The first Freedom Across Borders conference was held in London on 6 July 2019. Read more.
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Accountability versus normalisation

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Accountability strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Ibrahim Olabi, Guernica 37, Syrian Legal Development Programme; Kate Ferguson, Protection Approaches; Bushra Gamar Hussein Rahama, Human Rights and Development Organisation; David Taylor, Labour Campaign for International Development; Ana Zbona, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Facilitated by Sara Afshar. Transcript by Zoë Ranson.

Image: A Russian stand at the 2019 Damascus Trade Fair promoting trade between Syria and Russian-occupied Crimea.

Sara Afshar:
Hi, I’m Sara Afshar, I made a film, Syria’s Disappeared: The case against Assad, that’s about the mountain of evidence that exists for crimes against humanity, evidence against the Syrian regime in relation to crimes committed in detention, on the tens of thousands of people they’ve disappeared, killed, tortured. And so it’s very focused on accountability. And at the moment, we’re facing a situation where there are some countries who want to normalise the regime, so that’s what we’re going to be talking about here.

I’m joined by Ibrahim Olabi, he’s the founder and director of the Syrian Legal Development Programme. He’s worked extensively on international legal matters related to the Syrian conflict. And the Syrian Legal Development Programme has provided legal expertise to Syrian NGOs, including training that Ibrahim delivered to more than 550 trainees on a range of complex legal matters surrounding forced displacement, torture, UN mechanisms, and facilitation of humanitarian aid.

I’m also joined by Dr Kate Ferguson, she is Co-executive Director, Head of Research and Policy at Protection Approaches. Before founding Protection Approaches, she worked as a policy consultant and political advisor in mass atrocity prevention.

And we’re also joined by Bushra Gamar Hussein Rahama. He’s Executive Director of the Human Rights and Development Organisation, a Sudanese NGO founded in 2009. In 2011 his NGO had its licence revoked, and Bushra was arrested and imprisoned for a year, due to his human rights work. After his release, he managed to flee to Uganda, where he re-established the NGO. And, crucially, between 2004 and 2006, Bushra worked for the Sudan Social Development Organisation in Darfur, gathering evidence of crimes committed in Darfur, which led to the ICC arrest warrant in 2009 for the then president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.

And David Taylor is founder and former chair of Labour Campaign for International Development, which is a group committed to a world without poverty and injustice, launched in 2009. And it is affiliated to the Labour Party. He previously worked for the office of Gordon and Sarah Brown, and was a campaigner for Oxfam.

And Ana Zbona, is Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders project manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. She’s previously worked for Human Rights Watch and the EU delegation to the UN.

So, I’m going to throw a question to everyone, first. And then, we’ll open it up for questions. So, I’m going to start with Ibrahim. Can you just please lay out for us what the situation is with normalisation, and then, what you think the strategy should be going forward, to counter normalisation and make sure that accountability is pursued.

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, for a change I’ll try to be brief. So, as we’ve said throughout this accountability strand, the kind of crimes that we’re talking about, they’re diverse, there is a huge amount of crime, and your film captured that very, very well. We talked about horrendous crimes that are very, very well documented. We’re not talking about reports, alleged reports, or rumours. We’re talking about UN documents, hundreds of pages, corroborated through so many different sources, and a lot of UN mechanisms putting together the cases. That’s the kind of evidence that we’re talking about.

On the other hand, what we’re seeing is that there are a number of states that are re-normalising with the Syrian regime, all with a strategic interest, some willingly, some by pressure from Russia and its backers.

But it also shows that the Syrian regime has never ceased to try and show that they’re a state. Just to give you an example. During I think 2017 and 2018, all of a sudden they go and they sign a treaty with Abkhazia, for example, a commercial treaty. Their entering into these international relations, are not directly in relation to the war, they’re to tell you, ‘I’m still the government, I’m still the state, I’m still running, everything is okay,’ in that sense.

We’ve also seen some Gulf countries—particularly the UAE reopened its embassy, Bahrain said it would follow suit—these countries’ rationale is that, ‘we need to normalise with the regime in order to counter the Iranian influence, we need to come in, try to get the contracts, try to push from within, a good cop-bad cop strategy.’ I don’t think that’s going to work, personally, but that’s the rationale behind it.

We’re seeing more a change of language, so it started as an uprising for freedom, then turned into a civil war, and then now it’s about a war on terror, which is the narrative the regime, uses.

I don’t know if you’ve seen that video that a couple of eminent people did for Idlib, called Voices for Idlib or something like that? It featured David Miliband and the heads of a number of charities, I think Oxfam was also on that, and it said terror should not justify this, or the war on terror should not justify this. So, we’re seeing a shift in the narrative.

We’re seeing a shift in the organisation. The regime is being presented as a kind of reconstruction partner—‘they’re the best people to deliver humanitarian aid’—so, you know, within the state-centric system that we’re talking about, which is the United Nations, they’re being presented as the partner, so kind of looking away, and trying to normalise looking away, from all of that.

Now, luckily, colleagues of mine in Damascus, when they noticed movement around the previous location of the UK embassy in Damascus, they saw some works, so people got scared, we raised it with the FCO, then the special representative for Syria, Martin Longden tweeted, very clearly, whoever wants to open their embassies, that’s up to you, but the UK will not. They made a very principled stand on this issue, which we hope that they would maintain.

