A delegation from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) visited Syria’s Kurdish regions, or Rojava, last week, where the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has declared a Kurdish autonomous government with the help of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
In an important and detailed interview with Rudaw Fred Abrahams, a special advisor to HRW who was part of the delegation, spoke about whether the autonomous government declared by the PYD is truly inclusive as claimed, if local authorities are observing human rights, the status of women, the PYD’s legal reforms and its relations with the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Abrahams said that the greatest challenge for the PYD is transitioning “from a movement — an opposition group — into a governing body, or into creating authorities, systems and structures that would represent everyone.”
Q: What was the main purpose of your visit to Rojava?
Fred Abrahams: The main purpose was to acquaint ourselves with the situation because it was our first time in the area. We had never been to the Kurdish regions. Certainly, we needed to get up to speed on the conditions during this latest conflict. So this was an opportunity for us to see conditions on the ground and to engage with the local actors who, as you know, are now establishing local governing structures and an administration in Rojava. They are essentially, as you know, the de facto authority on the ground both militarily, meaning the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and politically Democratic Union Party. The main message we have for them, the overarching message is that when you are the local authority, even de facto authority, then with that comes legal responsibilities.
As you know, there are international standards for human rights that you are obliged to respect. We wanted to, first of all, see how they are doing in that regard, talk to them about those obligations, document the conditions, and discuss with the local authorities ways to improve them.
Q: What did you find?
Fred Abrahams: There are some positives and some negatives. Good thing, first of all, is that the security situation in the far northeast is much, much better than in most parts of Syria. Now, this is not to say that the security situation is very good up there. It is not good. But, it is to say how horrible it is in other parts of Syria, which we know. Compared to other parts of the country, then, the security situation is relatively stable. Of course, there are still car bomb attacks and other violent incidences, and fighting, of course, on the periphery.
In terms of the human rights condition, we noticed a number of areas that are problematic. We talked about them very directly with the authorities. One of the first areas is what I would call political pluralism and respecting free expression and political activity. I think one of the overarching issues is for the PYD and Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) transitioning from an opposition group — an armed resistance — into a governing structure that is representing all the citizens and all the residents in the area, and that means respecting different views, allowing political activity and allowing all different media. It means freedom of association.
There is, what I would say, still high intolerance for different political activities. There is some improvement of course. First of all, we were only in Jazira (Hasakah province), which is important to know. We could not go, for security reasons, to Kobani (Ain al-Arab) or Afrin. In Jazira we do not have now reports on political prisoners, so that is good. I think that is an improvement. There were some releases after the last agreement in Erbil. But we do have some indications that there may be still some in Afrin. It is very difficult to say — just because you are a political activist with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (PDKS) or Kurdish Union Party in Syria (Yekiti) or another party does not mean that you are necessarily a political prisoner.
Q: Politicians and local officials in the region claim that when some people are arrested because of criminal activities, they try to use a “political activist” label to prevent prosecution. Did you come across this?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, I think that is right. Look, it is very easy to scream about a political attack and try to score a political point. So, that is why we have to investigate these cases and see — just because you are a member of an opposition party, it does not mean that you can violate the law.
The issue that we have is not if you are an opposition member, but did they respect the process of the law? That is the area that we saw a problem. For example, to be concrete with you, one of the problems we saw is that the local authorities are trying to change their laws. They are applying a combination of Syrian law, some other laws of some countries and what they are calling the social contract — basically the constitutional document they have implemented.
The problem is that there is a huge confusion among legal experts, among lawyers, among judges — and even and especially among prisoners — about what law is being applied. If it is not clear what laws are applied, it could open the door for abuse or arbitrary application of those laws. I think that is a big problem!
One of the things we suggested to them was, look, we know that the Syrian law has a lot of problems. There are many aspects of the Syrian law that violates international human rights standards, especially discrimination against Kurds — that is obvious. So you do not need to take the aspects of the law that are in violation of human rights. But most of the Syrian law, it is fine. I can say maybe 90 percent, 95 percent of it is fine, when you are talking about normal crimes — theft, even murder.
These are standard laws that, I believe, Syrian laws were taken from the French penal code. Now it is not the time to open the door of legal reform. The country is in a war, the political situation is not stable. The court system — they are revamping and changing the judicial system and now on the top of that you want to open a question of new laws! We think it is too soon. You can change laws in the future, but now it is not the time to open this question. Rather than making fast changes, this should be done step-by-step.
Q: How was the reaction of the authorities? Were they open to your suggestions?
Fred Abrahams: It was mixed. Let me put it this way: There was some understanding of that, and there was also a strong defense of the project — an ideological defense. I think this approach comes from the tradition of the movement, and that is what I am talking about by shifting from a movement to a governing structure. Those are different characters. Some people would agree with that.
