Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

Syria is a republic under the authoritarian presidential regime of Bashar al-Asad. The constitution mandates the primacy of Ba'ath party leaders in state institutions and parliament. There were significant limitations on citizens' right to change their government. President al-Asad and party leaders, supported by political and military security services, dominate all three branches of government. The country's human rights record worsened in 2008; the government continued its severe crackdown on civil society activists, and members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses in response to the 2007 formation of the Damascus Declaration National Council. The government employed the security services to restrict forcefully already limited freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association amidst an atmosphere of government corruption and lack of transparency. Security services imposed bans on international travel for civilians in record numbers. The government sentenced to prison 12 high-profile members of the human rights community. Members of the security forces arbitrarily or unlawfully killed, tortured, and physically abused prisoners and detainees. In addition, security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, and lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention remained serious problems. The government continued to discriminate against minority groups, particularly the Kurds, who have suffered detention, torture, and death for engaging in cultural and political activities.

Part 2: U.S. Government Democracy Objectives

To encourage an environment where there is respect for human rights, the development of civil society, freedom of expression and religion, and the rule of law, U.S. officials work with local contacts and diplomatic interlocutors to urge the government to end the repression of dissidents and minorities and to support the efforts of the population to broaden real political participation and reassert their right to fundamental freedoms. The U.S. Government draws domestic and international attention to human rights abuses in Syria; supports individuals and NGOs seeking peaceful, democratic change; endeavors to foster a more vibrant media and mass communications environment; funds programs to provide training and resources that encourage the development of civil society; and encourages the professional development of the next generation of leaders. 

The United States obligates funds through a specific appropriation from Congress to promote democracy and human rights. These funds allow the United States to support activities that promote democracy, human rights, and the free flow of information to the population.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

The United States regularly raises concerns about the government's poor human rights record and urges other democratic actors to do the same. In 2008 the U.S. Government issued several high-level statements condemning the government for continued harassment and detention of civil society activists and political prisoners and encouraged other like-minded governments to follow suit. The United States actively supported the UN in condemning the government's human rights record and publicly highlighted the abuse of its citizens' fundamental rights and freedoms. Following the October 2008 conviction of 12 members of the prodemocracy Damascus Declaration National Council, the United States issued public statements that drew international attention to the government’s repression of grassroots democracy movements.

The United States uses public diplomacy and reporting to highlight human rights abuses and urges the government to improve its practices. U.S. officials maintain contact with a variety of NGOs and civil society activists throughout the year, documenting incidents for dissemination to other governments and inclusion in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Trafficking in Persons Report, and Report on International Religious Freedom. Through these contacts and others, the United States monitors the government's repression of organizations and arrest of democratic activists seeking to assemble or associate peacefully. U.S. officials participate in a diplomatic monitoring group that exchanges information on the human rights situation, coordinates representation at the trials of civil society activists, and endeavors to synchronize diplomatic responses and related assistance programs. The United States closely monitors trafficking in persons in the country and cooperates and shares information with international organizations and other governments to increase awareness of and combat the problem.

The United States supports the development of an independent media and an independent judiciary through various State Department-funded training programs and workshops. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus promotes this programming and provides additional training to journalists in areas such as ethics in reporting, investigative journalism, networking, and organizing press events. The United States funds workshops for lawyers on topics such as human rights and trafficking in persons.

In 2008 the U.S. Government sponsored approximately 24 local professionals and students to participate in professional development and leadership programs in the United States focused on issues of human rights, civil society, journalism, and good governance. Through these programs the United States endeavors to develop a free and independent Syrian media; raise awareness of issues related to civic responsibility; foster the development of civil society; and provide training in leadership, management, and policy advocacy for promising young leaders.