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Syria

Executive Summary

President Bashar Assad has ruled the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000. The constitution mandates the primacy of Baath Party leaders in state institutions and society, and Assad and Baath party leaders dominate all three branches of government as an authoritarian regime. An uprising against the regime that began in 2011 continued throughout the year. The 2014 presidential election and the 2016 parliamentary elections resulted in the election of Assad and 200 People’s Council (Syrian parliament) seats for the Baath Party-led National Progressive Front, respectively. Both elections took place in an environment of widespread regime coercion, and many Syrians residing in opposition-held territory did not participate in the elections. Observers did not consider the elections free or fair.

The regime’s multiple security branches traditionally operated autonomously with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction. Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence reported to the Ministry of Defense, the Political Security Directorate reported to the Ministry of Interior, and the General Intelligence Directorate reported directly to the Office of the President. The Interior Ministry controlled the four separate divisions of police. Regime-affiliated militia, such as the National Defense Forces (NDF), integrated with other regime-affiliated forces and performed similar roles without defined jurisdiction. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the uniformed military, police, and state security forces but possessed limited influence over foreign and domestic military or paramilitary organizations operating in the country, including Russian armed forces, Iran-affiliated Lebanese Hizballah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and nonuniformed proregime militias, such as the NDF.

Regime and proregime forces launched major aerial and ground offensives in April to recapture areas of northwest Syria, killing thousands of civilians and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee. In December these forces launched another large-scale assault. The April assault, involving the use of heavy weapons and chemical weapons, and the December assault that involved heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure in the affected areas and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists. As of December the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported there were 6.2 million internally displaced Syrians, 2.5 million of whom were children, and more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by the regime, including those involving the continued use of chemical weapons, among them chlorine and other substances; forced disappearances; torture, including torture involving sexual violence; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, including denial of medical care; prisoners of conscience; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; a lack of independence of the judiciary; undue restrictions on free expression, including violence against journalists, restrictions on the press and access to the internet, censorship, and site blocking; substantial suppression of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; undue restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation; high-level and widespread corruption; unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by the regime and other armed actors; trafficking in persons; criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) status or conduct; violence and severe discrimination targeting LGBTI persons; and severe restrictions on workers’ rights.

The regime took no steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights violations or abuses. Impunity was pervasive and deeply embedded in the security and intelligence forces and elsewhere in the regime.

Regime-linked paramilitary groups reportedly engaged in frequent violations and abuses, including massacres, indiscriminate killings, kidnapping civilians, extreme physical abuse, including sexual violence, and detentions. Regime-affiliated militias, including Hizballah, repeatedly targeted civilians.

Russian forces were implicated in the deaths of civilians resulting from airstrikes characterized as indiscriminate and resulting in the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, particularly during support of the regime’s military campaign in northwest Syria. These airstrikes destroyed hospitals, shelters, markets, homes, and other integral civilian facilities, damaging medical supplies and equipment and shutting down vital health care networks, and followed a well-documented pattern of attacks with serious and deleterious humanitarian and civilian impacts.

In areas under the control of armed opposition groups, human rights abuses, including killings and extreme physical abuse, continued to occur due to the unstable security situation and continued to foster an environment in which human rights abuses were committed, including killings, extreme physical abuse, and detention.

Armed terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), committed a wide range of abuses, including massacres, unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings; unlawful detention; extreme physical abuse; and forced evacuations from homes based on sectarian identity. Despite the territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in March, ISIS continued to carry out unlawful killings, bombings, and kidnappings, attack members of religious minority groups, and subject women and girls to routine rape, forced marriages, and sex trafficking.

Elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and other minorities that included members of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), reportedly engaged in acts of corruption, unlawful restriction of the movement of persons, and arbitrary arrest of civilians, as well as attacks resulting in civilian casualties.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The regime restricted attempts to investigate alleged human rights violations, criminalized their publication, and refused to cooperate with any independent attempts to investigate alleged violations. The regime did not grant permission for the formation of any domestic human rights organizations. Nevertheless, hundreds of such groups operated illegally in the country.

The regime was highly suspicious of international human rights NGOs and did not allow them into the country. The regime normally responded to queries from human rights organizations and foreign embassies regarding specific cases by denying the facts of the case or by reporting that the case was still under investigation, the prisoner in question had violated national security laws, or, if the case was in criminal court, the executive branch could not interfere with the judiciary. Amnesty International (AI), for example, attempted with little success to engage regime authorities on human rights concerns, including torture and other mistreatment, enforced disappearances, and deaths in custody, through various means since 2011. The regime denied organizations access to locations where regime agents launched assaults on antigovernment protesters or allegedly held prisoners detained on political grounds. The United Nations reported that the regime also actively restricted the activities of humanitarian aid organizations, especially along supply routes and access points near opposition-controlled areas (see section 1.g.).

There were numerous reports the regime harassed domestic human rights activists by subjecting them to regular surveillance and travel bans, property seizure, detention, torture, forcible disappearance, and extrajudicial killings (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). In May, HRW reported on “Samir,” a human rights activist working with the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Swiss Department for Foreign Affairs in Daraa. He left Daraa in January after he found out he was wanted by the Criminal Intelligence branch for working with aid groups and receiving funding from foreign entities for his work in contravention of the Counterterrorism Law of 2012. A contact inside the Military Intelligence branch warned him that authorities intended to arrest him, prompting his immediate departure. A few days later, his family received an official summons from the regime.

