United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Syria, 30 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa8023.html [accessed 20 June 2013]
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SYRIA Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government, Syria's political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President, Hafiz Al-Asad. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy are made by President Asad with counsel from his ministers, high ranking members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and from a relatively small circle of security advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is guaranteed a majority. The Parliament does not initiate laws; it votes on and sometimes modifies those proposed by the executive branch. The judiciary is constitutionally independent, but this is not the case in the exceptional security courts. Depending on the nature of the case and those involved, regular courts are not generally subject to political influence but the exceptional (state of emergency) courts are. In general, all three branches of government are guided by the views of the leadership of the Ba'th Party, whose primacy in state institutions is mandated by the Constitution. The powerful role of the security services in government, which extends beyond strictly security matters, stems in part from the state of emergency which has been in place almost continuously since 1963. The Government justifies martial law because of the state of war with Israel and alleged threats from terrorist groups. Syrian Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence are military agencies, while General Security, State Security, and Political Security come under the purview of the Ministry of Interior. The branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside the legal system. Their members often ignore the rights of suspects and detainees, and commit serious human rights violations. The economy is based on commerce, agriculture, and oil production. It consists of a generally inefficient public sector, a private sector, and mixed public/private companies. A complex bureaucracy and endemic corruption hamper economic growth. The Government has sought to promote the private sector through incentives and deregulation. Real economic growth is about 4 percent, although real per capita growth is less than 1 percent. Annual per capita gross domestic product is about $900, and inflation about 16 percent per year. Wage increases in the public sector have not kept pace with cost of living increases, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. Despite some improvements, the Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights. Serious abuses include the widespread use of torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial; fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts; the suppression of workers rights; and, despite a slight loosening of restrictions, the denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. Because the Ba'th Party's domination of the political system is guaranteed by the Constitution, the people do not have the right to change the Government. The Government uses its vast powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition and there have been very few antiregime manifestations. Prison conditions generally do not meet minimum international standards. There is some societal discrimination and violence against women, and discrimination against the Kurdish minority. There were some positive developments during the year. The most notable was the unconfirmed release of 500 to 600 political prisoners in the spring and the release announced by the Government of 1,650 political prisoners and detainees in November. There appeared to be some modest relaxation in censorship, allowing slightly greater media criticism of certain government policies within strict limits. The Government also permitted an international human rights group to conduct a lengthy fact-finding mission, and reported acquittals issued by the security courts. The detention and prosecution of people appear to have become somewhat less arbitrary, based less on personal disputes or complaints of fellow citizens.
Respect for Human Rights
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing
There were no reports of political killings, and no reports of deaths in detention. The Government denied that Lebanese citizen Dani Mansurati had died in detention in 1994, possibly as a result of beatings; it claimed that he had been tried, sentenced to death, and executed. The Government has not investigated the deaths of persons held in detention.