So that’s the kind of issue that we’re dealing with. Even the kind of language, it used to be ‘the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime,’ now it’s more ‘the Syrian government.’ That kind of language is changing. We’re monitoring that kind of normalisation on different levels.

So, what could be done? So, I think, as activists and as people working on human rights, I think sometimes we fall into the trap of addressing states, the main actor and subject of the international system that we have, by coming from a moral high ground, addressing issues of principles, by saying you should support Syria, or not normalise, for this or that reason, because, you know, human rights and all of that. Great. Don’t think it works.

We need to come in from a self-interest point of view. What do these states care about in order to counter normalisation. Two things in my opinion: refugees, and extremism. You bring the issue of accountability through these issues, that refugees are not returning if the criminals are still in power, or these crimes are still ongoing and there’s still normalisation and then you’re able to tackle that. If you normalise, people will feel frustrated they can become extreme, you go down that route. In my engagement at ministerial level with EU states, you get more of an ear when you come from that end, rather than you’re just a human rights activist that wants to speak about those issues.

Then I think what we need to do, and this is where we need everyone’s help in the room, is to approach the issue of normalisation from a variety of different spheres. So, first of all, the world isn’t made of the Permanent Five [members of the Security Council]. We see countries like South Africa, which went through its struggle, now siding with the Assad regime. We see a country like, Indonesia, it’s the largest Muslim country, with their voting patterns in the General Assembly aligning with the regime and its crimes.

So I think what we need to do is to counter this normalisation process, through states that we have not previously engaged with, as a starting point. States with a similar struggle. Argentina, for example. We’ve identified those places, and I think there’s something that could be done there.

Then, theatre, media, academia, all sorts of arts, wherever we can, for a long time you know we countered normalisation with legal accountability and courts. There is no political will for that at the moment, it’s still weak, some of us are pushing for it. But in every field that you’re in, there is something that you can do, whether it’s the movies that you direct, the sports that you play, the TV shows that you have, the classes that you run, the articles that you write. Whatever it is that you can target. Because normalisation is not just about a legal sphere. It’s about targeting from a narrative, from the communities, through different religious groups.

For example, when I was in Italy, I was disheartened to hear that it was a Christian charity that’s pushing Italy’s normalisation with the regime, because they’re branding the regime as the protector of Christians. I was very happy to hear that the Pope is on the right side. But this is where the battle lies—without every day having taxi driver conversations—this is where the fight against normalisation happens, linking it to as many fields as we can.

So we’re working specifically on reconstruction and businesses. Those of you who are working with people with disabilities, those of you who work on chemical weapons… We need to link with other activists, with other conflicts, because Sudan for example is very interlinked with Syria. Bashir was one of the first presidents to visit Bashar al Assad after 2011. That was the first worrying sign of normalisation. You need to see the amount of jokes that we made on him when he was ousted after that visit, so we made clear, that whoever wants to normalise with Bashar, look what would happened to you if you do so.

But I think it’s no longer just about Syria. Syria is a proxy war, involves a lot of states, and involves a lot of causes, so, it’s a cross-cutting approach.

Sara Afshar:
That’s great. Actually I have a follow up question on that, to you and also to anyone else on the panel. It’s something that came up in the previous session, and you talked about the narrative, and the importance of building a narrative, but the person from Airwars in the previous session on accountability said that there’s a huge problem, that there’s no interest in society in the populations of other countries in the world. They don’t care about civilian casualties. They don’t care, they’re just not interested in it, and so governments don’t feel the need to be transparent, and I take it further, don’t feel they need to push the accountability issue because there’s no political capital in it, basically. So how do we deal with that?

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, not approaching it with a huge amount of cynicism, but I think again we need to appeal to self-interest. What does the ordinary British taxpayer care about? If that person, for example, does not care about civilian harm, they would care, for example, about refugees, they would care about you know, whether I’m on the good side, let refugees in, or, take refugees out, but both kind of people have a way in when it comes to the issue. I think a lot of us fail to sit on the opposite side, to ask what would make this person care? And try and take it from their point of view, not from what we think is right. And it’s very difficult, because we as human activists, this is something that’s ingrained within us, this usually how we make our speeches, and for media and PR, and for the Human Rights Council. Fantastic. But on one-to-ones, I think we need to approach all sides of the political spectrum, both the left and the right, from the matters that they care about, and try and control and affect the narrative from wherever we can.

I remember when I was in Manchester in 2011, when I first came, and when I used to get into a taxi, and taxi drivers are the measurement of how much people know about your conflict, and he’s like, ‘where are you from?’ And I say Syria. ‘Oh horrible, we know what the regime is doing to you, the killing, all of that.’ Now, I avoid saying I’m Syrian. I’m half-Egyptian, so I can play that card whenever I want. So, I avoid that, because they say, ‘oh, it’s a complex war, no-one knows what’s happening, everyone’s—people killing each other.’ And that makes me angry, and I don’t want to let that out on a taxi driver, because I’ll get a horrible rating. But that’s really, the kind of work that we need to approach.

Sara Afshar:
David, with everything that Ibrahim’s said, the Labour Party has been really quiet on Syria. And we have tried to engage with them over and over again. Syria Solidarity has, and I personally have as well through my film. And they’re really not interested. And, you know, a general election could be round the corner. Would they then try to speed up this normalisation? What are your views on that?

