National Academies Press: OpenBook

Scientists and Human Rights in Syria (1993)


Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
Page 21
Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
Page 22
Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
Page 23
Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
Page 24
Suggested Citation:"REPRESSION OF PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS." National Research Council. 1993. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9173.
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Repression of Professional Associations In the first section of this report the history of the dissolution of the professional associations was summarized. This section presents a more complete account of these events, which were a turning point in the history of professional organizations in Syria. The Syrian government has strictly controlled the activities of the Bar Association, the Engineers' Association, the Medical Association, and the Pharmacists' Association for the past 12 years because of their activities in late 1979 and 1980 in behalf of greater human rights and freedoms. Both the engineers' and bar associations had set up committees in the late 1970s to secure the release of political detainees.14 The associations also adopted resolutions and undertook negotiations with the government. On February 28, 1980, following the lead of the Bar Association, the Sev- enth General Assembly of the Engineers' Association (formally, the Order of Syrian Engineers and Architects) adopted a statement that called for an end to the state of emergency, the right to exercise freedom of expression and association, the release of arrested colleagues and all other political prisoners, and an end to the practice of torture. It affirmed that engineers have both the right and duty as "individuals and as a syndicate to express 14 The CHR does not know whether the medical and pharmacists' associations had estab- lished such committees. The Syrian Medical Association did have a human rights committee that undertook meetings and informational activities, especially on December 10, Human Rights Day. 20

SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA 21 their opinions" and that "constructive criticism that aims to benefit the society and the nation should be encouraged." It called on the government to abide by its laws and the Constitution.15 A month later, on March 29, a general assembly meeting adopted a second resolution that reiterated support for the February 28 statement and called on the association's leadership to continue to discuss these issues with the Syrian authorities. The resolution also said that an extraordinary meeting would be called within the next 3 months to review progress. When discussions with the Syrian authorities yielded no results and arbitrary arrests continued, the Syrian bar, medical, pharmacists', and engi- neers' associations announced a nationwide strike for March 31. In re- sponse, the prime minister, Dr. Abdul Raouf al-Kassem, himself an archi- tectural engineer, promised representatives from the associations that their demands would be met, and the groups called off the national strike. How- ever, because the associations' leaders were unable to reach everyone in- volved, the strike did take place, although unofficially and only with limited participation. Despite the prime minister's promises, no reforms were undertaken, and the government instead tried to get the associations to repudiate the statements they had adopted. On April 4, 1980, at the beginning of a 5-day meeting of the Damascus branch of the Engineers' Association, a group of about 220 military engineers arrived en masse and called for the repudiation of the February 28 statement and the adoption of a resolution and telegram expressing support for President Assad. Although the group constituted a majority at the opening meeting, other engineers present prevented a vote from being taken. Subsequently, about 1,000 engineers joined the meeting, and they refused to support the initiatives of the 220. They also opposed an open vote that the 220 had advocated: The 220 had hoped by means of the open vote to intimidate people into voting in support of the government. A heated discussion took place on April 7, but no resolution in support of the government was adopted. To the contrary, it looked as if a statement even stronger than the one of February 28 would be adopted. On April 9, the executive committee received a telegram from the Interior Ministry, signed by the prime minister, saying that the Engineers' Association had been dissolved. 15 The CHR received the texts of these resolutions in Arabic; they were translated and are available upon request from the CHR office.

