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Corporate Responsibility and Accountability for Syria

Abu Dhabi Judicial Department

When discussing accountability options for Syria, the international community has generally focused on criminal prosecutions in international courts or courts of Western countries. Certainly, these jurisdictions are vocal about their hopes for accountability, and the recent conviction of a former Free Syrian Army fighter in Sweden has demonstrated that some are serious about pursuing prosecutions. However, there are alternative forums for prosecuting violators of human rights in the Syrian conflict. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has been quietly moving forward with a prosecution against a man who allegedly facilitated business transactions to send “military-grade equipment” to Syria, in violation of UAE regulations.

Although public details about the transaction remain scarce, it is known that the defendant intended the equipment to go to a Syrian government-controlled research center. The defendant first attempted to ship the equipment from the United States, but UAE authorities caught him and issued a warning. This did not stop the defendant from making the shipment, this time from China. To evade detection, the defendant forged official UAE stamps and documents, a crime to which he has already confessed.

Business transactions that aid repressive regimes have been punished in the past — as with the case of Dutch Businessman Frans van Anraat, who was convicted of selling materials used in the production of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein — but are notoriously difficult to prove. Right now in France, there is a criminal investigation of French software company Qosmos SA for its alleged complicity in human rights abuses because its surveillance equipment was used by the Syrian government. The complaint filed by the Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) alleges that the equipment allowed Syrian officials to monitor, arrest, and subsequently torture Syrian activists. FIDH filed the complaint in 2012, but the criminal investigation was not opened until April 2014. If the investigation leads to a trial, the prosecutor will need to prove that Qosmos had knowledge that the equipment would be used for repressive purposes by the Syrian government, which will likely be difficult.

In response to the growing concern over whether business practices demonstrate a basic respect for human rights, the United Nations endorsed the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP) in 2011. Although these principles are non-binding, they set a standard that prevents businesses from hiding behind plausible deniability when their technologies end up in the hands of repressive governments. However, this discourse has a long way to go before the UNGP will be an effective deterrent against companies likes Qosmos.

Governments are also trying to sort out how to enforce corporate responsibility. One solution has been export controls on dual-use materials which have both civilian and military purposes. In many countries, trade regulations are in place for reasons that may not be related to human rights, but they can potentially be used for human rights enforcement purposes and are also a valuable monitoring tool. The defendant in the UAE case, for example, was caught by authorities after forging documents in an attempt to bypass export controls. Such mechanisms — if expanded to include surveillance technology and enforced multilaterally — could help prevent repressive governments from committing abuses by restricting their access to the tools they use to repress while increasing accountability of corporations that indirectly aid in the repression.

If Syrians were able to gain more access to information about the proceedings, it could help contribute to a sense of accountability and increase understanding of the role of trade regulations with respect to the Syrian conflict. Other countries can also follow the UAE’s lead by supporting criminal prosecutions within their own jurisdictions, provided they implement due process protections to ensure credibility and fairness. Similarly, governments can increase their scrutiny of dual-use exports to deter their local companies from doing business with repressive regimes. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) supports a broadened view of accountability to encompass a greater number of jurisdictions and a variety of mechanisms to deter abuses. Despite the prolonged nature of the conflict, these steps can be taken now to support justice and accountability in Syria.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected]. Stay tuned for SJAC’s upcoming collaborative report conducted with Mark Lattimer of the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights exploring the feasibility and impacts of a variety of international and hybrid accountability mechanisms for Syria.