David Taylor:
I think the first to say is just how sorry and ashamed we all are in the Labour Campaign for International Development. We’re sorry that we’re not with you in this fight as a party. We think about the great tradition in the Labour Party of being on the side of oppressed people. It was a Labour government that granted India independence, and set off on the path to decolonisation. It was Labour activists who were standing up against apartheid.

And it’s just been—and actually I will talk at length about the current regime, but I volunteered with Ed Miliband’s campaign, and I have to say I was appalled by the 2013 vote. I was appalled that people cheered it in the chamber when it happened. It came from, I’m afraid—I do think that Ed Miliband is a good person, I think that some of the people around him are—but there was a cynicism, there was a playing to the gallery of the Labour membership, to try and appeal to them.

And actually, because of Iraq, which I marched against, because of Iraq there has been a sort of shift, a pandering, amongst the Labour party, amongst Labour politicians, to the sort of Stop the War base of the party, when we should have been taking it on and calling them out on the inconsistencies in their views. And unfortunately that has grown and grown and grown, and it’s led to the current party.

So I guess there’s three points I want to make. One is that we will do what we can to hold them to account on the normalisation stuff as much as possible. We wrote with Syria Solidarity to Emily Thornberry, when she made this bizarre proposal which no-one else had heard of, which was sort of normalising the Syrian regime. We will continue to monitor that, and to say every time they’re saying something like that, to say no, that’s not right. You shouldn’t be saying that. They’ve been quite quiet recently, as you say. I think that’s just because they’ve been distracted by the whole Brexit thing.

But the trouble that we’ve got, which is just the other point I wanted to make was that Thornberry doesn’t really have strong convictions, she was a Blairite under Blair, she was strongly in favour of Miliband, and now, surprise surprise, she’s now very strongly a Corbynista. But she’s just taking her orders from Milne and Murray and all the people around Corbyn. And we’re not going to change their minds. Their views are set. The only chance we’ve got is seeing if we can find a way of convincing the wider Labour membership to come with us, and not to go with them. Because,I think a lot of the people who voted for Corbyn in 2015 and 2017, the younger members, they see, Corbyn as a man of peace. And it actually broke my heart, in the 2017 leadership election we had a debate in our local party, and someone stood up from Sierra Leone and said, I’m supporting Corbyn, because he’s a man of peace. And it just broke my heart, because I bet you a million pounds Corbyn didn’t support that intervention in Sierra Leone. And I’m not going to go and lecture someone from Sierra Leone that they’re wrong. But that’s what we’re up against. He’s perceived to be this man of peace. We’ve got to find away of, one, making people aware of the views that him and people around him have, but secondly, more importantly, show the hopeful side of our vision.

And that’s the third point I wanted to make, really, which is around this report that Jo Cox wrote, and Ally McGovern, Labour MP, and Tom Tugendhat, Conservative MP, wrote, called The Cost of Doing Nothing. And it set out a really powerful argument for protecting civilians, going forward.

And so I think there’s two things to be done. One is, let’s get out into Labour membership and make the case for this framework. I’m really keen to work with Syrian organisations. We spoke at lunchtime, and I’ve spoken before with Rethink, Rebuild, to try and get Syrians and other people affected by conflict in front of these Labour members, to make their case so that we can begin to change minds.

And then, finally, just in terms of the broader situation in Parliament and in the country, let’s see if we can work on a cross-party basis, to continue to ensure that there is some Parliamentary support, to hold the Government to account on future actions to protect civilians in Syria and elsewhere. So, it’s that battle inside the Labour party, but I do think that there’s a sort of cross-party need to work together, which we’re not currently doing. It’s too disparate.

Sara Afshar:
I totally agree. I will come to people’s questions, but I was just going to give everyone a chance, first, to speak. And, I’m going to come to Bushra. So, as well as looking at Syria, we’re looking at other countries too. You gathered evidence over a decade ago on the crimes committed in Darfur, and that led to the arrest warrant from the ICC. But, even though President al-Bashir is no longer in power, nothing has happened on that. So tell us a bit about your experience, and where you would see things going, or would like to see things going, and how can pressure be put on, in that situation?

Bushra Gamar Hussein Rahama:
There is some form for me usually in my speech—usually, I have to differentiate between the international community and international institutions. We rely on the international community, based on NGOs and CSOs and so on.

For the Darfur case, before the Darfur case we had very many atrocities. We had atrocities in South Sudan since our independence in 1955, where many lost their lives, approximately two million. We had atrocities in the Nuba Mountains, in Blue Nile. So the Darfur conflict erupted in a certain period in which many factors served the issue of Darfur. So at that time a negotiation between the Khartoum government and SPLA in South Kordofan, Nuba Mountains, was going on in Kenya. Secondly, the ICC was newly established. It came about in 2002. So in 2003, the Darfur conflict erupted. So, these were the factors. And by that time, we have enough NGOs in Darfur, we had MSF Holland, MSF from Norway, So, the international commmunity, the international NGOs, the local NGOs, raised that kind of campaign which forced the Security Council to form a fact finding committee. So, the fact finding committee, when they came to Darfur, they found that this is an issue of genocide, of international crimes. When they gave that issue to the Security Council, there was no way out, they had to take action. The easiest way by that time is the newly established ICC. So, they pass it to the ICC under Article 13(b). By that time most of them, I think eleven out of fifteen, accepted for it to be referred to the ICC.

