ISSN 2330-717X

Amnesty International And Syria: A Critical Scrutiny – OpEd


The human rights organization, Amnesty International, has been as expected busy trying to document the on-going atrocities in war-torn Syria, by the Syrian government, the armed opposition, and the ISIS and other terrorist organizations aided by the recruitment of tens of thousands of foreign jihadists.

This is a crucial task that has resulted in a number of Amnesty reports documenting the nature of extrajudicial killings, torture, inhuman treatments, abductions, and the like, perpetrated basically by the protagonists of all sides in this tragic conflict that has led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and millions of refugees.

Without doubt, the Amnesty’s efforts must be lauded as reflections of a conscious and noble effort by this organization to live up to the expectations and diligently pursue the rights abusers in international forums. Those responsible for the horrific rights abuses in Syria must be held accountable no matter which side of the isle they stand. In this regard, presently there are a number of initiatives at the UN and other world forums to attend to this issue and, hopefully, bring to justice the perpetrators accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious unlawful rights abuses.

However, this does not mean that the Amnesty’s efforts on Syria are completely flawless and fully even-handed. Unfortunately, in comparing the Amnesty’s reports on violations by the government and the rights groups one detects signs of bias and even double standards, casting minor questions on the credibility of the organization. To give an example, in its 2016 report on the atrocities committed by the armed opposition groups, Amnesty International states that it has, “received a number of allegations of summary killings carried out” by these groups since 2011. This report is based on interviews with a few dozen witnesses, much like the more recent report on torture and summary executions in a Syrian prison. Yet, the word “alleged” does not appear in the latter report and the accounts of witnesses, including former Syrian prison guards, judges and doctors mostly interviewed in southern Turkey are basically adopted as facts.

Nor is there any attempt in the first report to give even an approximate number of summary executions — of Syrian government forces and those accused of acting as informants or sympathizers for Damascus — and, in fact, the report’s failure to probe this important issue constitutes a major weakness that bespeaks of political favoritism, particularly when compared with the meticulous attention to the numbers of those executed in the second report — that has triggered a major headline around the world regarding the Amnesty’s report that 13,000 detainees in a Syrian military prison have been executed between September 2011 and December 2015. As expected, there is no mention of the “mass graves” found in Aleppo with mutilated bodies, reported by Russian media after the liberation of Aleppo, in either report by Amnesty International, as if it is not interested in that subject since it does not pertain to the Syrian government.

Moreover, the Amnesty report on Syrian prison killings contains a number of discrepancies that defy logic. Case in point, even though it admits that it has gained the identity of some 59 executed from the 31 former detainees at the infamous prison, the report nonetheless concludes that “the victims are overwhelmingly ordinary civilians who are thought to oppose the government.” This aside, in fact, the report puts the number of executed during the above-mentioned period to be “between 5,000 and 13,000.” There is a rather huge gap between these two numbers bespeaking of incertitude, (just as there is between the confirmed 375 individuals who have reportedly died under torture and the like in that prison and the report’s simultaneous claim of “thousands”) that also raise questions, seeing how all the western media has settled on the latter number.

Another discrepancy is that Amnesty claims that it has come to its conclusions based in part on interviews with three doctors who worked at the Tishreen Military Hospital where the dead victims were taken to be “registered” before being buried in mass graves. Yet, in the subsequent section quoting those doctors they consistently refer to examples of deaths by torture, lack of medical care, etc., but not by hanging. This is very curious, since if Amnesty’s report that all victims ended up at this hospital then the question is why none of these doctors make the slightest reference to evidence of strangulation?

Not only that, this report relies extensively on the witness accounts of a few former detainees who state that they witnessed the victims carried out from the torture chambers below their cells inside coffins into trucks late at nights. Yet, the same doctors mentioned above are quoted elsewhere in the report about the “pile of bodies” in the trucks coming from Saydnaya Military prison, i.e., no mention of coffins. Call it the case of disappearing coffins. Or could it be that the trucks were at times simply loading or unloading “food or heaters” or ammo, as one former detainee maintains in the report?

Of course, this is not to whitewash the brutality and crimes of the Syrian army in this brutal war, only to point out the flaws in the standards of Amnesty International.

To give yet another example of the flaws in its recent report, Amnesty contradicts itself by on the one hand repeatedly stating that the alleged executions have happened in utmost secrecy and without the victims even knowing they were targeted for executions and, on the other, referring fleetingly to “detainees who witnessed the executions.” Yet, there is not one footnote in reference to any such detainee who could be counted on as witness to executions.

Indeed, this amounts to a comedy of errors on Amnesty’s part that leaves a lot to be desired. Amnesty International has sadly damaged its reputation by deviating from objective documentation of facts on Syria and, in effect, acting as an arm of Western policy on Syria. Of course, none of these criticisms detract from the above-stated acknowledgement of Amnesty’s critical contributions to the cause of human rights around the world including Syria.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Editor's Note: Federal authorities in 2021 charged this contributor with operating as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government. Eurasia Review is leaving the article on the site as a matter of public record while updating his author page and the article to include this new information for context. Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

2 thoughts on “Amnesty International And Syria: A Critical Scrutiny – OpEd

  • February 11, 2017 at 1:29 am

    Very convincing. I read the report after reading this article and the author is on the mark in his criticisms.

  • February 12, 2017 at 3:16 am

    I believe I sympathize with the writer, but he diplomatically compromises, rather than illuminates, Amnesty’s (and London’s) two-faced role throughout. Not accidentally, the ground has shifted, and It is Russia, Iran and Turkey (and a growing number of friends) who are increasingly trusted to seek a solution in these matters.


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