Rachel Farber '16 Assistant News Editor
Smith held a panel discussion called “Accounting for Torture in Syria: The ‘Caesar’ Photographs” on Feb. 11 to open the two-week exhibition of the “Caesar” photographs, which document victims of torture by the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad between 2011 and 2013 in Damascus. The photos are available for viewing in Nolan Art Lounge.
The panel included students, faculty, staff and members of the Northampton community. It was moderated by the Steven Heydemann, chair of Middle East studies, and panelists included Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syria Emergency Task Force and Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
“More than 250,000 people have already died in this conflict,” Heydemann said in a press release about the event. “And more than 11 million have fled their homes. This panel – and the exhibition of the extraordinary ‘Caesar’ photos – are designed not only to focus necessary attention on the conflict but also to inspire action.”
The Syrian defector, whose codename is Caesar, worked as a forensic photographer for the Military Police and personally photographed and collected images of the bodies of dead detainees in two military hospitals in Damascus between 2011 and 2013. Caesar was able to smuggle more than 50,000 images out of Syria on discs and thumb drives in 2013. Over 28,000 images that Caesar took were of people believed to have died in detention facilities, corresponding to at least 6,786 separate individuals and catalogued online for family members to look through.
The panel focused on accountability for the atrocities documented in the Caesar photographs and the role of the United States to intervene.
“I don’t personally think I thought I would be seeing this in my lifetime, something that happens under my watch, under the watch of my government and other governments,” said Whitson. “And here we are in 2016.”
Ford said that these photographs were put on exhibition at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, hung in the halls of the Capitol Building and shown to the United Nations in April 2014. Caesar even spoke in the White House about the photos.
“[Caesar] really believed … that if you’re showing that we’re living through another ‘never again’ moment today … that something would actually happen … Unfortunately, we saw a whole lot of outrage but zero action,” Moustafa said. “Nobody cared about this evidence.”
In a private press conference, Ford explained his frustration with the media’s role in focusing on the Islamic State rather than the Assad regime and detention facilities.
Ford recalled a meeting with Assad during his time as ambassador, five weeks before the Syrian uprising. Ford explained that when the topic turned to detention and torture, Assad said that after Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. government was the last place he would take human rights advice from and refused to talk about the issue.
At the panel, Ford asked, “We’re Americans. When we see evil, do we just look at it and sit on our hands, or do we do something?”
Ford and Whitson also discussed what they view as the problems of the UN peace talks, which aimed at ending the Syrian civil war – they were suspended on Feb. 3 when the Syrian opposition delegation left the negotiations.
Ford explained that the Syrian opposition delegation walked away from peace talks because the Russian and Syrian governments, with the cooperation of the U.S. government, refused to allow arbitrarily detained people in Syria to be released, refused to allow detention centers to be inspected and refused to stop aerial bombardments on civilians, although all parties had signed onto these accords in a UN Security Council Resolution.
Ford continued to explain that according to a report released last week by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Syrian government’s activities “amount to a policy of extermination.”
Whitson expressed her frustration that only certain opposition groups to the Assad regime had been present at UN peace talks, excluding members of ISIS.
Whitson asked the audience to “look at the atrocities we’ve seen today and explain to me why one group is included and another is excluded,” referring to that fact that the Assad regime killed seven times the amount of Syrian civilians than ISIS did in 2015.
“[T]here are hundreds of thousands of people that remain in Assad jails today that will face the same fate if we don’t do anything about it,” Moustafa said. “Unfortunately, we continue to do nothing.”