So, we are lucky enough to have that case with the ICC now, but still it is the Darfur case. Now, we are seeking to shift it, to actually make it the Sudan case instead of the Darfur case. Because now it looks just at the incidents and the atrocities that took place in Darfur only. What we did for the last three years, what we are doing now, is gathering evidence also in South Kordofan, Nuba Mountains, because Ahmed Haroun also has a warrant against him. He was governor of South Kordofan for some time. Actually, we are trying our best to link many atrocities, many incidents that took place there, to him. And our philosophy on that, to show the ICC, that the same people, and the failure of international community to arrest them, actually gave them a chance to commit more crimes.

If we manage to make it the Sudan case, even the recent atrocities that took place in June, when we had a very big massacre in Khartoum, we can join this to it also.

Sara Afshar:
Thank you. And then, coming to you, Kate. Now we’ve heard about two countries. How can campaigning on Syria in the UK connect with campaigning on Sudan, or other conflict areas? Protection Approaches convenes the Atrocity Prevention Group, so, can that facilitate campaigning across countries?

Kate Ferguson:
Sure, so first of all I’m not a Syria expert, at all. It is always really invigorating as well as humbling when you’re in a room of country experts. One of the questions was what nourishes you. This is for me a real treat, because I guess whatever expertise I have, it’s sort of as a thematic or a higher altitude view. Protection Approaches founded officially in 2014, but programmes really only got going a year or so later. And we founded for a couple of reasons, but one was because my co-founder and I were working in Rwanda in 2014, on the twentieth commemoration of the genocide there. And I was working again on policy research, things like that. We were having conversations with organisations based in the UK and elsewhere, that claimed that their remit was to work to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, but were saying nothing about Syria. This was 2013, 2014. And the excuses I would get were, ‘we don’t know who’s committing what violence, it’s too political,’ and, this is paraphrased, but it’s what they said, ‘it’s what people do there.’ And that’s exactly the reasons why people didn’t understand how to respond to Rwanda, and to Bosnia.

So, there was no real organisation working in the UK on that thematic level, looking at UK contributions to mass atrocity prevention, as a global phenomenon that is preventable, to which the UK, through very normative and legal commitments, have responsibilities to contribute.

And, so it’s incredibly important to have country-specific focuses. However, they tend to respond reactively once the crisis has already emerged. And so what we do is, through various means, work to build constituencies of influence that can hold the UK Government, UK Parliament, UK civil society, anyone you care to mention, to account on their contributions for more effective prediction, prevention, and where necessary, responses to mass-atrocity crimes.

So I want to talk really quickly about two ways that we do that. One is that we have been working over the last, I guess year, eighteen months, to demonstrate to the UK Government the gaps in its approach to atrocities, like the ones we see in Syria and elsewhere. And it’s been really interesting in the last few panels, just the diverse appreciation in this room, which doesn’t surprise me, of the contributions that the UK and other states could be making, whether that is through trade, through arms sales, through asylum policy, through building stronger communities here in the UK. Support for the arts, care for the use of language in the statements that are made.

And so we have been calling for clarification of and publication of an atrocity prevention strategy that would be cross cutting, across UK Government departments, largely internationally facing departments, DFID, MoD, FCO. To ensure that there’s some analytical process that can help with transparency of information, transparency of decision-making, in circumstances where those indicators of atrocities, of identity-based violence, are rising.

And one of the key things that it’s really important for us all to collectively work together to overcome, is this assumption that atrocities are irrational, spontaneous, and a consequence of conflict. Now, sometimes atrocities, deliberate targeting of groups, happens once conflict has begun. But as Syria is such a terrible example, very often armed conflict is something born out of deliberate targeting for political, and terrible though it may be, rational objectives.

So, this is what we’ve been working towards. Now, we have now ensured that there is a UK Minister responsible for atrocity prevention. His name is Lord Ahmad, he has many other briefs. Please hold him to account on that fact. We worked very hard to clarify that. The brief sits under his, so when you have questions, it’s not just to the Syria desk, it’s not just to the FCO, it’s to Lord Ahmad, minister responsible for UK atrocity prevention policy. And we can anticipate further clarification on the bureaucratic commitment. Obviously, that alone doesn’t change political culture, but it’s really important.

The second thing I want to talk about is our working group. We convene a group of about twenty to twenty five organisations working in the UK, on issues related to what I would consider atrocity prevention. When we first met, certainly they did not consider that was their work. They work in memorialisation, they work in education, they work just on Syria, just on Sudan, just on Burma. However, now we are loosely affiliated, we have a terms of reference, a network of organisations that have a cross-cutting relationships with one another. Chatham House and RUSI also will observe. The Foreign Office come and meet with our bi-annual meetings, and sit in on the second half, and listen, and engage.

And, the reason that that’s really important is, one, I’m such a believer—and you know we are stronger we speak collectively than when we speak alone—but the strength of voice when it comes from shared voices from Sudan, and from Syria, and from Burma, and who are saying this same policy change would help all of our causes, makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to obscure their responsibilities.

And so, I’m happy to talk more about that working group inside or outside of this room, but please know that it is a resource. You know, we are the secretariat of that organisation, so think of us as a bridge. We can rise, bring your voices up, we can bring you to those people who make those decisions.

