Syrian civil society not being heard by international donors

CIVICUS asked Nibal Salloum, program manager at the Syrian peace-building organisation Nuon, about the situation for civil society in Syria and the challenges faced working in a conflict area. Nuon is a Syrian civil society organisation that works on peace building from a human rights approach in Southern Syria and with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

1. What is the situation for civil society in Syria and to what extent can civil society still function and respond in spite of violent attacks and bombings?

In Syria there are two kinds of civil society; the first kind is organisations which are accepted and approved by the regime. These organisations can register and work in public while many laws still make their work abstract. The other kind is independent civil society organisations (CSOs) which are forced to work illegally according to Syrian law because they work on human rights issues such as political prisoners and people imprisoned after exercising their right to freedom of expression. These CSO’s offices are normally forced to be located in the neighbouring countries of Syria where the CSO employees receive information from human rights defenders working inside Syria to document human rights violations. Only a few CSOs working on human rights are still inside Syria but they are forced to work underground and many of their members are in prison.

Human rights defenders inside Syria cannot work in public because they risk forced disappearance, being killed or being pressured through their families being targeted. The restrictions on human rights defenders vary depending on what party is in power in the area the defenders work in. The Syrian regime will often times kidnap or arrest human rights defenders, whereas ISIS and Al Nusra will kill them.

Most of the human rights defenders are between 22-35 years and lack specialisation hence they need training as they were not active before the conflict broke out five years ago. Prior to documenting the violations, many of the human rights defenders are trained by the CSOs they provide information to. For security reasons, the human rights defenders that are able to travel will often times deliver the information in person in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan because it is safer than sending it through email and Skype because of surveillance. Others, however, are not able to travel and have to use insecure ways of communicating.

2. What is the situation for Syrian women human rights defenders and in what way are they being particularly targeted due to their gender?

In addition to the torture and violence all human rights defenders face, women activists are particularly exposed. While gender-based violence, and in particular sexual violence, has been used in Syria as a weapon of war, it is also being used against women human rights defenders. This also leads to society rejecting the women human rights defender who is a survivor of sexual violence and she will be a neglected person in society.

In general, all Syrians face issues when it comes to visas for Europe and that makes it difficult to be a human rights defender. It has been difficult for me to get visas to speak at international institutions in Europe and this affects Syrians. Many Syrians have the feeling that they will need to get another passport for them to be treated equally with other nationalities, which is very problematic. If it is made easier to travel by the European Union and others maybe Syrians wouldn’t have to stay in a different country and get a different nationality.

3. What is the role of international donors and international CSOs in Syria and to what extent are they coordinating their efforts with domestic civil society?

In my opinion the international donors and international CSOs working in Syria unfortunately do not understand all the circumstances or the mentality here. This does of course not apply to all of them but many. Most of the international donors and CSOs come with their own plans and try to make them fit to the situation instead of listening to the activists or planning with the CSOs and human rights defenders inside Syria and in the border countries. Normally, they have already decided on the topic or issue they find interesting and if they have decided that something is not a need they will not give money to it or try to listen. Unfortunately we also see that money is wasted on issues that are not pressing or being done in a manner that does not fit the Syrian reality. For example, documentation is just being mentioned but many Syrian human rights defenders don’t know what the meaning of documentation is or what to do with it. This is where someone who knows the context must be involved.

We also see that a lot of the support for Syrian refugees from international donors is not working or fulfilling the needs of the refugees. Instead of giving money to the Lebanese government to ensure that Syrian children can go to Lebanese schools for three hours a day, specific education and care must be provided for these children of war who have been out of school for three or four years. For this reason, we must look at the issues from all sides before deciding what the solution is. Too often, we unfortunately see that the projects end up suiting the donors rather than the beneficiaries.

4. What international assistance do you actually need?

I find it important that we are true partners with the international donors and organisations so that the cooperation goes two ways. We have expertise and knowledge about the situation and they have capacities, funds and knowledge of various techniques. One way to ensure that the programs actually fit the needs of the beneficiaries is through joint monitoring, evaluation and planning. In this partnership, it would be great if the international donors and organisations would improve their working streams by listening more to the Syrian CSOs.

The UN is trying to help but there are various issues with the cooperation. First of all, not all Syrian CSOs understand the UN mechanisms and they do not know how to communicate with them. Secondly, there is an engrained mistrust among the Syrian people towards government institutions, of which the UN suffers under since its a government institution. The Syrian CSOs must help open the UN’s eyes to the specific situations where their help is needed. There is a willingness from the UN to work with more grantees but it is important that the UN shows flexibility in this outreach, as many Syrian CSOs are hard to reach.

5. How is civil society currently involved (or not being involved) in peace processes, and also how ideally it should be involved?

It is important that independent civil society is involved and that they are advisors in the peace process but unfortunately, that is not the case right now. Firstly, we see that those CSOs involved in the peace process are not completely independent and let their political views lead their involvement resulting in them not sharing all necessary information or truly representing civil society. Secondly, we see that Syrian CSOs don’t have capacities or understanding of the mechanisms to truly participate.

I believe that we should first map out the independent and non-partisan Syrian CSOs and then help them in building their capacities particularly in conflict management and transitional justice. A true partnership should be established with Syrian CSOs and their involvement in any peace process or at least consultation with them should be ensured. Their opinion should be taken into consideration and they should be allowed to monitor the situation, as we believe that the Syrian CSOs are the ones who really know how things are on the ground.

Find out more about Nuon on their website or via their Facebook page, Nuon Organization for Peace Building