrenica, atrocities can still occur and they have no power to do anything. So, did the world reach a point where actual intervention like the Libyan intervention where NATO bombed Libyan forces to in a way defend the rebels and to enhance their chance of overthrowing the regime, whether that is the only way to go?
WIDNEY BROWN: Well we don’t believe that we’re at that point now. I mean, one of the reasons that Amnesty International’s reluctant to call an armed intervention is having done research across the world in conflict and post-conflict societies, we’re acutely aware of the consequences to civilians with that sort of intervention. There may be a point that you have to do that to stop mass slaughter or genocide. We’re not saying it can never happen. But we need to really explore the other measures. There could be a referral for instance of this case situation to the International Criminal Court. When that happened with Libya, some high-ranking members of the Gaddafi’s government actually then defected. It may be too late for that in Syria. Financial sanctions – there are weak financial sanctions in the current Security Council resolution, so there may still be some measures that we can take.
TONY JONES: As we learnt from Libya, even once the conflict is supposedly over, it doesn’t mean everything’s right with the new regime and we’ve seen this very recently with the Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor and her ICC colleagues who are indefinitely in detention now and may be under investigation for a very long time. What’s Amnesty’s position on that?
WIDNEY BROWN: Amnesty’s International is calling for Melinda Taylor and the three colleagues from the ICC to be released unconditionally. She was going there to speak with what is de facto her client, Saif al-Islam. It should have been a confidential conversation. She was detained along with the other three and that seems to me to be an attack on the integrity of the ICC and every defence lawyer needs to be able to talk to their client. So this apprehension of them is completely unjustified and really an attack on the concept of international justice. And it undermines the Libyan’s argument itself that they are in a position to actually provide him with a fair trial.
TONY JONES: Let me ask you this: you’re here in Australia, you’ve got meetings with some very senior politicians on both sides, the Government and in the Opposition and other people as well. What’s on the top of your list if you’re effectively lobbying the Government?
WIDNEY BROWN: Well one of the main things is to have Australian continue to play a strong role, and it is a strong role it’s been playing, on the arms trade treaty ’cause that negotiation will begin in New York on July 2nd and we need Australia to hold firm and particularly to provide solidarity for Pacific Island nations who are probably gonna be subjected to a lot of pressure from Russia, China, the US and possibly others. Other issues that we’re bringing up are the indefinite detention of asylum seekers under the intelligence ICO brief. We want to basically call on the Government to stop the indefinite detention of people based on secret evidence with no right of appeal. We’ve always been concerned about Australia’s refugee policy and the pre-adjudication detention. And the other issue of course is what’s going on with Indigenous peoples.
TONY JONES: Always a lot on your agenda when you come here. We thank you very much for coming to talk to us tonight, Widney Brown. We’ll have to leave you there. We’re out of time.
WIDNEY BROWN: Great. Thank you.