And the last thing I’m going to say is in answer to your question around changing the narrative, and I’m going to slightly push back on this sense that ordinary people don’t care. And I’m not really known for being an optimist at all, but we did some public polling in the UK in January this year, and it was around identity and belonging in Britain today. So it was people demographically representative, sixteen and above, and largely it was a survey of indicators of identity-based violence in this country, because we work in local communities here as well. But we asked people about what they felt Britain’s responsibilities were in the world, and we gave them a raft of options, and they included things like secure borders, fighting terrorism, climate change, but we also had responsibilities to protect people from atrocities. And responsibility to address causes of crisis and instability, and the overwhelming majority, who voted Brexit or not Brexit, definitely believe that that is a UK responsibility. And, I think that we mustn’t lose heart in that. Because there’s a very small minority who are now dominating British political and social culture that is suggesting that Britain wants to throw itself into the sea, and move away, and our evidence shows, and other surveys also demonstrate this, it’s just not the case.

Sara Afshar:
Thank you. And finally, I move to Ana. So, just tell us about things in terms of business, because we’ve talked quite a lot about governments, but normalisation is also—you know I’ve heard businesses saying, they want to get back into Syria, and so on. And so how do you engage with business, or tell them you shouldn’t do that?

Ana Zbona:
Thank you so much, for having me here. I need to make a disclaimer. I’m really not an expert on Syria. I’m here to represent my organisation, and the people within my organisation that have worked more closely on Syria, and on conflict zones, but I will do my best to represent what we do, and how we might learn from that, and how some of our tools can be resources, hopefully, for some of you. So, that’s just a disclaimer at the start, but what I would like to comment on is that first of all, I believe that in this journey towards perceived normalisation, I think there is a really important chance to hold the system to account, at this moment. Because what’s been already documented, as was said on this panel, is the very clear instances where businesses have contributed, or have caused human rights violations, or they have caused crimes, or have been contributing to crimes against humanity, and especially at this moment where businesses, as you said, are thinking of investing, there needs to be this focus put on holding those who have already committed crimes accountable, so that there is a clear idea that businesses have had this negative role, and this can’t just be forgotten in this moment.

And I want to point out, the Human Rights and Business Toolkit, that was done by the Syrian Legal Development Programme because I think it’s a brilliant tool for doing that, and I really feel like Ibrahim should be speaking rather than me right now! But I think that’s a really brilliant tool for doing that. And thinking through, how do you hold businesses to account through traditional and non-traditional mechanisms.

But what I also would like to point to is, so, in this moment right now where, as we said, some businesses are considering rushing in, investing, potentially being part of some sort of a reconstruction, what we have noticed in our work in other areas, such as Myanmar, such as Iran, where there were some circumstances that were similar, is that what was important was to really bring transparency to the fact that these businesses are thinking of coming in. And what I mean by that is that we have created for example an investment tracker on Myanmar as well as on Iran, to show which businesses are thinking of coming in, into which sector, and what are the salient human rights issues in those sectors. So, basically, to show that this isn’t going to be some sort of business as usual, that there will be consequences when you come in as a business into a very vulnerable situation that is very much affected by conflict.

And I would like for us to collectively consider whether such tools, for example an investment tracker, could be something that is useful in the Syrian context as well, because unfortunately there will be businesses that come in, that will not be very sensitive to their human rights responsibilities, and that will not be holding themselves to a standard. And so to bring transparency to this, and to show okay, we’re keeping an eye on you, this is who’s coming in, this is which sectors they are coming into, and this is what should be expected from them, this is one tool, I believe, that can be useful. And as I said, there are some existing examples that can be perhaps one way of thinking about this. As I mentioned, if anyone interested, I’m happy to point you to my colleagues, who have worked on those.

The other thing that I wanted to highlight is the financing mix of those potential investments. So, as businesses come in, there is an opportunity for civil society to think about how to use the fact that the foreign states that are the headquarters of those businesses also have obligations to hold their businesses to account. If financial institutions invest in those businesses, they have obligations that they are meant to hold themselves to. And that’s particularly important in relation to certain sectors, such as construction. And again we have done quite a bit of work on showing what the particular risks are in the construction sector, which might be one that becomes important. So we have done work in Jordan, and in Lebanon, to really track what are these salient risks, in particular to workers, but also to communities at large. So again, those could be some tools that people might want to keep in mind.

Sara Afshar:
Thank you. Thank you so much. So, any questions?

So, I do acknowledge the position of the UK as well as the EU in general, and the US on restricting reconstruction funds to Syria, but I personally think that it’s not necessarily a question of do we fund or do we not fund the reconstruction of Syria, mainly because it’s happening, and in the country regardless of the narrative, regardless of whether the conflict has come to an end, or not, reconstruction is happening in a way, or not. So, restricting reconstruction funds is critical from two perspectives. First, that it’s leaving the space completely open for the regime to dictate terms of reconstruction with whatever money the regime is able to collect from different countries, and businessmen and businesses. And second, because it has created this atmosphere of manipulating terms, so that international organisations working in Syria are using aid money, or early recovery money, to contribute to reconstruction. So the conditionality of it, on a political settlement, is not working. Reconstruction is still contributing to the violation of human rights, so my question is how can we hold the government accountable, to know that UK money does not contribute to violating rights, but at the same time it doesn’t just stop at ‘we don’t fund reconstruction.’

My question is to Bushra. Taking into account what has happened yesterday, the day before yesterday, there is a kind of compromise in Sudan, an agreement between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom in Sudan, so I think it looks like a compromise. My question is what is to what extent is that going to hamper accountability in Sudan?

