DAMASCUS // The first ever mission to Syria by a UN special investigator on human rights was completed yesterday, resulting in a preliminary report that criticised the international community and the Syrian authorities. Olivier De Schutter, a UN special rapporteur from the Human Rights Council, spent 10 days visiting parts of the country, including the drought-ravaged eastern Jazeera region, in the course of carrying out a probe into food availability.
What made Mr De Schutter's mission more remarkable is that it was instigated at the request of the Syrian authorities, under so-called special procedures of the UN's Human Rights Council. Syria has been heavily criticised for its human-rights record by campaign groups and the international community. It previously refused to accept international scrutiny on the matter. "Visits have to be with the consent of the government so I am dependent on the invitations I receive," Mr De Schutter said during a press conference in which he issued a preliminary report of his findings. "Usually I request to be invited. In this case, Syria spontaneously requested I do a mission."
He described the level of cooperation from the Syrian authorities as "very high, excellent" and said it was a sign of "openness" that he was allowed to carry out his work. "This is very important because it is the first time Syria is receiving a special procedure from the human-rights council," he said. "And it is extremely encouraging, the sign Syria is giving by being so open and transparent in its co-operation with the human-rights council."
In reference to his report, Mr De Schutter spoke candidly about a series of sensitive issues, including Syria's Kurdish minority, the treatment of more than 150,000 Iraqi refugees and rising poverty as Damascus pushes through economic reforms. About 300,000 members of Syria's Kurdish population have been refused Syrian citizenship following a census that took place more than 40 years ago, which concluded they were foreigners.
As a result they struggle to access government services and are unable to travel outside of the country. The UN report said stateless Kurds suffered "discrimination" and were denied their full range of human rights. "All Syrians should be treated alike and for this very reason I think we should frankly face the past history and reexamine the situation of those who, in 1962 as a result of the census, have been unjustifiably denied their Syrian nationality although they were not citizens from any other nation," Mr De Schutter said.
His recommendation to the Syrian authorities was that "nothing short from full attribution to full citizenship rights is required". While commending Syria on its open-door policy to Iraqi refugees, Mr De Schutter urged the government to allow them the right to work. There are about 164,000 Iraqi refugees registered with the UN in Syria and, while officially not permitted to take jobs, many do illegally.
That leaves them prone to exploitation and, because they are paid lower wages than Syrians, undercuts the local labour market. Among his most notable findings was a "very conservative" estimate that between two to three million Syrians are now living in extreme poverty. The last official estimate, made by the UN in 2004, put the number at 2 million but there have since been four consecutive years of drought.
Despite that, Syrian officials have denied poverty is on the increase. Outlining the severity of the situation faced by residents of Syria's eastern Jazeera region - the governorates of Raqqa, Dier Ezzor and Hasika - Mr De Schutter said farmers had seen their crops wiped out but were unable to work the land and replant. "How can you sow your seeds when your children are starving," he said. The UN special rapporteur was scathing in comments directed at the international community, which he said had failed to provide financial aid to the drought-hit areas, ignoring urgent UN appeals. Only 34 per cent of the total aid requested has been raised, UN figures show.
"In times of emergency, when lives may be irremediably broken, weeks cannot be lost in seeking assistance of donors," Mr De Schutter's preliminary report noted. Calling the situation "unacceptable" Mr De Schutter said aid had been politicised, with donors neglecting the plight of starving Syrians because of international political disagreements. He did however praise the Syrian government over various drought and poverty alleviation programmes it has been implementing.