There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances during the year, although a United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) working group queried the Government on allegations of the earlier abductions of 11 people. The Government denied that any such abductions had occurred. There continued to be little information on the welfare and whereabouts of persons who have been held incommunicado for years or about whom no more is known other than the approximate date of their detention (see Section l.d.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Despite the existence of constitutional provisions and several Penal Code penalties for abusers, there was credible evidence that security forces continue to use torture. Former detainees and prisoners have reported that torture methods include electrical shocks; the forced insertion of objects into the rectum; beatings, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; and the use of a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or to fracture the spine. Although torture may occur in prisons, torture is most likely while detainees are being held at one of the myriad detention centers throughout the country run by the various security services, and particularly while the authorities are trying to exact a confession or information about the alleged crime or alleged accomplices. Several detainees told a Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation which visited during March to May that they had been tortured during their pre-1995) detention, by means of electrical shock, extension of the spine, beatings, suspension from a tire, etc. Some victims were able to identify the officials who beat them, including officers up to the level of brigadier general. In early 1995, a special rapporteur of the UNHRC cited 11 cases of alleged torture. In response to all the allegations, the Government generally denied the use of torture, and claimed that it would prosecute any of those believed guilty of using excessive force or physical abuse. By the end of the year, the Government was not known to have undertaken any prosecutions of security officials. The Government prosecuted some 40 local police officials in 1994, mostly for the use of excessive force during arrest or for causing wrongful deaths. The victims were criminals, not those accused of political or national security crimes. The Government did not prosecute any security official charged with enforcing the state of emergency; nor did the State Security Court initiate any investigation of torture allegations made in court. In such cases, the plaintiff is required to initiate his own suit against the alleged abuser in civil proceedings. Facilities housing political prisoners are worse than those for common criminals, even though conditions in the latter do not meet generally accepted health and sanitation standards. The prison at Tadmur in Palmyra, where many political prisoners are incarcerated, is widely considered to have the worst conditions. Some prison authorities allow visitation rights, but in other cases security officials demand bribes from family members wishing to visit incarcerated relatives. Overcrowding and substandard and insufficient food exist at several prisons. There is no independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Emergency Law, which authorizes the Government to conduct preventive arrests, overrides the Penal Code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. Syrian officials contend that the Emergency Law is applied only in narrowly defined cases. Nonetheless, in cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests are generally carried out in secret, and suspects may be detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and are denied the right to a judicial determination for the pretrial detention. Some of these practices are prohibited by the state of emergency, but the authorities are not held to these strictures The Government has continued the practice of detaining the relatives of detainees or of fugitives in order to obtain confessions or the fugitive's surrender. Defendants in civil and criminal trials have the right to bail hearings and the possible release from detention on their own recognizance. There is no bail option for those accused of national security offenses. Unlike the defendants in criminal and civil cases, detainees arrested for security offenses do not have access to lawyers prior to or during questioning. Detainees have no legal redress for false arrest. Security forces often do not provide detainees' families with information on their welfare or location of detention. Consequently, many people who have disappeared are believed to be in long-term detention without charge or explanation. The number of those who have disappeared in this way probably has probably declined in the past few years, although this may be due to the Government's success in deterring political activity rather than stricter procedures for detention. The Government brought to trial many detainees who have been held incommunicado for years. However, those trials have been unfair (see Section 1.e.). Pretrial detention may be lengthy even in cases not involving political or national security offenses. The justice system is backlogged. Many criminal suspects are held in pretrial detention for months, and may have their trials extended for additional months. The waiting period for trials, and the length of trials, are caused by the lack of adequate courts, a system of plea bargaining, and legal provisions for a speedy trial. The Government announced the establishment of a number of new civilian courts to help deal with the problem. The Government carried out at least two significant releases of political prisoners during the year. There were unconfirmed reports that the Government released 500 to 600 detainees in March and April, and the Government claimed to have released another 1,650 people in late November. It is not known under what conditions the releases took place. There was no public announcement, law, or decree authorizing them. Most of the released were apparently members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but others