Ibrahim Olabi:
So, I think that politicians hide behind facts and easy slogans, right? No reconstruction until political transition. What does that mean? No one knows. Operationalising that is where the difficulty is. So, you probably know the position paper that civil society kind of negotiated—and I say negotiated because it was very difficult to get a position on this. And we basically opposed this idea of no reconstruction until political transition, because as human rights organisations our conditionality should not be based on politics, and that also affects the narrative of the conflict, that it’s a political problem, which I think it isn’t. We don’t want a reconstruction that rewards war criminals for what they’ve done, we don’t want reconstruction that consolidates war crimes that were committed, such as forced displacement, or reconstruction that feeds and finances new crimes. These were the three legal, human rights elements.

The problem is Sawsan, so we go and engage with DFID, for example, or the FCO on this issue. The kind of non-binary situation, not zero or one, reconstruct or don’t reconstruct, requires resources. Requires people actually following up where their money is going, doing their due diligence, putting their third party monitoring in.

For example something that we say is, do not put your call for proposals and your tenders in Syria for like two, three million, because that attracts the big whales that are regime cronies. Do them on small numbers so that you attract the small and medium businesses. That’s a nightmare for any development organisation, because it means the same amount of paperwork that you would do for a four million, five million pound project, now you have to do for fifty thousand pound project, over and over again.

So, we’re getting backthe response, ‘we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the capacity to do this nuanced approach.’ That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s possible. If donors actually want to follow through where the money is going, and make sure that reconstruction is human rights sensitive, and impose local consultations on an area before they rebuild it, and ask for who the land registry belongs to before they buy this house, and when they do a procurement and businesses apply, check who has a human rights record and who doesn’t, and require the businesses that apply to have human rights policy. There are things that can be done.

The issue is, the Syria team is made of three or four people, and they just allocate these large funding amounts, and they put nice contractual clauses that transfer the risk and the obligation to the international partner, which then the international partner enters a very fancy clause into that contract that transfers into the local partner, and then the local partner can never be held accountable because there is no mechanism. So this issue of risk transfer, and pushing away the obligation, is what we’re facing.

So, yes, when we engage with the EU officials on this topic, they say, you know, no reconstruction until political solution-slash-transition-slash-process, which to some might sound semantics, to us, sounds completely terrifying, because every single word means something completely different. But, what’s beyond that, they say they want it to be genuine, well what do you mean by genuine? We don’t know, we have to deal with Brexit. Right. So, this is the kind of situation that we’re in. It can be done, if they want it to be done.

David Taylor:
Just very briefly. Just reflecting on that, I wasn’t so aware of that. It just sounds extraordinary, given the risks involved. Successive secretaries of state on the Conservative side have been paranoid about bad aid news stories coming out. This is a prime example of where that might happen. Justine Greening, the previous one, made a big hoo-hah about how everything above, I think it was £50,000, it was something quite small, she would personally sign off on. There must be a way to work with some investigative journalists, or parliamentarians, to hold them to account on that, because, they can’t on the one hand say, ‘we want accountability in aid,’ and the other hand say ‘no’ to what your very reasonable demands are.

Ibrahim Olabi:
Can I come back to you on that? So, that other problem that we’re facing, that if you put too much pressure on them, they say ‘we’ll pull out, we don’t want the headache of Syria, there are so many other countries that require aid, you know, this ticks the boxes to be doing something for a conflict.’ So for our role, to say, ‘no, we want you to go in, but we want you to be careful,’ we have to tread very, very carefully. There was an article in the Telegraph a week ago, about aid going to Assad, and DFID responded the same day with a long statement to that. A couple of those articles, and they’re pulling out. And we don’t want that, because they have the leverage to do this. So, we have to deal with very difficult questions of things like sanctions, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction. These are not you know, nice slogans that human rights organisations can rally behind. They’re very difficult strategic questions that we will get wrong. And it’s this idea, are we having these difficult conversations amongst ourselves, reaching a decision that we’re happy with, for the time being and happy to reflect upon if needed?

Kate Ferguson:
To me this is about unintentional bureaucratic gaps, as much as it is the consequences of them, and you mention there, quite rightly, sanctions, trade, development and you mentioned a number of government agencies and representatives. And this comes back to our central ask, which is if the UK could integrate a joint analysis unit that sits across Department for International Trade, FCO, DFID, and the MoD, then actually you have within the bureaucracy someone with that job description viewing decision making around the UK contribution to reconstruction and its strategy in Syria, through that lens of prevention, doing no harm, and also being tasked with consulting with local and international civil society, with assessing and forecasting how those decisions will then likely impact consequences.

At the moment, there’s no infrastructure in the UK state bureaucracy enabled to join up those groups. So it’s sometimes not even intentional. I bet most people in this room have some kind of interaction with some of these UK agencies, and I bet if we pooled them all, some of the people that we speak to, speak to each other. And so, actually, it’s not high resource, and it would save the government a hell of a lot of money and bad political reporting. So I think that there is a longer-term lesson to be drawn from this, although, sadly it won’t necessarily help Syria in the immediate term.

Sara Afshar:
Then Bushra, if you want to answer the question.

Bushra Gamar Hussein Rahama: Thank you to my friend over here. Actually, he put it in the right way, it is a compromise. For me, whenever you are lacking accountability it will develop normalisation. So what happened actually in Sudan a few days back? Sometimes it’s normalising the situation, because for me that compromise is not favouring Sudan’s people, it’s favouring certain groups within the Alliance, or you say, Coalition of Change.

