Syria: The EU’s Role in Countering Business Involvement in Violations of International Law

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

On 24 June 2020, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and the Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP) organized an online side event for Syrian civil society, international organizations, representatives of European states, and institutions of the United Nations and European Union. Assaad al-Achi, the Executive Director of Baytna, moderated a discussion on the reconstruction process in Syria and business involvement in serious violations of international law in Syria, including displacement, violations of housing, land, and property rights, pillage, and the disproportionate destruction of civilian property. The event concluded with recommendations for relevant stakeholders on how to better ensure corporate human rights due diligence, transparency and responsible conduct in the Syrian context.

Mutasem Syoufi, the Executive Director of The Day After, presented on the mass forced displacement suffered by millions of Syrian civilians during the conflict, the resulting demographic changes, and the legal framework instituted by the Syrian government concerning property, including Law 10 and Decree 66, which threatens civilians’ property and ownership rights and contributes to further forced displacement. Mr. Syoufi warned, “We have all the grounds to say that the displacement that happened in these areas is a war crime and crime against humanity. The laws and decrees issued during the years of the conflict are also violating international law,” so participation in the reconstruction process could contribute to further violations of human rights and international law.

Sawsan Abou Zainedin, an architect and urban development researcher and co-founder of Sakan Housing Communities, noted that the Syrian government has mobilized crony capitalists and political and military allies to invest in reconstruction while also exploiting international assistance. The government’s reconstruction plans amount to urbicide, “the violent and deliberate act to alter or tamper with the urban configuration of a space in an attempt to reshape it in a way that serves political interests,” she said. By refraining from intervening in construction, she added, the international community is giving up its leverage to influence the developments on the ground in a more just way.

Giorgio Migliore, a legal analyst with SLDP’s Human Rights and Business Unit, explained that the “prominent role that business actors play is even more evident and manifest now that the conflict is changing and military leaders are taking a step back and economic and business actors are increasingly involved in the events that are occurring in Syria.” He also noted that humanitarian actors that receive financing from the EU and its member states have – through their procurement activities – engaged with some of these local business actors complicit in human rights abuses.

Finally, Mr. Migliore recommended a number of actions to ensure compliance with international law and respect for human rights in the Syrian context. He called on the EU and its member states to act to prevent businesses involved in conflict related human rights abuses from receiving contracts awarded by humanitarian actors in Syria through the implementation of human rights due diligence. The EU and member states should support and promote documentation of human rights violations and business involvement, especially by Syrian civil society. He also encouraged the EU and its member states to pass legislation allowing the imposition of targeted sanctions on human rights grounds in line with the Global Magnitsky Act. Tools and procedures to assess human rights risks and assess business involvement in human rights abuses in Syria must be developed before international and regional development entities or sovereign investment funds and private businesses become involved in Syria’s reconstruction.

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