Remarks at the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre & Syria Survivors of Torture Initiative Donor Conference

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Dutch Embassy
Washington, DC
October 6, 2016

Thanks Ambassador Schuwer; it’s great to be with you again. This is my second event at the Dutch Embassy in less than a month, and it’s testament to your leadership in focusing the diplomatic community on some of the most pressing issues concerning civilian security.

Over five years of brutal conflict in Syria, the last two weeks have been especially bleak. In Aleppo, thousands trapped in a maelstrom of death. Hospital and schools targeted. White helmets turned red with blood. At some point, words utterly fail to capture this depravity.

But the Asad regime’s recent atrocities in Aleppo, while among the most heinous, trace a much longer pattern of violence and injustice against the Syrian people – one that fueled this horrific conflict in the first place.

It was five years ago in Daraa when a group of young boys – one just ten years old – were rounded up for criticizing the regime, stripped naked, and hung by the wrist as they were beaten with metal rods over weeks of detention. That abuse – not only its young targets but its abject cruelty – came to symbolize the regime’s broader violence and sense of impunity. It helped stoke the conflict, as did the thousands more arrests and abuses by the regime in the following years.

Since 2011, more than 215,000 people have been detained in Syrian prisons because of the conflict. Seventeen thousand have died in those prisons from torture. And the men and women still behind bars are held in appalling conditions enduring all manner of abuse, including sexual violence.

For the men and women who do make it out, many now struggle to escape its lingering trauma. Most former detainees now live in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria, and each day, they try to rebuild what the Asad regime tried to break. They seek to reconnect with their families and communities and move forward with their lives.

These are brave individuals with trauma that is both unique and collective. They are the surgeon who cannot operate because her hands tremble with trauma; the father who withdraws from his kids hoping to protect them from his pain; the activist whose friends shun him because he was assaulted behind bars. They share the reality of wounded families, communities, and societies. We must stand with them in their moment of need, to provide aid, but also to advance the cause of justice for which they sacrificed.

Today, the United States makes two new moral and financial commitments.

First, we announce 1.4 million dollars for the Syria Survivors of Torture Initiative. This effort will pilot a more comprehensive model of assistance to former detainees – by helping close the gaps in medical, psychosocial, and legal services, by reconnecting former detainees with their communities and loved ones, and by supporting advocacy to sustain attention on their particular needs – because we cannot move on from this issue until they are able to move on with their lives.

And finally, the funds we announce will foster ties between those providing services to former detainees, like medical and legal aid, with those individuals documenting human rights abuses – because the nurse who examines the survivor, the paralegal who transcribes their account, and the advocate who presses for justice, are stronger when they work together.

And on this last piece in particular – ensuring justice for atrocities in Syria – we have much work ahead. Helping Syrians negotiate a peaceful political transition and defeat terrorist groups like Daesh must go hand in hand with the pursuit of justice for the many crimes they have suffered. For as we have seen time and again, peace without justice rarely lasts.

So today, the United States makes a second commitment of an additional 1.45 million dollars to support the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center’s (SJAC) tireless work documenting the human rights abuses in Syria committed by all sides.

The SJAC recognizes that, while many Syrians cannot defend themselves from atrocities, they can deploy their phones, their video cameras, and their cassette recorders to document those atrocities. Over the last four years, the SJAC has collected terabytes of documentation in this way. Each piece that comes in receives multiple tags for analysis and undergoes a thorough assessment to ensure it can be used in future processes for transitional justice, whatever forms they may take.

Too often in this horrific conflict, the Asad regime, Daesh, and other warring parties have committed atrocities to silence those with a different vision for Syria – the activist defending human rights, the women demanding equality, or the young person calling for accountable governance. We cannot let them succeed. So even as we seek to end the violence through a negotiated political transition, the international community must also help Syrian survivors of atrocities to recover their voices, regain their lives, and ensure that their stories survive for all time.

The two groups we support today do that work, often at great peril. They deserve not only our encouragement but our resources and our assistance. So I hope that each government here makes a specific commitment to support these efforts. If people like Mr. Al-Abdullah can endure Syrian prison – twice – for justice and human rights, we can certainly do this much.

Thank you.