In my speech in the beginning, I say for me, usually, I differentiate between states and community, when we talk about the international community. When we talk about principles it lays on the community side, NGOs or the global community. But when we talk about the states, you are talking about international relations, you are talking about interest, you are talking about power. The same group, or the same militia of Janjaweed that are now leading Sudan, they were funded before through the Khartoum process by the EU, and even UK among the EU, funding those people, empowering them. Nowadays, they are doing their job in Yemen, and we know the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are supporting this group to keep them in Yemen. The international community, they know that this group is supported by the Emirates, by Saudi Arabia, by Egypt, but nothing happens, because the interest is there, the international relations there, so they came to that kind of compromise. For me, they are freezing the Sudan conflict for a while, and it will explode much more than before. I hope I am wrong.

Sara Afshar:
Can we have one more question?

Jonathan Brown:
Probably a question for Kate, or David or Ibrahim might want to answer. It’s about the willingness of the public to take an interest in this, really. Appealing to people’s self-interests, there are lots of examples from the last few years of history where we’ve had foreign states meddling in European and potentially British elections through manipulation of social media, the shooting down of aircraft which has killed European civilians, Donald Trump tearing up legal rulebooks. In other words, it ought to be very easy to make the case that international law matters, and that ignoring international law in conflict countries is creating extra problems for us. When you look at the impact the refugee crisis had on Brexit vote, that ought to be half of this country that has an opinion on that, at least. I chair the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria, and within that party there’s a lot of interest in the sort of easy issues, so accountability, and delivery of aid, and holding them to justice, but it’s still very difficult to get people to be very open and loud about harder things when it comes to forcing access, for example. Kate, why are you optimistic that, even when there’s such an easy case to make, there’s so much self-interest that often aligns with the principles of a lot of people, why is it not happening? And how dow do we make it happen, if that’s not too big a question to ask you?

Kate Ferguson:
I’m really sorry, I’m now not going to be optimistic at all. Well, I don’t know, I’ll try.

We’ve seen the values that underpin the rule based system, and human rights as a concept, are facing such challenge, and I believe in the UK it was a kind of instrumentalisation, an appropriation of human rights as a negative force in the UK against the interests of many, that got that Brexit vote over the line. And then we saw a similar thing with Trump, but we’ve seen it in the EU for much longer. So, for sure, we can agree that the crisis facing the multilateral order and the human rights agenda is under acute strain, and in the UK I think particularly so. I wonder if actually looking at why that has happened, is how we find the opportunity? Now, this is going to sound a little bit away from Syria, but what is the reason that people in the UK don’t feel affected by the awful images that we’ve seen coming out of Syria, for so long. Why is it that people in Britain feel disconnected from the importance of international law? It’s because actually I think there’s a perception that it is either-or. And I think there’s actually some real thinking for those of us who work in places like the UK, in international human rights, to think about where our mistakes historically have been. And Protection Approaches was founded, I’ve already given you one of the reasons, because no-one was really looking at atrocity prevention, but the second reason was because we couldn’t understand why some issues like peacebuilding, and peace education, and social cohesion, were being perceived as things that were needed in countries unlike the UK, when we could see in 2013, 2014, our own communities really being pulled apart, funding being drawn out, you know, those things that bring people together being unfunded.

And so for me, this is a bit meta so forgive me, but, within this crisis facing human rights, there’s actually an opportunity to redress some of that perpetual imbalance in Western foreign policy, and in Western development policy that is so former-colonialist, sometimes just blatantly racist. We use different words when we’re talking about prevention of the same things that we need to prevent in our own countries, abroad. And for me, where I see the opportunity, is that the first political voice that is able to articulate what we need to prevent at home, and what we want to prevent abroad, will then be able to reconcile this artificial division between those, in all democracies in the world, those who are wanting to double down and protect themselves within their own borders, and I don’t say that to be disparaging, and those that believe they have responsibilities to look out and contribute abroad. And to me they shouldn’t be in conflict with each other, but, at the moment we, even within the human rights community, create these divisions, so I don’t know if that’s completely pessimistic. There is some hope in there, I think.

Sara Afshar:
Does anyone else want to comment on that?

Ibrahim Olabi:
A few quick thoughts, from my observations as to why the lack of interest, and all of that. First of all, because—and dare I say that—the Conservatives did have a good policy on Syria, an okay policy, compared to Labour, relatively. I’m not going to put too many disclaimers, we don’t have time, but you know what I mean. Because there’s this issue of mistrust towards the government, because if the Conservatives are saying ‘Assad must go,’ then we should not believe what the Conservatives are saying, we should be anti-government. This entire movement of anti-mainstream. Because the BBC’s reporting on torture, that must be a lie. There is this narrative on the street, so against the mainstream, ‘I’m going to doubt everything I hear on BBC, but for some weird reason believe everything I read on social media.’ Right.

Then you have this issue of action versus omission. So, in Iraq it was an action, in Yemen it was an action, UK funding something. In the UK, it’s an omission in the case of Syria, of not doing something. And I think these are very different ways that we could target policy. Pushing your country to do something is far more difficult than stopping it from doing something, as we’ve already seen with that High Court order.
And, the vote that you were talking about. I was actually in Aleppo in 2013, and I remember that day because we turned off all electrical equipment just to power a small TV, to watch the House of Commons debate. How surreal is that? Fifteen, sixteen of my friends gathering around a TV, and being disgusted by the cheer that happened with Ed Miliband. For me, it was just a matter of, you know, ‘I’m going to prove to the Conservatives that—’ it was an arm-twisting exercise. I’m pretty sure if the Conservatives on day one came out and said Assad must stay, Labour would have taken the opposite side, and that’s a disgusting situation that we’re living in.