were from some banned Communist parties, as well as pro-Iraqi Ba'thists and Nasserites. Those who remain political prisoners represent all these groups as well as Kurds accused of either membership in the Kurdish Workers' Party or who advocated autonomy for Syrian Kurds. A presidential amnesty issued in December provided for the release of some 6,000 to 7,000 prisoners who had committed common crimes. Among those released under this amnesty were 500 to 700 persons convicted by the extraconstitutional Economic Security Court. Consistent with past practice, the Government did not announce the number of persons released, nor has it responded to requests from international human rights groups and foreign governments for their names. The Government has probably released most of the doctors, lawyers, and engineers arrested in a mass crackdown in 1980. Many Palestinians and Lebanese citizens have been detained without charge in both Lebanon and Syria, although most have subsequently been released. In January the Government released four former Ba'th party officials imprisoned since 1970. The Government has released virtually all of those arrested at the time President Asad took power in 1970. At least three persons arrested during that period remain in prison, even though the sentences of two of them expired in 1985. The third apparently was never tried. The Government has exiled citizens in the past, although the practice is prohibited by the Constitution. There were no known instances of involuntary exile in 1995.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the two exceptional courts that try national security and economic security cases are not independent of executive branch control. The regular court system displays independence, although political connections and bribery sometimes influence the verdicts. The judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts; the religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance; military courts; and the security courts. The Supreme Constitutional Court is empowered to rule only on the constitutionality of laws and decrees. It does not hear appeals. Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice. Defendants are entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents; defendants are presumed innocent and are allowed to present evidence and confront their accusers; and trials are public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Defendants may appeal their verdicts to a provincial appeals court and, ultimately, to the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court of appeal. However, such appeals are hampered because the courts do not provide verbatim transcripts of cases--only summaries prepared by the presiding judges. There are no juries. The military courts have the authority to try civilians as well as military personnel. The venue for a civilian defendant is decided by a military prosecutor. There were continuing reports that the Government operates military "field courts" which do not have established courtrooms. Such courts reportedly observe fewer formal procedures than the regular military courts. The two security courts are called the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which tries political and national security cases, and the Economic Security Court, which tries cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operate under the state of emergency, not ordinary law, and do not observe constitutional guarantees. Charges against defendants in the SSSC are often vague. Many defendants appear to be tried for exercising normal political rights, such as free speech. For example, the Emergency Law authorizes the prosecution of anyone "opposing the goals of the revolution" or "shaking the confidence of the masses in the aims of the revolution" or trying to "change the economic or social structure of the State." Nonetheless, the Government contends that the SSSC tries only persons who have sought to use violence against the State. Under SSSC procedures, defendants are not present during the preliminary, or investigative, phase of the trial, when evidence is presented by the prosecutor. Trials are usually closed to the public. Lawyers are not guaranteed adequate access to their clients, and are excluded from the court during their clients' initial interrogation by the prosecutor. Lawyers submit written defense pleas, rather than oral presentations. The State's case is often based on confessions, but defendants have not been allowed to argue that their confessions were coerced. There is no known instance in which the Court ordered a medical examination for a defendant who claimed that he was tortured. The SSSC has reportedly acquitted some defendants, but the Government does not provide any statistics on the conviction rate. Defendants do not have the right to appeal SSSC verdicts, but sentences are reviewed by the Minister of Interior, who may ratify, nullify, or alter sentences. The President may also intervene in the review process. Many--perhaps hundreds--of cases passed through the SSSC in 1995. Most involved charges related to membership in various banned political groups, including the Communist Party, the Party for Communist Action, and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'th party. Several Syrian Kurds were also put on trial. The Government permitted representatives from Human Rights Watch (HRW) to observe sessions of the SSSC during the group's visit to Syria from March to May. An HRW representative was allowed to speak with several defendants, some of whom complained that they had not been informed of the identities of their state-appointed lawyers, nor allowed to consult with them to prepare their defense. Some of the defendants denied any involvement with violence, claiming that they were on trial for expressing alternative political ideas. The Economic Security Court (ESC) tries persons for alleged violations of the foreign-exchange laws and other economic crimes. Like the SSSC, this Court does not guarantee defendants due process. The defendants may not have adequate access to lawyers to prepare their defenses, and the state's case is usually based on confessions. Verdicts are likely influenced by high-ranking government officials. Those convicted of the most serious economic crimes do not have the right of appeal, but those convicted of lesser crimes may appeal to the Court of Cassation. The Government denies that it detains political prisoners, arguing that, although the aims of some prisoners may be political, their activities, including subversion, were criminal. However, the Emergency Law and the Penal Code are so vague, and the Government's power so broad, that many convicts are in prison for expressing their opposition to the Government. The current population of political prisoners may range from several hundred to 2,000.