Global Leadership Awards
Razan Zaitouneh became a lawyer to defend the ideals she valued most — justice, freedom and truth. She began representing political prisoners, and soon became an activist. At 27, she created Syria’s first human rights information bank, where she documented violations and made information available to the world outside.
When violent suppression followed pro-democracy demonstrations in March 2011, she was determined to stay in Syria and record the truth.
Razan was a moderate voice; she never joined a political party. She advocated for democratic reform and non-violent civil resistance. She relied on facts and believed that citizenship comes with responsibility.
In describing the uprisings, Razan said that thousands of people took to streets everywhere “to protest peacefully, to champion freedom peacefully, to say that they want to believe in freedom and dignity.”
As violence intensified, Razan persisted. She recorded the abduction, arrest, torture and murder of peaceful protestors. One month into the war, she co-founded a broad coalition of fellow human rights advocates to exchange information and broadcast eyewitness accounts; they set up a newsroom on Skype and posted videos to YouTube. The coalition, known as Local Coordination Committees, had a presence online and offline: they organized demonstrations, and used cell phones and cameras to document events in real time.
The work was done in secret. Along with many fellow activists, Razan went into hiding, moving from place to place to evade government forces. War was escalating, and tactics became extreme: barrel bombs, mortar shells, and chemical weapons became tools of war.
In testimonials online, Razan described the daily violence and Syrians’ persistence despite the aggression targeting them. She was committed and proud, “I’m very happy that I’m inside my country in these historical moments. And that I will witness the moment of freedom when it comes.”
Razan resolved to keep detailed records of human rights abuses and war crimes and co-founded the Violations Documentation Center. She compiled lists of detainees and the disappeared, and published both. She did not hesitate to expose the truth, however brutal. Razan was officially denounced by the Assad regime in 2011.
In testimonials posted online, Razan described not only the horror of conflict, but the slow destruction of being under siege; extreme hunger, a lack of medical services, and the breakdown of industry and opportunity. Razan was focused on nonviolent solutions and the future she imagined for all Syrians. In a suburb of Damascus, she opened two centers to offer women a safe space to gather in solidarity, support one another, and learn new skills that enable them to provide for their families; in just three months, more than 300 women joined the centers.
Razan defended the value of every life, she believed that no one should be forgotten. On December 9, 2013, along with her husband and two civil activists, Razan was abducted. There has been no sign of her since.
With Razan removed, silenced, a moderate voice is missing. The war in Syria continues. The UN believes that as many as 9.3 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, convoys carrying medical aid and food are being blocked. Millions are refugees, millions more displaced.
Razan risked her safety for her ideals. She was determined that history would reflect the truth. While we join her family, fellow activists, and the global community in asking for Razan’s safe release, we honor her courage and integrity. She will not be forgotten.