So it’s these couple of factors, the anti-mainstream, the anti-government, the lack of trust because of Iraq, the complexity of information, that makes it very difficult for people to be able to relate and take action.

Sara Afshar:
David, you wanted to say something?

David Taylor:
Yes, just very quickly. It sorts relates, Jonathan, to the conversation we were having in one of the breaks, which is I think we’ve got to continue to be focused on individual conflicts in our day-to-day work, Syria, but also in Sudan, various other things. But I do think there is sort of agreement, Kate, that stepping back and a bit of work that we all have to do together, particularly those of us who work for organisations, and that’s to try and rebuild this sense of helping other people and helping people in other parts of the world. And my previous role at Oxfam, was very much working with Save the Children and others when they were trying to set up a defence of aid campaign, with 0.7% aid budget target under attack. They actually, as a campaign, shifted much more into how can they empower local community groups to continue to make the case for, basically, helping other people. It’s not about 0.7%, or about this particular action, or whatever, it’s about asking are we willing to make a small sacrifice, in terms of our tax money, or our time, or our effort, whatever, to help other people? And Britain has been great at that in the past. You think about the Make Poverty History campaign as being one example. I think there’s work that we all have to do, to put aside our personal opinions, our organisational egos. We’ve got to rebuild that infrastructure so that we can win back that public support. As Kate says, it’s there. The polling shows that. I mean, you’re right, some people are selfish, and we might want to appeal to that. But there’s a goodness in the British public, but we need to rebuild the infrastructure to empower them, to come with us and support collective action.

Sara Afshar:
I agree with you. Sorry, for me speaking as the chair, but I remember, Britain was great, British people were great in the anti-apartheid movement, but why hasn’t it—it’s so frustrating, the past few years, just not being able to get people to identify with a struggle for freedom—that’s a universal thing that people should understand?

Could I give you an anecdote from yesterday, which I’m afraid goes a bit against what Ibrahim was saying about the emphasis on self-interest, and supports more what Kate was saying in her survey. Yesterday, I took a placard with Stop Bombing Idlib on it, to stand as people were coming out of Wimbledon tennis. And, on the whole, people are pretty whacked after a long hot day, but the supportive comments, although there weren’t a lot, outnumbered the antagonistic. There was one antagonistic comment. And what the man said was, ‘what about ISIS?’ And I think that’s perhaps what underlies a lot of the counter narratives. People think very positively, but they don’t know. And again I think it also comes back to this issue about caring for civilian casualties. People care for civilian casualties, but they’re also worried about outcomes, and they’re afraid that if the bombing doesn’t happen, Da’esh will carry on in Syria, carry on wherever else. So, what they do is they take the counter narrative as a defence, as a buffer against their own instinctive reaction. That was just yesterday.

Sara Afshar:
I think one of the problems as well has been a lack of contextualisation, which the media needs to do. They just show bombing, they don’t actually contextualise what’s happening. I think most people have forgotten how the conflict in Syria even started. Sorry, would you like to make any more comments?

Ana Zbona:
I guess I’ll move away from the UK context of it, because I just wanted to react to something that was said earlier about this general crisis of the human rights movement, and human rights as a whole being perceived as more and more negative, and there’s this push back against it, and what I wanted to bring into the conversation, is that often times, one of the arguments used against human rights is that it is somehow anti-development and anti economic growth, and this is perhaps more relevant in certain other contexts, such as in Latin America, but I do find that that might be something that we might want to keep in mind, is that there are more and more businesses also coming out in support of human rights, in support of the rule of law, in support of freedom in the end, and of course that can sometimes come from a self-interested point of view, but also one of the points that they are making as well, is that if we are going to be in line with the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, if we are going to try to be responsible corporate citizens, we do need a civil society that’s functioning, we do need the rule of law, we do need these basic human rights principles being strong, and institutions being strong and intact. And so what I’m trying to bring into the discussion is that also sometimes we can learn to bring businesses in as allies to the human rights system.

Can I just make a comment? I’m still thinking of the speech from the first speaker. So you basically were saying that, here we don’t have political will to address accountability so we should focus on reconstruction. I come from the Balkan region. I was just trying to picture how would the Balkans look now if Milosevic was still in power and we had focused only on reconstruction. I’m afraid, it doesn’t work like that.

Ibrahim Olabi:
You probably misunderstood me. That’s not what I said. I said, because legal accountability is stuck and requires political will, some of us need to lobby on that. But others should look at other issues that we can come—

But the priority should be about accountability. This is my opinion.

Ibrahim Olabi:
Of course, but as Sawsan has said, there are parallel things going, so we have the media issue of disinformation, and we have the legal route, and then we have people who are trying to say the war is over, and so give us funding so that we can reconstruct the country, and I think we need to target accountability, from the lens of reconstruction, I’m not saying we should ignore it, I’m saying no, you’re not going to get the money because of what happened. But I agree with you a hundred percent. I don’t think it should be ignored at all, we should approach it from different avenues.

Sara Afshar:
We’ve gone over, sorry!