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although laws provide for freedom from arbitrary interference, the Emergency Law authorizes the security services to enter homes and conduct searches with warrants if security matters--very broadly defined--are involved. The security services selectively monitor telephone conversations and facsimile transmissions and interfere with the mail. The Government opens mail destined for both citizens and foreign residents. It also prevents the delivery of human rights materials. There are fewer police checkpoints on roads and in cities and towns than in previous years. Generally, the security services set up such checkpoints to search for smuggled goods, weapons, narcotics, and subversive literature. The searches take place without warrants. The Government and the Ba'th Party have also tried to restrict some citizens from visiting cultural centers operated by foreign embassies.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The Constitution provides citizens with the right to express their opinions freely in speech and in writing, but the Government restricts these rights significantly. It permits no written criticism of the President or the legitimacy of the regime, and strictly controls the dissemination of information. The Emergency Law allows the Government broad discretion in determining illegal expression. It prohibits the publishing of "false information" opposed to "the goals of the revolution" (see Section 1.e.). In the past, the Government has imprisoned journalists for failing to observe press restrictions. There is no information on whether these journalists are still imprisoned, nor were there any known arrests of journalists during the year. The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censor the domestic and foreign press. They usually prevent publication or distribution of any material regarded as threatening or embarrassing to the Government. Censorship is usually stricter for materials written in Arabic. Commonly censored subjects include the following: the Government's human rights record; Islamic fundamentalism; allegations of official involvement in drug trafficking; aspects of the Government's role in Lebanon; graphic descriptions of sex; material unfavorable to the Arab cause in the Middle East conflict; and material that is offensive to any of Syria's religious groups, or is partial to sectarianism. The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censors fiction and nonfiction works, including films. It also determines which films may not be shown at the cultural centers operated by foreign embassies. Nonetheless, there appeared to be some relaxation in censorship during the year. The media was granted somewhat wider latitude in reporting on regional developments, including the peace process. The media covered some peace process events factually, but other events were reported selectively to buttress official views. Moreover, several newspapers published reports on government malfeasance and low-level, but not high-level, corruption. The Government also allowed the publication of a newspaper column which complained that citizens read only the Government's version of the news in government-owned newspapers. In August the Government did not interfere with the distribution of the French newspaper "Le Monde," which contained a critical report on the Government's human rights practices, and it allowed entry into the market of another foreign newspaper which had been banned in 1994 for publishing an article on Syria's role in Lebanon. The Government also permitted a public seminar on the judiciary, and several previously banned books were made available for purchase at the Government's annual international book fair. Moreover, there were reports that the Government ended its interference of some television broadcasts from neighboring countries, but there still appears to be some jamming. The Government or the Ba'th party owns and operates the radio and television companies and the newspaper publishing houses. There are no privately owned newspapers. The Ministry of Information censors the televised news programs to ensure that they follow the government line. The Government does not interfere with television and radio broadcasts from Israel. In late 1994, the Government announced that it would once again confiscate satellite receiving dishes and replace them with a government-controlled cable system. However, no dishes were confiscated. It appears that the Government has informally approved the private ownership of satellite dishes, which continue to proliferate. Public school teachers are not permitted to express ideas contrary to government policy, although authorities allow somewhat greater freedom of expression at the university level.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
