In the Syrian case the international community failed to prove that human rights are also for the Syrian people, that everyone has the right to be protected. Twelve years of this ongoing war – and the international community did not do anything for the democratization of the country, they only offered humanitarian help… Democratic countries like Germany should push for a principle and fair political solution. We need equality, the end of discrimination, equal rights and, first and foremost, justice.
Interview with the winner of the Anne Klein Women's Award 2023, Joumana Seif, who is a legal expert, activist, and human rights defender.
Marion Kraske: Joumana, first of all, congratulations on receiving this year’s Anne Klein Women’s Award of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for your outstanding engagement for women’s rights. What does this award mean to you personally?
Joumana Seif: It means a lot, after years of hard work, this is a recognition of women’s struggle in general. And in particular I receive it as a recognition for the Syrian women, for human rights, equality and justice. For me, this is important to stress: I am not working alone, I am working with them and for them. It’s our award.
You were born in Syria. What were your concrete experiences that led you to stand up for women’s rights and human rights?
We have to go back in history. I tried to make a real change at that time in our family’s company. My ambition was to establish a social department to empower them and to create better conditions, with a kindergarten, sports, library, special clinic, health care, dentist and an eye doctor. I not only cared for the workers but also for the families. Then I started to realize how unfair the situation was, especially for women – all the burden was on their shoulders. The work, the family duties – without any appreciation. I started to realize that our laws were unfair and discriminating at all levels – socially, legally, politically. I understood that a profound political reform with rights for everybody was the only solution.
Your father was part of the reform and protest movement in Syria against the Assad regime. In 2003, he was awarded the Human Rights Prize of the city of Weimar, which you accepted on his behalf. Subsequently, you and your family were also threatened in Syria and had to leave the country. Since 2013 you have been living in Berlin. How important were the repressions against your family for your political engagement?
I worked closely with my father in creating the social care department in our company. Additionally, I was also engaged in his struggle against the endemic corruption and in favor of human rights. However, as a family we paid a heavy price: My youngest brother was taken or killed in 1996 as a revenge for our political engagement when he was 21 years old. My youngest uncle was also taken by security forces in 1980. He disappeared from home. Later also my cousins disappeared.
Consequently, all my memories about that time are horrible. We lived in constant fear. People didn’t dare to speak out. The society became silent, Syria became a kingdom of silence.
When Bashar al-Assad came to power, we felt some kind of hope. People started to discuss public issues and a democratic forum about democratic dialogue started meeting in our house. People slowly became louder. But then the system reacted and we got threats. The movement was too big for them to control and consequently they made the decision to arrest the leaders and to stop the uproar aggressively – that was in September 2001. Then the real pressure on us started. We were all threatened, and were being investigated by the security branches. My father was arrested and I started to move to the front communicating with the lawyers. We established an impressive defense committee with more than 100 lawyers. At that time, I decided to study law.
What was the role of women in particular?
It’s important to highlight that the women at the beginning of the revolution were from the first day on the frontline. They were the heart of the movement, and I am proud of that. They insisted on organizing and participating in the March 16th demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior – this is how the revolution started in Damascus. We demanded the freedom of all political prisoners. We were beaten and a lot of activists got arrested, this is how everything started. We worked on very creative initiatives at that time. Then later, with the growing violence of the regime and the brutal attacks against civilians, it turned into an armed war. Because of the growing brutality, the women became more active in the humanitarian field to rescue the injured, etc.
Since democratic protests against Assad’s regime grew into a civil war, women in Syria have been at the mercy of all forms of violence. Child marriage, forced marriage, rape, gang rape, human trafficking, slavery. Activists have been arrested and tortured. Why did the regime target in particular the women?
Rape and sexual assault became an instrument with the aim to humiliate the families. Their bodies were used as a tool of war to put pressure on the family members when they were part of the peace movement. This was done on purpose: Women in Syria are considered the centre of the families, their bodies should not be touched. The attacks were a turning point for systematic persecution – until now the situation of women is characterized by a complete lack of insecurity, as the security services that systematically commit these crimes enjoy complete impunity under national decrees and legislation. And there is no functioning judiciary, the courts are working against the victims rather than in favour of them. Even in cases of torture, rape and sexual assaults, when the women disappeared in these dark branches of the security system for months, the role of the courts was horrible. The cases were not properly addressed. For survivors there is no access to justice, no reparation. There is even a lack of social and healthcare support for the consequences of the horrible abuses everywhere in Syria.
You work for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which is based in Berlin. In recent years, the Center has successfully pushed the German judiciary to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence in Syrian prisons as crimes against humanity. In 2020, seven Syrian survivors of Bashar al-Assad’s torture system brought a criminal complaint to the Federal Prosecutor General in Karlsruhe. In 2022, the verdict was reached against one defendant: He was convicted of murder, rape and sexual assault – the first judgment of its kind. The charges were prepared with the support of the Syrian Women’s Network and you were also significantly involved. How do you assess this success?
In fact, this was a milestone in the fight for women’s rights, in Syria but also in general. We put in a lot of efforts to submit a criminal complaint to the German Federal Prosecutor in June 2020 and to achieve later this verdict in the case of the Al-Khatib prison. After working together for years with a network of Syrian survivors, lawyers and activists, we achieved the recognition of conflict-related sexual violence in the verdict against Anwar Raslan, who is a former official of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian General Intelligence Directorate. We have been investigating this for years. For us it was crucial not to create harm for the survivor. Our main task was to empower the survivors to speak out about what they went through and what they witnessed. The trial was possible only on the basis of their bravery. All in all, we submitted more than 100 pieces of evidence. We managed with their help to prove that these atrocities, these conflict-related crimes, were crimes against humanity.
