Dutch gov't aware of abuses by Syrian rebels given support: report

A destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, 1 Aug 2017
A destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, 1 Aug 2017Photo: Mahmoud Bali / Wikimedia Commons

The Netherlands was well aware of human rights violations committed by Syrian rebel movement Jabhat al-Shamiya when the country started offering them logistical support, Nieuwsuur and Trouw report based on emails sent between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and human rights organization Amnesty International in the summer of 2016. Despite this knowledge, the Dutch government decided to send Jabhat al-Shamiya logistical supplies in 2017.

Amnesty International released a report, titled 'Torture was my punishment', on July 5th, 2016. In it Amnesty describes crimes committed by five armed opposition groups in northern Syria between 2012 and 2016. One of the groups is Jabhat al-Shamiya. According to Amnesty, this group performed executions, abducted civilians and ran 'Sharia courts', where you got the death penalty if you wanted to leave.

According to the emails sent between Amnesty and Foreign Affairs, this report was repeatedly brought to the attention of the Ministry. The contents of the report, including the name Jabhat al-Shamiya and the crimes Amnesty believes they committed, were known tot he Ministry. On August 9th, 2016 Amnesty spoke with Syria envoy Gerard Steeghs and his staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During that conversation, Amnesty handed out several printed copies of the report. Later that day, Amnesty also emailed the digital version of the report to Steeghs' employees. 

Amnesty also asked then Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders to use his influence to encourage countries that supported the groups in the report, to halt that support immediately. In doing so the human rights organization specifically mentioned logistical support. A year later, the Dutch government started providing Jabhat al-Shamiya with logistical support, including giving them pickup trucks and uniforms.

The fact that the Dutch government was aware of Amnesty's report is also apparent from a committee meeting between parliamentarians and Koenders on July 7th, 2016, according to the news agencies. PvdA parliamentarian Angelien Eijsink then asked Koenders to respond to the report. Koenders called it "terrible" and said that Amnesty rightly drew attention to the human rights violation. "You can always say it is not good, but human rights violations are human rights violations", the Minister said.

Diana Semaan, the Amnesty researcher who drew up the report, is shocked that the Netherlands gave Jabhat al-Shamiya logistical support. "That the Dutch government supported this group, despite the abundance of information about how the group violated international humanitarian law, is shocking to say the least", she said to Nieuwsuur and Trouw. 

Syrian envoy Gerard Steeghs did not respond to the news agencies' questions about this matter

The Netherlands supported 22 armed groups in Syria between May 2015 and March 2018. The government did so without consulting its External Public Law Adviser, a post created specifically to give advice on providing aid in other countries. The government promised the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, that it would only support 'moderate' groups that comply with international humanitarian law and do not cooperate with extremists. If there is any sign of human rights violations or 'other undesirable behavior', the Dutch support would be 'stopped immediately', was the guarantee the government gave the parliamentarians, according to Nieuwsuur and Trouw.