According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 12,751 people have been tortured to death by Bashar al-Assad’s regime since 2011. Photographs depicting the bodies of those tortured and killed by the regime were smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar”, an anonymous ex-military photographer who defected and fled the country, as he was unable to stomach being complicit in the regime’s crimes any longer. An exhibit of these pictures will be available for viewing at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York for ten days. According to Michele J Sison, the exhibit aims to remind UN staff that it is “imperative that we at the United Nations not look away” from the crimes committed by Assad’s regime.
In order to properly understand opposition to the exhibit, the crimes of Assad’s regime and its relationship with its victims must be contextualised. Assad took power in the year 2000; this was after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had acted as an authoritarian ruler in Syria during a 30-year presidency (from 1971-2000). Bashar al-Assad’s succession to the presidency at first elicited hope because, unlike his father, the younger Assad did not have a military background.
This hope turned out to be misplaced and 11 years after Bashar al-Assad took power, a group of teenagers were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti in a public place. This sparked protests that led to violent retaliation from the regime, retaliation that included but was not limited to the arbitrary detainment, torture and deaths of 12,751 Syrians since 2011.
The exhibit in question depicts 30 images chosen from a collection of 55,000 pictures of these 12,751 people.
The exhibition aims to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the Syrian government since 2011. But this situation is not as simple as “Assad has tortured 12,751 people since 2011, therefore UN staff must lend their gazes to the issue for the next ten days.”
Syrians have been suffering due to the human rights violations of the Assad family for a lot longer than four years, and reports of torture at the hands of Assad’s regime are not news. In fact, the pictures on display in New York have been available to UN officials since July 2014 and are being exhibited now in a bid to “commemorate 4 years of the conflict.”
This “conflict” is not a four-year one. The UN limiting its attention to the time between 2011-2014 does a disservice to the people of Syria who have been unfairly treated for a lot longer. The assumption behind displaying these pictures seems to be that simply the attention of those working at the UN is, in itself, an effective form of resistance against the regime.
This is yet another example of how a shock factor is necessary to draw attention to the suffering of “foreign” groups in a way that is not necessary for groups that are universally accepted as worthy of mourning. You’d be hard pressed to find a similar exhibit showing Western victims and, if you were to find one, it’d no doubt be met with outcry from the same people who are grimacing in detached awe at the pictures in this exhibit.
If the UN simply aims to draw attention to crimes of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, there are ways of doing so without making a spectacle out of the plight of his victims. They could share the works of Syrian writers that explore these themes, give attention to the narratives of those who have experience of what life is like under the regime, or show art that explores similar ideas. All of this would garner support for the people of Syria without including the undignified treatment of torture victims in this exhibit.
Written by Mahnoor Javed
Image taken from Creative Commons