GENEVA (6 February 2014) – A group of United Nations independent experts* on the human rights to food, health, housing, water and sanitation, and on summary executions and torture, today urged all parties to the Syrian conflict to stop the use of civilian suffering as a method of war.
“As reports are piling up of indiscriminate shelling of civilians, enforced disappearances and executions, another horror of the war in Syria is becoming apparent: the deprivation of basic necessities of life and the denial of humanitarian relief as a method of war,” they warned.
“Depriving people of their access to food and water, impeding their access to health services and wantonly destroying their housing constitute clear violations of the human rights to food, to water, to sanitation, to housing, to health, and to freedom from inhumane treatment, protected under international human rights treaties,” the experts said.
“The acts being committed amount to crimes against humanity, carried out as a deliberate and systematic effort to cause civilian suffering,” the rights experts stressed. “They also constitute war crimes and serious violations of customary international humanitarian law which binds all parties.”
The experts underscored that targeting medical units and medical personnel, making civilians the object of attack, subjecting them to inhumane treatment, obstructing humanitarian relief, attacking objects crucial for the survival of civilians, and using starvation as a method of warfare is explicitly banned.
The UN estimates that 9.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Some 6.5 million people live as internally displaced within the country, having fled their homes and left behind their sources of livelihood. More than 6 million are in critical need of sustained food assistance.
“Numerous cases show that government and pro-government forces as well as armed opposition groups are impeding humanitarian relief to populations facing extreme deprivation, including children, women, older persons, persons with disabilities, the chronically sick, and civilians and persons hors combat held in detention,” the group of experts said.
The situation is most critical for the quarter of a million people living in communities under siege, such as Nubul and Al-Zahraa in rural Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Darayya and Moadamiyah in rural Damascus, the Old City in Homs; and the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus.
The UN estimates that over 100,000 people trapped in and around Yarmouk Camp are now in severe risk of starvation. From other besieged areas, reports are emerging of chronic child malnutrition and health problems caused by a lack of access to vital nutrients and safe drinking water.
“Apart from obstructing humanitarian access through sieges and tight check-points, attacks have been carried out to destroy harvests, kill livestock, and cut off water supplies, with the apparent aim of starving out the targeted populations,” the experts noted. “At the same time, entire neighborhoods and residences are being razed, aggravating the dire housing situation, causing further displacement.”
“We also express alarm at consistent reports of deliberate destruction of hospitals and medical units, and of arrests, ill-treatment, torture and killings of doctors, nurses, medical volunteers and ambulance drivers.”
“These acts are morally abhorrent, and present a major obstacle to building peace,” they stated. “We are outraged by the extreme human suffering caused by the apparent blatant disregard for human rights and humanitarian law.”
“We urge all parties to the conflict to ensure immediate humanitarian relief to the large parts of the population experiencing extreme deprivation. The use of civilian suffering as a method of war must stop,” the group of experts concluded.
(*) The experts: The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover; the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Raquel Rolnik; the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns; the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez; and the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.
The United Nations human rights experts are part of what it is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.
They are charged by the Human Rights Council to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. In March 2014, three new mandates will be added. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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