Terrorist groups, including ISIS, violently attacked organizations and individuals seeking to investigate human rights abuses or advocating for improved practices. The SDF and other opposition groups occasionally imposed restrictions on human rights organizations or harassed individual activists, in some cases reportedly subjecting them to arbitrary arrest.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The regime continued to deny access for the COI, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to document and report on human rights violations and abuses in the country. It did not cooperate fully with numerous UN bodies, resulting in restrictions on access for humanitarian organizations, especially to opposition-controlled areas.

Yemen

Executive Summary

Yemen is a republic with a constitution that provides for a president, a parliament, and an independent judiciary. In 2012 the governing and opposition parties chose Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi as the sole consensus candidate for president. Two-thirds of the country’s eligible voters confirmed him as president, with a two-year mandate. In 2014 Houthi forces aligned with forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh occupied the capital, Sana’a, igniting a civil conflict between Houthi forces and the Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) that continued through the year.

The primary state security and intelligence-gathering entities, the Political Security Organization (PSO) and the National Security Bureau (NSB), came under Houthi control in 2014, although their structure and operations appeared to remain the same. The ROYG staffed the PSO and the NSB in areas under its control. By law the PSO and the NSB report first to the interior minister and then to the president; coordination efforts between the PSO and the NSB were unclear.

The Criminal Investigation Division reports to the Ministry of Interior and conducts most criminal investigations and arrests. The paramilitary Special Security Forces was under the authority of the interior minister, as was the counterterrorism unit. The Ministry of Defense supervised units to quell domestic unrest and to participate in internal armed conflicts. Civilian authorities did not maintain effective control over security forces. Houthis controlled most of the national security apparatus in sections of the north and some former state institutions. Competing tribal, party, and sectarian influences further reduced ROYG authority, exhibited in August when United Arab Emirates (UAE)-funded Security Belt Forces (SBF), many of which aligned with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC), took over Aden and several other southern territories.

In 2014 the Houthi uprising compelled the ROYG to sign a UN-brokered peace deal calling for a “unity government.” The ROYG resigned after Houthi forces, allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party, seized the presidential palace in 2015. Houthi forces then dissolved parliament, replacing it with the Supreme Revolutionary Committee. Hadi escaped house arrest and fled to Aden, where he declared all actions taken by Houthi forces in Sana’a unconstitutional, reaffirmed his position as president, pledged to uphold the principles of the 2014 National Dialogue Conference, and called on the international community to protect the country’s political process.

After Houthi forces launched an offensive in southern Yemen and entered Aden in 2015, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition, Operation “Decisive Storm,” on behalf of the ROYG. Peace talks in Kuwait in 2016 between the Houthis and ROYG ended inconclusively. In 2017 Houthi forces killed Saleh after he publicly split from the Houthis and welcomed cooperation with the coalition. In December 2018 direct talks between the ROYG and Houthis under UN supervision in Sweden led to agreements on a ceasefire in and around the city and port of Hudaydah, as well as on prisoner exchanges and addressing the humanitarian situation in Taiz. These agreements were not effectively implemented; hostilities–including Houthi drone strikes and coalition airstrikes–continued throughout the year.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including political assassinations; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary infringements on privacy rights; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with freedom of assembly and association; the inability of citizens to choose their government through free and fair elections; pervasive corruption; recruitment and use of child soldiers; pervasive abuse of migrants; and criminalization of consensual same sex sexual conduct between adults.

Impunity for security officials remained a problem, in part because the government exercised limited authority and in part due to the lack of effective mechanisms to investigate and prosecute abuse and corruption. The ROYG took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but had limited capacity due to the ongoing civil war. Houthi control over government institutions in the north severely reduced the ROYG’s capacity to conduct investigations.

Nonstate actors, including the Houthis, tribal militias, militant secessionist elements, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and a local branch of ISIS committed significant abuses with impunity. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Nonstate actors, including the Houthis, subjected domestic human rights NGOs to significant harassment during the year (see also section 2.b.). In August 2018 the Houthis detained Kamal al-Shawish, a cofounder of NGO Mwatana, and released him in September 2018. Mwatana regularly criticizes human rights conditions in the country.

International human rights organizations stated their personnel were unable to obtain coalition permission to use UN flights into and out of Sana’a since 2017. Independent observers must take commercial flights to government-controlled areas in the south and then travel by land across dangerous front lines to other areas.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: On October 1, media reports stated Houthi rebels denied entry to OHCHR representative Ahmed Elobeid. When Elobeid landed in Sana’a, Houthi security officers boarded his plane, took away his travel permit, and ordered his plane to leave. Prior to this incident, OHCHR had published a critical report detailing abuses by all parties in the civil war, including sexual violence against women in Houthi-run prisons.

Government Human Rights Bodies: In 2015 Presidential Decree Number 13 established the NCIAVHR as an independent group responsible for investigating all alleged human rights violations since 2011. The commission consists of a chair and eight members with legal, judicial, or human rights backgrounds. The NCIAVHR continued to investigate and report on human rights conditions during the year and conducted training with the United Nations.

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