In the Syrian war, official figures put the death toll at 470,000–610,000. This was – until the war against Ukraine – the second deadliest conflict of the 21st century. Sexual violence is systematically used as a weapon. Again and again, witnesses in Syria report rape, sexual harassment or even electric shocks in the genital area. The Assad regime uses this kind of violence against women but also men and members of the LGBTI community.
Why is it so important to classify these crimes as crimes against humanity?
The recognition of sexual violence as a crime against humanity is very important – by achieving that, we opened the ground for all victims of the regime so they can fight for their rights, ask for reparation, etc. This is a huge step forward to foster transitional justice. Sexual violence against women is the main tool to attack the Syrian people with the aim to weaken the society as such. Sexual violence has a long lasting impact: In times when women are being tortured they can’t raise their children. After being released, they have serious health problems; they are marginalized and even have problems finding a job. It is also very important to mention: According to international reports from 2012/13, sexual violence was the main reason for many refugees to flee the country, to go to Jordan, to Lebanon. All in all, it is a tool to weaken the society, in particular the opposition, the democratic forces. In the international report (“I lost my dignity” report) from 2018, it is mentioned that sexual violence was systematically used and still has been used in 20 security branches against women and girls and in 15 branches against men. The atrocities are a key pillar of the brutal and violent system of repression of Assad’s regime.
Also during the Bosnian war (1992–1995) rape was deliberately used as a weapon – mostly against Muslim women and girls. This fact was acknowledged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Now, with the war against Ukraine, we are once again witnessing systematic sexualized violence against women and children. What measures should the international community take to prosecute these crimes in conflict regions more effectively? What are your demands in this regard?
The international community should provide basic social and legal support to survivors, also financially. There are no shelters in Syria, Lebanon or Jordan where most of the survivors live. There is a lack of everything, no space even to speak up. There is only suffering and isolation – and not to forget social stigmatization. The situation became unbearable for them after the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February 6. The international community should first of all respond urgently now and give committed support to the local women’s and feminist NGOs working on the ground. They need long term support and long lasting funding. Sexual violence is very harming for the survivors. They need a minimum of 5 years of social and legal support. This has to be taken into consideration.
Everyone knows the disastrous scenes from Aleppo in 2016, which has been largely destroyed. Also in other conflicts, such as the war against Ukraine, civilians are being deliberately attacked. Nevertheless, the response of the international community sometimes remains vague. In the Bosnian war, the West waited until Serb forces committed genocide, more than 8,300 Muslims in Srebrenica were killed. A question for the legal expert in you: Are the international mechanisms for the protection of civilians sufficient? Shouldn’t there be other, more robust formats and responses?
To speak very openly, I am convinced that the policy of the international community towards the Syrian crisis was a big failure. The war in Syria really impacts human rights and human values in general. When the Syrian civilians were attacked by helicopters, the international community refused to establish a no-fly zone. Germany’s decision makers argued that they waited for the United States to react. From my understanding, this is not acceptable any more from the Western countries: It’s time for Germany to take a leading position in the global fight for human rights – particularly with a view to its own history.
What do you expect concretely?
If we strongly believe in human rights and the struggle for it, then democratic countries like Germany have to take the lead to fight for human rights everywhere, also in Syria. In the Syrian case the international community failed to prove that human rights are also for the Syrian people, that everyone has the right to be protected. Twelve years of this ongoing war – and the international community did not do anything for the democratization of the country, they only offered humanitarian help. Particularly with the war against Ukraine there should be a review and a shift in the foreign policy towards Syria. It is not acceptable that Syrian people have been killed for years; that they were attacked with chemical weapons.
Democratic countries like Germany should push for a principle and fair political solution. We need equality, the end of discrimination, equal rights and, first and foremost, justice.
How much does the Anne Klein Award help you to continue your work? And what are your next objectives, what is your most important concern at the moment?
From the moment that I was informed about the award, I felt even more responsibilities on my shoulders: Receiving the Anne Klein Award I am more than happy since it also shows that our fight for the Syrian women is still on the radar. For sure the award is an honor but it is also a burden. I will intensify my work, deepen the collaboration with my colleagues for human rights and equality, strengthen and widen the network. Now I have the chance to let the voices of the women in Syria be heard even louder. I want to infuse the demands of the Syrian women into the political discourse in Europe, after 12 years of atrocities. We can speak with more power now. For the revolution, for a real shift. Surely, a democratic change takes time, but now it’s time to move in the right direction.
In Syria, child marriage was a widespread problem even before the war. According to Terres des Femmes, 13 percent of girls were married before the age of 18 and 3 percent before their 15th birthday. Current figures are lacking – in part because of the ongoing civil war. Nevertheless, how can such toxic traditions be broken?
To combat this violation, we should look at its causes, the discriminatory laws and practices, the impunity for gender-based violence, the lack of adequate protection, all these encouraged forced and early marriage, even before the conflict began. During the conflict, families are marrying their young daughters off to protect their honor due to the threat of sexual violence especially in refugee camps. Economic circumstances amongst Syrians also play a role in encouraging early and forced marriage. So in order to break it, we have to deal with all these causes.
Marion Kraske ist Politologin und Publizistin, mit 20 Jahren journalistischer Erfahrung (Deutsche Presse Agentur, Spiegel, ARD-Fernsehen). Sie arbeitet national und international als Autorin und politische Analystin zu Themen Rechtsextremismus, Nationalismus, State und Nation-Building, Vergangenheitsbewältigung.