22 SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA DISSOLUTION OF THE ASSOCIATIONS A Council of Ministers' decree of April 9 disbanded all the profes- sional associations, their national and local leadership, and their general assemblies, alleging that the associations had gone beyond the aims and activities of their professions. Engineers were prevented from entering the Engineers' Association building, and lawyers and physicians were similarly barred from entering their professional headquarters. The government then set up new professional associations and appointed their leadership. The elected president of the Damascus branch of the Engineers' Association, Saeed Daqr, although not arrested, was forced out of the presidency in June 1980. He was replaced by Khaldoun Soufi, who was appointed by the government. Soufi still remains president of this branch. Similarly, the current president of the nationwide Engineers' Association, Ghassan Tayara, was appointed to replace the elected president of that association. In the case of the Syrian Medical Association, the government appointed Mustapha Salakho, a loyal Ba'ath Party member, to replace the elected General Secre- tary of the association, whom it arrested and detained for a week. (As noted above, he was released following the protests of Arab medical associations meeting in Algiers.) The government also changed the laws governing professional associa- tions. The new legislation, enacted in 1981, imposed Ba'ath Party control and oversight of the associations. They can only hold congresses, for ex- ample, with Ba'ath Party approval and Ba'ath Party representatives present, and they or their members can only participate in conferences outside of Syria with Ba'ath Party approval. Although elections are held, they are no longer free—all association officers must be selected or approved by the party. Moreover, the government retains the right to dissolve the associa- tions if they "deviate" from their objectives. With regard to the Engineers' Association, the statutes and bylaws adopted by its General Assembly are only "considered valid" if "ratified by the concerned authorities."16 The committees of the association are now appointed, and their members regu- larly include government employees and security agents. There is no longer a committee in the Engineers' Association that deals with human rights. When the Arab Federation of Engineers approached the Syrian Engi- neers' Association during the 1980s about their colleagues in detention, President Tayara, according to NAS sources, discouraged their intervention as interference in Syrian internal affairs and said that those detained should 16 "General Information on The Order of Syrian Engineers and Architects and on The Order of Syrian Engineers—Damascus," May 5, 1992; provided to CHR by the Order of Syrian Engineers and Architects, Damascus, in June 1992.

SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA 23 be "court-martialed." In 1987 an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Damascus, Nizar Maradni, together with another engineer, Ghassan Qassis, sent a pamphlet to the Engineers' Association calling for the restoration of democratic freedoms in Syria. Both were arrested in September 1987, reportedly tortured, and still remain incarcerated (see above). More recently, when a representative of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (1992a:4) raised the cases of imprisoned law- yers with the Syrian Bar Association, its officials at first denied the exist- ence of the cases, and then stated that "as a matter of principle it does not interfere in political cases." The committee concluded: "Since 1980 and the dissolution of its Liberties Committee it [the Syrian Bar Association] has not issued a single statement against or defended a single victim of government abuse, nor has it even raised the issue of tens of its members being detained and reportedly tortured" (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1992b:10). In 1989 a human rights committee was reestablished by the Syrian Bar Association, but, according to the lawyers committee, it is inactive (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1992b:7). HISTORY OF AUTONOMY AND PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE The government's strict control of the professional associations is a drastic departure from past practice. Although originally created by the government, the associations traditionally enjoyed substantial autonomy. When the Syrian Engineers' Association was founded in the late 1940s (it was formally established in 1950), Syria still had some semblance of demo- cratic government, and the association developed a tradition of free elec- tions, democratic rule, and relative independence from the government. This remained true even throughout the 1960s, when military coups plagued Syria, and into the 1970s. Although the government (especially the Ba'ath Party) tried to exert control from time to time and put some of its members on association committees, it did not succeed, except in one case when the individual was genuinely popular. At the time of the dissolution of the Engineers' Association in April 1980, it had 14,000 to 15,000 members. The headquarters of the associa- tion was in Damascus, and it had branches in 13 cities, including Aleppo and Latakiyya. The Damascus branch was the largest, with 4,000 members. According to CHR sources, it was a vibrant, active organization that strongly defended its colleagues and also made recommendations to the government on issues of human rights. The Syrian medical, bar, and pharmacists' associations also held genu- inely free elections, were largely independent of government control, and spoke up for persecuted colleagues.

