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Op-Ed: Did Asma al-Assad violate national, international laws in her video call with an injured Syrian child?

Asma al-Assad’s publicized video call with an injured child exposed her and her parents to psychological and physical risks, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Syrian law protecting children from abuse.

15 March 2023

On March 11, a video was posted on the official Facebook page of the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic. It showed a video call between Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and a child who was transported to a hospital in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as part of a group of children receiving treatment there after they were injured by the February 6 earthquake that killed and injured tens of thousands of people in Turkey and Syria. 

The video was criticized by many Syrians, who expressed their displeasure and anger at what they described as the exploitation of a child for political purposes and gains. Reactions and comments on social media sites and in the media criticized Asma al-Assad for exploiting the Syrian family’s disaster and trying to take advantage of them politically. 

The father of the child, Sham—who spent around 40 hours trapped under rubble in the opposition-held Idlib countryside before Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) teams managed to rescue her—also faced criticism and insults. He was described as a “traitor,” among other words and threats. 

In response to the accusations, Sham’s father denied, in voice recordings attributed to him, knowing about Asma al-Assad’s call with his daughter, and said he was not present at the hospital during the filming. He only learned about the video once it was posted online, he said. 

If the recordings are of Sham’s father, and if his denial is true, it means he has the right to take legal action under local laws in the UAE and Syria against those involved in filming and publishing the video without his consent—the hospital, photographer, publisher (the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic Facebook page) and Asma al-Assad—to compensate for the damage caused to the girl and her parents. He may also have the right to claim protection for the child and parents through the right of asylum. 

Legal context

Three factors make up the best interest of the child in this case: decisions made by her parents, those made by hospital staff, and laws and legal cases. 

The UAE’s Federal Law No. 3 of 2016 on Child Rights provides for “protect[ing] the best interests of the child,” and holds that it is a child’s right to be protected from “all forms of neglect, exploitation and abuse, and from any physical and psychological violence.” Article 13 of the same law also prohibits exposing a child to “any arbitrary interference or illegal conduct in his/her life, family, home or correspondences.” 

Syria’s Child Rights Law No. 21 defines a child’s best interest as “adopting the most appropriate solutions for the child to protect him, his survival, development, upbringing, education and care in order to achieve what is most appropriate for him on a physical, psychological, social and economic level.” Article 14 of the law also states that “a child has the right to protection from all forms of violence, especially physical, mental, sexual or moral abuse and other forms of mistreatment, and has the right to protection from exploitation, neglect, negligence, homelessness, traffic hazards and dangerous practices. 

Article 31 of the same law prohibits “using the child in media, advertising and artistic materials in a way that violates his privacy or adversely affects his development.” 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) obliges party states, including Syria and the UAE, to “ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents.” Article 16 of the Convention stipulates that “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence.” 

Violations against children and parents’ rights

Although the negative reactions to the video were expected, Asma al-Assad—who performs many government functions—chose to expose Sham and her parents to psychological and physical risks, in violation of the UNCRC and Syrian law, which stipulates that children be protected from abuse. She also violated the rights of at least one of the parents, if the audio recordings of the girl’s father denying his knowledge of the video and the call are correct. 

Sham, who appeared in the video of the call with Asma al-Assad, and other children she contacted, were subjected to a range of abuses and violations under both international law and national laws in the UAE and Syria. These include reactions and comments on the video of Sham, which could cause psychological harm and affect the child’s physical treatment, including her being considered a “traitor’s daughter,” threats, insults and others. 

The general basis in international law and laws in the UAE and Syria related to the rights of children can be summarized as follows: 

Without the informed consent of one or both parents:

  • It is not permissible to force a child to communicate with a stranger. 
  • It is not permissible to film a child. 
  • It is not permissible to publish a video of a child. 

In addition, internal instructions in hospitals generally prohibit photographing patients. The Facebook Safety Resources for Parents also allow parents to remove photos or videos of their children from Facebook. 

If either or both parents do not provide informed consent, one or both of a child’s parents has the right to file a lawsuit against those involved, including the hospital, photographer, publisher (the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic page) and possibly Asma al-Assad. 

It was also clear that posting the video of the call would pose risks to the child and parents, including psychological risks. So whoever provided informed consent could be indirectly responsible for exposing child and parent to risks.

Thus, in the event one parent did not provide informed consent, that parent could have the right to take legal action against the other who did, related to guardianship to protect the child. You can also contact Facebook to remove the video from the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic page and YouTube, as well as any platforms or media sites showing the child. 

Currently, to protect Sham, the parents and hospital supervisors must avoid her seeing the reactions and comments on the video, at least while she is receiving treatment. They must ensure that these abuses and violations are not repeated. 

Syrian or international human rights centers can investigate this case, contact one or both of the girl’s parents and investigate whether it is possible to file a lawsuit, against whom and in which country. In principle, jurisdiction is determined by the nationalities of the victims, the individuals involved and the country in which the incident took place.

This article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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