GENEVA (27 July 2012) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Friday expressed deep alarm at the increased threat to civilians in Syria as the conflict and violence escalates across many towns and villages, as well as the country's two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo.
Pillay urged the Government and the armed opposition to protect civilians and abide by their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, or face the consequences.
"The Government has the prime responsibility to protect civilians from all forms of violence," she said. "While Government forces have on some occasions, in accordance with international humanitarian law, given civilians a clear opportunity to leave areas it is attacking, on other occasions it has not. Effective warning is required by international humanitarian law."
“Civilians and civilian objects – including homes and other property, businesses, schools and places of worship – must be protected at all times. All parties, including the Government and opposition forces, must ensure that they distinguish between civilian and military targets,” Pillay said.
The UN human rights chief expressed particular concern about the likelihood of an imminent major confrontation in Syria's second city Aleppo.
"I have been receiving as yet unconfirmed reports of atrocities, including extra-judicial killings and shooting of civilians by snipers, that took place during the recent fighting in various suburbs of Damascus," she said, "and it goes without saying that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and -- reportedly -- even jet fighters in urban areas has already caused many civilian casualties and is putting many more at grave risk.”
“All this, taken along with the reported build-up of forces in and around Aleppo, bodes ill for the people of that city,” Pillay said. “Such attacks are also continuing in other major towns such as Homs and Deir-ez-Zur. Already the consequences for civilians have been devastating, with many thousands killed and injured and between 1 and 1.5 million now reported to have fled their homes."
The High Commissioner said "a discernible pattern has emerged" as Government forces try to clear areas it says are occupied by opposition forces.
"Typically, during the initial stages, after a village or urban district has been surrounded, water, electricity and food supplies are cut. This is followed by intense shelling and bombardment by a variety of weaponry, increasingly with air support from attack helicopters, and now reportedly even jet aircraft. Then tanks move in, followed by ground forces who proceed door-to-door and reportedly often summarily execute people they suspect of being opposition fighters, although sometimes they detain them," she said. "The bodies of those executed or otherwise killed are then sometimes burned or taken away.”
Pillay said she had had also been receiving an increasing number of reports of opposition fighters torturing or executing prisoners.
“Murder and wilful killing, whether committed by government or opposition forces, may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes. Torture, likewise, is prohibited under all circumstances," she said.
“While such conclusions can only ultimately be reached in a court of law, it is my belief, on the basis of evidence gathered from various credible sources, that crimes against humanity and war crimes have been, and continue to be, committed in Syria," the High Commissioner said.
"Those who are committing them should not believe that they will escape justice. The world does not forget or forgive crimes like these," she added. “This applies to opposition forces committing crimes as well as to Government forces and their allies.”
The High Commissioner said she was also concerned by reports of killings of unarmed prisoners and use of excessive force by authorities reacting to recent unrest in two prisons in Aleppo and Homs. "The rules governing the treatment of inmates in prisons do not change in times of conflict," Pillay said. "There are internationally agreed minimum standards that must be adhered to. It is vital that the authorities permit access to independent observers, both to find out what exactly happened during last weekend's prison uprisings and to deter any further use of excessive force or other illegal means of dealing with prison unrest."
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