We visited two prisons, and I give them credit for opening the doors for those prisons — I want to acknowledge the cooperation we had to visit those prisons. The conditions of the prisons were basically good. I mean, you know, it is a prison in Syria — it is not a place you want to be. But we did not find an evidence of serious problems. Prisoners said they were treated well. They had enough food, they did not complain about physical violence and so on. But we did notice a problem because we interviewed a number of people who were arrested and released. There is definitely a problem of violence at the time of arrest. This is a tradition of the Syrian system, which relies on forced confessions and this is typical in the region! I understand that a part of the problem is that they do not have a professional police — it is not like they have Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) or forensic laboratory for a professional police investigation over there!
However, it is illegal! Beatings at the time of interrogation is against the social contract (regional constitution); it is even against Syrian law and it is against international standards. But it is happening! We talked about it with them. We said very directly that we think it is happening, and I will tell you that they did not deny it. They said, ‘Look, this is our transition. We have to do better, learn, improve,’ and so on. That is fine. I agree with that. But it is not an excuse. So we are going to press on that — they can do better.
The other issue we looked at is child soldiers. First of all, the regulations of both YPG and Asayish (Kurdish police forces) prohibit the use of children under the age of 18.
Q: Did they not sign the Geneva Convention a few months ago?
Fred Abrahams: No, but what happened was a couple of things. First of all, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey signed a public commitment not to use child soldiers with an organization called Geneva Call about a year ago. YPG is now in conversation with Geneva Call to do the same thing. Now, in addition to that, in December 2013, YPG released an order to all members that they cannot accept any person under the age of 18. All of that is very positive and welcome. But we have documented that the problem is continuing. I believe it is getting better. I believe they have stopped using younger children. For example, you do not see young kids at checkpoints. Before, there were even kids as young as 12 years old seen by others in previous trip to Rojava. But after the order, I do not think it is happening now. I think they have stopped that. But we have definitely documented cases still under the age of 18. We have gotten some 17 and maybe 16.
Q: How are they justifying the use of children under the age of 18?
Fred Abrahams: The way they are justifying is that, ‘These people are volunteers. These kids want to contribute to the cause and they won’t go home.’ It is actually true — we spoke with the mother of one kid. She said that they pulled the kid out, and the kid ran back. Because he is 17 and wants to fight or he wants to be a part of the movement. That is fine, but the idea is that a commander should not have accepted the kid. It is the order that if you are not 18, the kid can do a political, media or humanitarian work. But you are not supposed to be a part of hostilities until the age of 18. So this is still a problem. We think that, frankly, they can do better. It is not that difficult since they are well organized. If they want to stop it, they can stop. We think they should do it.
Q: Did you observe any other problems?
Fred Abrahams: There are two other things we have looked at: One is the attacks by terrorist groups, Islamist groups — there was a car bomb attack on a local official, Abdulkerim Omar. We met with Omar and he was not hurt, but another man was killed. We met with his family — he was a father of five kids and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. So obviously, these are serious human rights violations committed by different Islamist groups or terrorist groups.
The other issue is the borders. I learned that the local government agreed with the Iraqi government to open the Tel Kocer (Yarubiya) border. This is an excellent news! I am not sure how much can get through Yarubiya because of the security situation on the Iraqi side, but it is certainly a positive step. I do not know what impact it would have on humanitarian conditions. As you know Turkey basically kept the borders closed. We found out that Turkey opens the (Senyurt) border with Dirbesiye once a month, and the last time was February 5. Kurds in Turkey collect aid and then just deliver it into Rojava once a month through this gate. But, you know, once a month is completely inadequate!
Q: As Human Rights Watch, have you requested the Turkish government to open the borders more frequently?
Fred Abrahams: Absolutely, we already have. We understand the politics of this, but the problem is that the politics are making people suffer. We believe the borders should be opened for the aid and aid is certainly needed in the region. People are not starving but there is a real shortage of essential foods and essential medicines. For example, baby milk is in short supply. If you have any chronic diseases, diabetes, then you are really in trouble. It is very difficult to get these basic medicines, and it is Turkey to blame for keeping some of these medicines out.
Q: I was in Rojava in October and witnessed the same things that you are describing. So, unfortunately people are going through similar situation?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, no question! There is a very tricky issue of the border at Fishkabor. Frankly, I think that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) can do more to help the flow of the aid coming in. I also know that all of this is a result of the messy politics. It is a real shame that people are not able to get what they urgently require! I noticed that there was a bridge, a pontoon bridge, across the river that is now dismantled and is not functioning. We believe the KRG can do more. They can do more to let aid in. Some is getting in — it is not completely closed — but it is not enough.
Q: Similarly, have you also contacted the KRG to do more about the situation?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, absolutely. We have already said that and I have said it in some interviews. We think that both Turkey and the KRG should put the politics aside and help people in need. Closing the borders is making the situation worse.
Q: What did you observe about the situation of women in general?
