Syrian activists and international experts examine violations of property rights in Syria; look into ways to address them
Impunity Watch and PAX for Peace co-organised a two-day expert meeting on property rights in Syria on 16-17 July in The Hague, bringing together 35 Syrian activists and international experts. Participants extensively discussed the legal obstacles and threats to Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Rights in Syria and brainstormed on the way forward and possible next steps to address the existing challenges.
Nine years into the Syria conflict, the suffering of the victims of human rights violations is ongoing. HLP issues have emerged as a pressing problem in the Syrian context following massive waves of displacement since 2011. Social and demographic engineering by the Syrian regime as well as other parties to the conflict, has been documented by various organisations including PAX. Among the strategies used by Syrian authorities to prevent the return of the displaced and consolidate its demographic engineering plans is the adoption since 2011 –under the pretext of reconstruction or counter-terrorism – of a number of laws and administrative decisions that make it more difficult for displaced people to return or claim their property. The last and most dangerous of these legislations is Law No. 10, passed by the Syrian Government on 2 April 2018. This law allows the creation of redevelopment zones across Syria that will be designated for reconstruction. These redevelopment zones are designated by a decree, without any clear criteria or timeline. If people fail to provide proof of ownership of a property within these zones, they will not be compensated and the ownership reverts to the province, town or city where the property is located. The people who are able to prove their ownership of property within these zones will get shares.
Violations of HLP rights that have occurred since 2011 do
not only affect displaced Syrians, they disproportionately affect
other vulnerable groups such as detainees and relatives of the
missing people, minorities or women who face additional
During the meeting, participants from the affected Syrian
communities presented their perspectives and detailed out the
severe dangers they could face if they return to their hometowns
to follow the legal procedures set by the regime to restore their
Syrian-Palestinian activist Abdallah al-Khatib, who was born and
raised in the refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, explained the
considerable challenges that Palestinians face to prove their
ownership of property highlighting the historical discriminations
against Palestinian refugees. According to al-Khatib, the Syrian
regime has destroyed 70 per cent of the Yarmouk Camp, leaving
people with no houses to return to. The Syrian regime accused
its opponents with terrorism charges which completely deprives
them from reclaiming their property, added Abdallah. He explained that many of the Palestinians had to flee the heavy shelling of the camp without taking any documents with them. “We were running for our lives. People were being killed in front of our eyes, and we were burying them. Nobody remembered to save any [property] documents at the moment. We did not have any experience […],” he said.
Participants also discussed the property rights of the detainees and missing persons and touched on historic discriminations against Syrian Kurds. Discussions focused as well on a gendered approach to property rights.
Lama Kannout, researcher, writer and Executive Director of the Syrian Feminist Lobby, noted that when conflict ends, women are generally prohibited from taking decisions related to the restitution of or return to their houses, land and property. “Syrian women are no exception,” she said, highlighting that all regulations and practices show that they are the weakest element and will most likely continue to endure violence and persecution if such practices are not confronted. Kannout explained that the HLP is one of the most complicated issues rooted in decades of controversies. It became even more complicated with huge destruction of cities; massive displacement; the enforced disappearance of about 100,000 individuals; loss of documentation; forged documents; legislative discrimination against women; corruption; the security apparatuses’ control of the government and society; the demolition of livelihoods; as well as the series of laws issued by the regime to confiscate people’s property and used as a tool of war against the communities that revolted against it in 2011. Kannout called for including HLP rights in any future peace agreement and adopting the Pinheiro Principles which emphasise the refugees’ right to housing and property restitution as a core remedy to displacement.
Participants thoroughly discussed the issue of property rights in reconstruction or “early recovery” phase.
According to Ibrahim Olabi, Executive Director of
the Syrian Legal Development Programme, a variety of
stakeholders should be targeted during the
reconstruction or early recovery phase, including
charities and development agencies because their
humanitarian programmes, which are being
implemented in areas of forced displacement, have a
direct impact on HLP rights. Talking about refugee
returns, Olabi emphasised that it should be made
clear to all states that funding reconstruction would
not solely lead to returns. “The loss of HLP rights,
as well as fear of torture and arbitrary detention are
amongst the leading factors preventing returns,” he
said. Olabi added that some form of leverage
against those contributing to HLP breaches can be
made, if we take into consideration the Syrian regime and its allies’ need for reconstruction funds as well as
through the use of targeted sanctions as a policy tool.
Participants discussed the documentation of property rights. In addition, the meeting included a comparative approach whereby the experiences of different countries were presented; particularly that of Palestine and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Participants focused on the role of civil society and possible next steps in addressing the HLP issue. They reflected on policy recommendations to be raised to the international community.