This freedom does not exist. Citizens may not hold meetings unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior. Most public demonstrations are organized by the Government or the Ba'th Party. The Government applies the restrictions on public assembly in Palestinian refugee camps, where controlled demonstrations have been allowed. There is no law that permits the establishment of political parties. Private associations must be registered with the Government in order to be considered legal. Groups have not been able to register presumably because the Government viewed them as political, even though the groups considered themselves strictly cultural or professional. Unregistered groups may not hold meetings, and the authorities do not allow the establishment of independent political parties. The Government usually grants registration to groups not engaged in political or other activities deemed sensitive. In 1980 the Government dissolved, then reconstituted under its control, the executive boards of professional associations after some members staged a national strike and advocated an end to the state of emergency. The associations have not been independent since that time, and are generally led by members of the Ba'th Party, although "independents" are allowed on the executive boards.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government respects this right in practice. The only advantage given to a particular religion by the Constitution is that which requires the President to be a Muslim. All religions and sects must register with the Government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all meetings by religious groups, except for worship. Although no law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims, the Government discourages such activity. The few remaining Jews are generally barred from Government employment and do not have military service obligations. They are the only minority group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
The Government restricts travel near the Golan Heights and occasionally near Iraq. Travel to Israel is illegal. Citizens require government permission to travel abroad. Some have been denied such permission on political grounds, although government officials deny that the practice occurs. The authorities may prosecute any person found attempting to emigrate or travel abroad without official permission, or suspected of having visited Israel. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the Government persecuted upon their return to Syria those who applied for, but were denied, asylum abroad. Women over the age of 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives. In practice, either the husband or the wife may file a request with the Ministry of Interior to prohibit a spouse's departure from Syria. In addition, a father may request that the Ministry prohibit travel abroad by unmarried daughters, even if they are over 18 years of age. Palestinian refugees sometimes encounter difficulties in obtaining travel documents and re-entering Syria after traveling abroad. The Government restricts entry by Palestinians who are not resident in Syria. The Government does not allow the Palestinian residents of Gaza to visit Syria. The Government generally cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. Although it denied any forced repatriation of those who claimed refugee status, it apparently involuntarily repatriated some Iranians, Somalis, Libyans, and perhaps others.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and Members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. The President and his senior aides, particularly those responsible for security, ultimately make all the basic decisions on political and economic life. Moreover, the Constitution provides that the Ba'th Party is guaranteed a majority in all government and "popular" associations, such as workers' and women's groups. The Party dominates the parliament, or People's Council. Although parliamentarians may criticize policies and modify draft laws, the executive branch dominates the legislative process. The Government permits only those parties which are part of the Ba'th-dominated National Progressive Front. These parties hew closely to Ba'th Party and government policies. Persons who have been convicted by the State Security Court may be deprived of their political rights after they are released from prison. These restrictions include a prohibition on engaging in any type of political activity, the denial of a passport, and a bar on accepting a government job or some other forms of employment. The duration of such restrictions may last for 10 years or the remainder of the ex-prisoner's life. The Government contends that this practice is mandated by the Penal Code, and has been law since 1949. Women and minorities participate in the political system without restriction. There are 2 female cabinet ministers and 24 members of Parliament, or about 10 percent of that body, are women.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
The Government took the unprecedented step of allowing the international human rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), to conduct a fact-finding mission of some 45 days beginning in March. The HRW delegation met with several government ministers, and was allowed to travel around the country. It also met with the lawyers and families of detainees and prisoners, attended sessions at the Supreme State Security Court, and spoke with defendants, lawyers, and judges in ongoing trials. The Government did not grant the HRW delegation permission to visit prisons holding political and national security detainees. As a result of the delegation's visit, HRW published a report sharply critical of the procedures of the SSSC and the absence of legal outlets for political opposition. The Government contended that HRW's criticism was unwarranted and inaccurate, but later indicated its desire to continue a dialogue with the group. The Government does not allow the establishment of local human rights groups. One or two human rights groups once operated legally, but have been banned. The Government denies to international groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, that it commits human rights abuses. It does not permit representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons. The Government claims that it responds in writing to all inquiries from international human rights groups. However, Amnesty International reported in June that it had not received information on the status of some 1,000 prisoners, even though it made the request in October 1994. In instances in which foreign nationals are arrested, the authorities sometime delay or deny prison visits by embassy officials. The Government does not recognize dual nationality, and thus it does not always grant requests by foreign embassies to visit or assist detainees who have another nationality.
Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
The Constitution provides for equal rights and equal opportunity for all citizens. In practice, membership in the Ba'th Party or close familial relations with a prominent party member or government official can be important for prospering. Party or government connections can pave the way for entrance into better elementary and secondary schools, access to lucrative employment, and greater power within the Government, the military, and the security services. Certain prominent positions, such as that of provincial governor, are reserved solely for Ba'th Party members.
Violence against women is not common but exists, and appears to occur more in rural than in urban areas. There are no official statistics on the incidence of such violence. However, one preliminary study suggested that domestic violence is the largest single reason for divorces, and that such abuse is more prevalent among the less educated. Battered women have the legal right to seek redress in court, but few do so because of the social stigma attached to such action. The Syrian Women's Federation offers services to battered wives to remedy individual family problems. The Syrian Family Planning Association also seeks to deal with this problem. Some private groups, including the Association, organized a seminar on violence against women, which was reported by the government press. The Government has sought to overcome traditional discriminatory attitudes toward women. The Government encourages women's education and has expressed its intention to align its laws more closely with international conventions on equal opportunity for women. Still, the Government has yet to act on proposed changes to retirement and social security laws which discriminate against women. The divorce laws discriminate against women. For example, husbands may claim adultery as grounds for divorce, but wives face more difficulty in presenting the same argument. Inheritance is based on Shari'a, or Islamic law. Accordingly, women are granted a smaller share of inheritance than male heirs. On the other hand, Shari'a courts mandate child support from husbands in cases where the wife is awarded custody. Women are not impeded from owning or managing land or other real property. In addition to cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, women constitute 6 percent of judges, 10 percent of lawyers, 57 percent of teachers below university level, and 20 percent of university professors.
The law stresses the need to protect children, and the Government gave some publicity to the issue by organizing seminars on the subject of child welfare. Although there are cases of child abuse, there is no overall pattern of societal abuse. The law provides for severe penalties for those found guilty of the most serious abuses against children. There is no legal discrimination between boys and girls in school or in health care. The percentage of girls in the schools, about 40 percent of all girls, has risen steadily, but it has not yet reached parity with boys.
People with Disabilities
The law prohibits discrimination against the disabled and seeks to integrate them into the public sector work force. However, implementation is lax. Regulations reserving 2 percent of government and public sector jobs for the disabled are not rigorously implemented. The disabled do not have recourse to the courts regarding discrimination. There are no laws mandating access to public buildings for the disabled.
Although there is a significant amount of religious tolerance, religion or ethnic affiliation is occasionally a factor in determining career opportunities. For example, members of the President's religious sect, the Alawis, hold many high-level security and military positions. However, there is also a desire to avoid sectarianism.
Although the Government contends that there is no discrimination against the Syrian Kurdish population, it has placed limits on the use and teaching of the Kurdish language, Kurdish cultural expression and, at times, the celebration of Kurdish festivals. Some members of Syria's Kurdish community have been tried by the Supreme State Security Court for expressing support for greater Kurdish autonomy or independence. Although the Government stopped the practice of stripping Syrian Kurds of their Syrian nationality (some 120,000 lost their nationality under this program in the 1960's), it has never restored this nationality. As a result, the offspring of those who had lost their citizenship have been unable to obtain passports or identification cards.
Section 6 Worker Rights
a. The Right of Association
Although the Constitution provides for this right, workers are not free to establish unions independent of the Government's bureaucratic structure. All unions must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which is dominated by the Ba'th Party and is actually a part of the bureaucracy. The GFTU is an information transmission belt between political leaders and workers. The GFTU transmits instructions downward to the unions and workers, but also conveys information to leaders about worker conditions and needs. The GFTU provides the Government with opinions on legislation, organizes workers, and formulates rules for various member unions. The GFTU president is a senior member of the Ba'th Party. He and his deputy may attend Cabinet meetings on economic affairs. The GFTU controls nearly all aspects of union activity. The law does not prohibit strikes, but workers are inhibited from striking because of previous government crackdowns on strikers. In 1980 the security forces arrested many union and professional association officials who planned a national strike. Some of those remain in detention or have been tried by the State Security Court. The GFTU is affiliated with the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. In 1992 the U.S. Government suspended Syria's eligibility for tariff preferences under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences because the Government failed to take steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to Syrian workers.
