Syria Project: Gaziantep – Day 2

Originally published by Bill Fortier on CTV News Edmonton.

Nasaem Radio Syria

You learn four hundred new things every day. If that’s not quite how the saying goes, please forgive me. That’s my reality this week.

This is the experience of a western journalist in Gaziantep, Turkey.

My role here is a leadership one. I am teaching skills to help train Syrian journalists who have fled their country’s brutal civil war. The goal is to empower them to cover the human rights abuses in Syria effectively and responsibly.

Today especially, I felt that what I had to offer was making an impact. But I can’t imagine I could be teaching as much as I am learning.

I am here with Zein Almoghraby, Senior Programs Manager for Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian NGO. We are joined by Tammam Hazem, the representative for JHR in Turkey. Both of them are from Syria. Zein is from Damascus and Tammam is from Aleppo. Zein lives in Toronto now, and goes by his real name. Tammam, like many Syrian journalists still in the region, does not.

Today, we continued our training with the journalists at Nasaem Radio Syria. A big topic was the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted by the UN in 1948, following the Second World War. In simple terms it was the result of the world coming together, agreeing that the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime should never happen again. Ever.

If you aren’t familiar, give it a read before you go any further.

Pretty cool, right? Great idea. Try showing it to a group of people who have been robbed of most, if not all of those “rights.” Understandably, they have trouble seeing the purpose of the document. I believe the English translation from one comment in Arabic was “what value does this have if it’s not enforced?”

As I have mentioned, these journalists are smart. Their immediate concerns with the declaration are the same ones that have dogged the international community since its adoption. What good is a great idea that nearly everyone agrees to, with no mechanism to enforce the ideals it contains?

It’s not an easy question to answer. There have been multiple attempts to add teeth to the idea of international human rights, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993, and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principles adopted by the UN in 2005 (a Canadian initiative, in case you were wondering).

Ultimately, these noble efforts don’t amount to much, when you’re from Syria. Human rights violations are rampant, according to multiple credible sources including the UN and Amnesty International. There has been humanitarian aid, and in some instances, international military intervention, but the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains firmly planted in power in Damascus, and the allegations of human rights abuses continue to pour in.

We also met with the Syrian Journalists Press Club today. They had some interesting numbers, compiled through numerous sources. They say there are currently 175 Syrian journalists living in Gaziantep, where we are. That’s a big portion of the estimated 400 across Turkey. So we came to the right spot. They also say that since the conflict began, nearly 400 journalists have been killed, the majority of them, according to the Press Club, at the hands of the Assad Regime. Many more have been arrested. Their exact numbers and current conditions are not known.

One of the biggest concerns of the Press Club, and the younger staff members of Nasaem Radio Syria, is that the world of western journalism is losing interest in Syria, as one of the biggest human rights catastrophes of our generation rages on. On that one, I don’t have an answer that satisfies them or myself.

As a journalist who endeavors not to take sides, it’s hard not to agree with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Its contents are hardly controversial. It’s what most people, Canadians at least, would call a “no brainer.”

What I learned today, is that the nearly 70-year-old document has a value I had never seen to this point. It can launch a conversation about human rights that lasts for hours, and can lead to people from opposite sides of the world agreeing on a basic concept: those rights aren’t really “rights” without some form of assurance and protection.  If seven people in a small room in Gaziantep, Turkey can agree on that simple idea, maybe other can too. Maybe it’s a matter of time (months? years? decades?) before the political will exists in the international community to create change.

Or maybe that will never happen.

Maybe we won’t find the answer in our lifetimes. Or maybe I will learn the answer tomorrow, along with three hundred ninety-nine other things, in Gaziantep. I’ll let you know.

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