Fred Abrahams: The most obvious answer to this question is the women fighters in YPG and Asayesh the stated commitment to gender equality in the TEV-DEM project. Frankly, as a concept it is incredibly welcome and very refreshing, which is so different from other countries and other areas in the region. However, I think it is not as deep rooted as it is presented to be. In other words, there is as you know a man and a woman in the head of all institutions. They set a 40 percent quota for women in different institutions. But the leading authorities are still tending to be men. So it is an improvement, but I would not say the equality they claim it to be.
In terms of other women’s rights, I am afraid that we did not have time to investigate questions of, for example, domestic violence or sexual violence. We were only there for five days.
Q: How is the situation of minorities such as Christians?
Fred Abrahams: It is a very good question, and it is also a topic for our next trip. We simply did not have time to visit any of the Syriac communities or others, and we have to do that. Look, I have to tell you one thing: All the authorities in Rojava are making a strong statement by including other groups and other parties. Frankly speaking, I think that is true and that is welcome. But, in my opinion, PYD is clearly the dominant political force. I want to come back to an overarching issue which is the PYD’s ability to transition or to evolve from a movement — an opposition group — into a governing body, or into creating authorities, systems, and structures that would represent everyone. That is going to be a process.
Q: Is there any organization that offers trainings and workshops for the authorities in Rojava for this transitional process? Are the authorities open to such trainings?
Fred Abrahams: I only know of one group that is doing something. It is a legal group called “Kurdish Center for Studies & Legal Consultancy” also known as YASA. It is an organization with Kurdish lawyers based in Europe, and they have gone to provide some legal training. So my understanding is that they, the Kurdish authorities in Rojava, are open to it. I mean, they do want to improve. The question and challenge is going to be whether the PYD and the YPG is going to create an atmosphere of openness, tolerance, and cooperation among parties, and will it allow a space for other political groups and ideas. I think the sustainability of their projects depends on that. That sounds like a political statement, but it is not! I am talking from a human rights perspective that needs cultivating an atmosphere of inclusion and consultation, tolerating different views and different activities.
Q: I heard you were also investigating the Amuda incidents. Is that true?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, that is true. We also visited Amuda, and we are still in the process of examining all the evidence. We do have concerns about possible excessive use of force, but we have to examine the specifics to determine whether there was any force used against the fighters. YPG claimed that one of their fighters died. The counterclaim is that this guy died in the fighting at Hasakah and did not die at all in the protest. We have to examine materials given to us. We have not yet reached our conclusions. But we will look at it and hopefully have something to say on that.
Q: Your trip to region came after the announcement of the local autonomy in the region. What do you want to say about that?
Fred Abrahams: I think PYD is playing a very strong role in the autonomy. I do not think anybody would deny that. In my view, they play more of a role than they think they would admit — that is not as pluralistic as the administration claims. But it is also true that it is not only PYD. And there are other parties as well. So again, I come back to my main point: Will it really become an administration that is for governing and not for ruling — those are two different things. I would say the PYD is the strongest force on the ground — that is quite clear. And their influence is the strongest within the governing structure.
Q: Finally, what about the Assad regime’s presence in Rojava. I know in Qamishli there is a certain regime presence. What was your take on Assad’s power in Kurdish towns?
Fred Abrahams: The Assad forces and the government is basically present in three places in Qamishli: One is in the center so they call it kind of ‘security square,’ you know, the center of town. I think that also includes some Arab neighborhoods. The second is on the Turkish border at the border crossing. The third is at the airport. The airport is important — the UN World Food Program, they airlifted in some humanitarian aid a few weeks ago through this airport. Kurdish authorities told us that they did not see any, any ounce of that — no grain or rice! So, all of the aid was distributed elsewhere. I assume to the government controlled areas, but I do not know for sure. But it definitely did not go to the Kurdish areas! So the regime is there, but as you know, there is an agreement or accommodation so the Asayish forces and the government forces are sometimes passing each other in the street, and they tolerate each other, or there is an agreement, obviously, in an accommodation to allow each other’s presence. But that is a current agreement that they have.
Q: What would be the reason for such an agreement?
Fred Abrahams: To me, it is quite clear that, at this moment, they have no interest in clashing with each other except their common enemy, namely the Islamist forces. So there is a mutual understanding of an agreement to tolerate one another rather than clash. But, how long that would last is unpredictable. I think it would hold so long as their common enemy.
Q: Finally, have you been told about human rights violations and atrocities committed by jihadist militants?
Fred Abrahams: Yes, the first thing is attacks because they are indiscriminate and many times it causes civilian deaths. But then, of course, kidnapping of civilians, which are still occasionally happening — in the past it happened a lot. And finally the maltreatment of fighters who were captured. I saw reports — horrible killings and the beheading of four YPG fighters recently, I think, it was in Afrin. That is an extreme violation of war crime. You know, you have to treat prisoners of war humanely. The last thing I would say is that we did not visit Ras al-Ain or Serekaniye, but I know in that town they complain about looting of a hospital. When the Islamist forces were in the town, they stole all medical equipment from a hospital. That is, of course, a serious violation. It was a civilian hospital and they are still suffering from that, having to buy, import equipment.