b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively
This right does not exist in any meaningful sense. Government representatives are part of the bargaining process in the public sector. In state-owned companies, union representatives negotiate hours, wages, and conditions of employment with representatives of the employers and supervising ministry. Workers serve on the boards of directors of public enterprises. The law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, but any such agreement between labor and management must be ratified by the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, who effectively has the power of veto. The Committee of Experts of the International Labor Organization (ILO) has long noted the Government's resistance to abolishing the Minister's power over collective contracts. Unions have the right to litigate disputes over work contracts and other workers' interests with employers and may ask for binding arbitration. In practice, labor officials and management settle most disputes without resort to legal remedies or arbitration. Management has the right to request arbitration, but this is seldom exercised. Arbitration usually occurs when a worker initiates a dispute over wages or severance pay. Since the unions are absorbed into the Government's bureaucratic structure, they are protected by law from antiunion discrimination. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination. There are no unions in the seven free trade zones. Firms in the zones are exempt from the laws and regulations governing hiring and firing, although they must observe some provisions on health and safety, hours, and sick and annual leave.
c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
There is no law prohibiting forced or compulsory labor. There were no reports of forced or compulsory labor involving children or foreign or domestic workers. Forced labor has been imposed as a punishment for some convicts.
d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children
The minimum age for employment is 14 years in the public sector and 12 years in the private sector. In all cases, parental permission is required for children under the age of 16. The law prohibits children from working at night. However, all these laws apply only to children working for a salary. Those working in family businesses who are not technically paid a salary--a common phenomenon--do not fall under the law. Child labor is common, and the Government claims that the expansion of the private sector has led to more young children working. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing child labor laws, but does not have enough inspectors to ensure compliance with the laws. Rural enforcement of labor laws is also more lax than that in urban areas, where inspectors are concentrated.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The Minister of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing minimum wage levels in the public and private sectors. The minimum wage, which the Government had raised in 1994 (accompanying a cut in subsidies on basic food items), remained unchanged at $50 per month in the public sector and $44 per month in the private sector (550 and 484 Syrian pounds at the official rate, respectively). A committee of labor, management, and government representatives submits recommended changes in the minimum wage to the Minister. The minimum wage does not provide an adequate standard of living for a worker and family. As a result, many workers take additional jobs or are supported by their extended families. The statutory workweek is 6 days of 6 hours each, but in some cases a 9-hour workday is permitted. The laws mandate one 24-hour rest day per week. Rules and regulations severely limit the ability of an employer to dismiss employees without due cause. Even if a person is absent from work without notice for a long period, the employer must follow a lengthy procedure of trying to find the person and notify him, including through newspaper notices, before he is able to take any action against the employee. Dismissed employees have the right to appeal before a committee of representatives from the union, management, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the appropriate municipality. such committees usually find in favor of the employee. The law does not protect temporary workers who are not subject to regulations on minimum wages. Small private firms and businesses employ such workers to avoid the costs associated with hiring permanent employees. The law mandates safety in all sectors, and managers are expected to implement them fully. In practice, there is little enforcement without worker complaints, which occur infrequently despite government efforts to post notices on safety rights and regulations. Large companies, such as oil field contractors, also employ safety engineers. The ILO has noted that a provision in the Labor Code allowing employers to keep workers at the workplace for as many as 11 hours a day might lead to abuse. However, there have been no reports of such abuses. Officials from the Ministries of Health and Labor inspect work sites for compliance with health and safety standards. Such inspections appear to be haphazard, apart from those conducted in hotels and other facilities which cater to foreigners. Workers may lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases. Workers have the right to remove themselves from hazardous conditions without risking loss of employment.