24 SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA At the end of 1991 the official Syrian press called for democratization of unions, including professional associations and popular organizations. Subsequent remarks by President Assad also encouraged the belief that there might be some loosening of controls over the professional associa- tions. On March 12, 1992, in his nationwide inaugural address, President Assad affirmed that Syria was moving in the direction of democracy and pointed to the "vocational unions [professional associations] with their own hierarchies which are democratically elected" as evidence of this trend. These associations, he said, participate in the political process: ". . . the physician, the engineer, the lawyer, each within his own unionist organiza- tion participates in running the state and the society." President Assad continued that the associations are represented in the People's Assembly, are "all based on elections," and have "contributed to the development of the country" (Al-ltidal Arabic Newspaper, 1992; see also Syrian Ministry of Information, 1991:26). To date, however, liberalization has not taken place. None of the pro- fessional associations has held a free election since the 1970s or has been able to express views contrary to government policy. In the 1970s, for example, in addition to calling for human rights and democratic reform, the Engineers' Association raised objections to a government decree that re- quired all new engineering graduates to work immediately for the govern- ment for 5 years. Association members objected to a requirement they felt was patently political in origin, namely to promote greater loyalty to the Assad regime. They argued that new graduates in engineering should have the right to choose between working for the government or continuing on in graduate school or joining the private sector. The government, they pointed out, did not have enough work for new graduates, and many as a result would remain idle for those years. After the association's dissolution, how- ever, the newly created Engineers' Association no longer challenged the government on this question. Engineers and health professionals recently released from prison find it difficult to accept government control of their associations. The Engineers' Association reportedly has been sending its officers to visit newly released engineers, particularly those who had been active in the association prior to their arrest, presumably to threaten or co- opt them. But not all released engineers have agreed to see them. A number have refused on the grounds that the new leadership is not legiti- mate and does not rightfully represent the Engineers' Association. The CHR does not know whether recently released engineers and health professionals have been barred from rejoining their professional associa- tions. The bylaws of the Engineers' Association provide that members can be suspended "in the event of serious violations of the laws, and noncompli- ance with the statute." It is reported that some lawyers who were impris- oned on political grounds have been denied the right to rejoin the Bar

SCIENTISTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN SYRIA 25 Association. Exclusion from professional associations can prove extremely detrimental to lawyers, health professionals, and engineers because they are required to belong to these associations in order to practice their profes- sions. In June 1992 the U.S. government suspended certain of Syria's trade benefits after a lengthy review in which it found that Syria fails to respect the right to freedom of association. According to U.S. law, eligibility in the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP)—under which certain products from developing countries can enter the U.S. market duty-free—can be sus- pended or withdrawn if a foreign government does not observe internation- ally recognized worker rights, such as the right of association. In the case of Syria, the AFL-CIO sent a petition to the U.S. government in 1988 asking for a review of worker rights in Syria. The interagency body con- ducting the review found that Syria had not fulfilled two conditions speci- fied under the law: respect for the right of association and prohibition against forced labor (in prison).17 The International Labor Organization (ILO) has similarly found that Syrian legislative decrees restrict "the free administration and independence of the management of trade unions" and has requested the government "to remove excessive restrictions on the right of workers' organizations to elect their representatives freely and to organize their administration and activi- ties without interference by the public authorities, including with regard to the exercise of the right to strike" (International Labor Organization, 1991, 1992). The same restrictions can be said to apply to Syria's professional associations. 17 The denial of GSP benefits reportedly will have limited economic impact because Syria does not export substantial amounts to the United States under this program and because it continues to enjoy most-favored-nation trade status; see Human Rights Watch (1992c:343).

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In 1976 the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) was create with members from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The CHR works on behalf of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are detained, imprisoned, or exiled or who have disappeared for the nonviolent exercise of their fundamental rights. Thus, the CHR has taken on the case of 287 scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have been incarcerated for political reasons.

Syria has held the record for the country with the highest number of scientists, engineers, and health professionals detained for political reasons. It is estimated that the Syrian government has freed more than 3,500 political detainees but no list of their names have been published. Due to this, the CHR cannot confirm how many of the 287 persons whose cases it has undertaken have been freed. The CHR currently knows that at least 49 of the 287 have been freed.

Shedding light upon this issue, Scientists and Human Rights in Syria presents the current state of the situation, an eyewitness account from a former prisoner, the controls present in Syria over the professional associations and prospects for liberalization and the CHR's conclusions. The report also includes a list of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have been detained.


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