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Press briefing notes on Syria and Iraq

Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:  Rupert Colville
Location:     Geneva
Date: 16 Feburary 2016

1) Syria

At least four hospitals and a school were hit in airstrikes yesterday in Syria.

In Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib Governorate, two hospitals were attacked, including one supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). The MSF hospital was reportedly hit by four missiles, which allegedly killed nine people and injured 30 others. The National Hospital in Maarat al-Numan was also hit with three people reported killed and six injured.

A mother-and-child hospital in the town of Azaz, some 30 kilometres from Aleppo, was also struck yesterday, with 13 people killed and dozens injured. The facility, which is supported by the UN, had been previously struck on 25 December 2015.  A second hospital in the town, the General Hospital, was also struck with seven killed and 23 injured.  Both hospitals are well-known facilities.

Also in Azaz, a school that was sheltering internally displaced people (IDP), was hit in yesterday’s strikes, reportedly killing 14 people.

We are gravely concerned about these abhorrent and repeated attacks on medical facilities in the Syrian conflict. 

While it is not yet clear whether these facilities were intentionally targeted, the sheer number of incidents raises huge question marks about the failure of the parties to the conflict to respect the special protections afforded to medical facilities and personnel under international humanitarian law. 

Customary international humanitarian law affords special protection to hospitals, medical units and healthcare personnel, and Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 – which is binding on all parties to the conflict in Syria -- requires the wounded and sick be collected and cared for.

Depending on the circumstances, an airstrike on a hospital may constitute a war crime. Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals and places containing the sick and the wounded and against medical units using the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem is a war crime, in a non-international armed conflict.

Attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities in Syria began as far back as the beginning of 2012. A 13 September 2015 report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, entitled “Assault on medical care in Syria” listed an appalling litany of attacks on hospitals and medical units over the past four years as well as numerous examples of the sick and wounded being deliberately denied medical assistance, primarily by Government forces and pro-Government militias.

The report also cited what it termed “one of the most insidious trends of the armed violence in Syria” -- namely the targeting of healthcare personnel, with ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors and medical volunteers attacked, arrested, unlawfully detained, and disappeared.

The escalation of the conflict in and around Aleppo is of grave concern, with civilians continuing to suffer the consequences.  Air and ground strikes by different parties – including airstrikes conducted by Syrian and Russian planes, as well as ground operations by Syrian Government forces and their allies, and by armed opposition groups – have led to the destruction of essential civilian infrastructure such as medical facilities and bakeries, rendering life even more difficult for civilians in many towns and villages across the governorate.

As of yesterday, 58,000 IDPs were at the Syrian/Turkish border, many of them in camps, with the figures increasing daily.  Several villages in the northern rural part of the governorate are reported to be almost empty due to people fleeing over the last week. The population of Aleppo is in dire need of an immediate ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian assistance.  Without it, the tens of thousands of civilians remaining in towns and villages across the governorate will be left vulnerable to aerial attacks, mass killings, and destruction of the remaining infrastructure and will be deprived of badly-needed assistance. 

2) Iraq

We are increasingly concerned about 559 Sunni Arab Iraqis who have been stuck for some three months near Sinjar in no-man's-land between ISIL and Kurdish security forces.

Since we last raised concerns about this group last December, their humanitarian situation has further deteriorated. Since 4 February, they are no longer able to access food and drinking water. At least two children and two women allegedly died due to the cold weather. According to information we have received, the group has recently been shelled by ISIL on at least three occasions, on 9, 10 and 15 February. They have apparently been threatened by ISIL with further attacks unless they agree to relocate within ISIL controlled territory.
 
We once again urge the Kurdish Regional Government to act as quickly as possible to ensure the safety, protection and access to basic humanitarian assistance for this group of extremely vulnerable people.

If the Kurdish authorities have security concerns about this particular group, they should vet people on an individual basis in a safe location, in full transparency and in accordance with the law. If any wrongdoing is found to have taken place, those responsible should be charged and tried according to the law. Where it is found that an individual has not committed any crime and there are no legitimate security concerns which warrant his or her continued detention under the law, then he or she should be immediately released.

On a separate issue that affects the whole country, we understand that the review requested by President Fouad Masoum of over 600 cases of people who have been handed down death sentences has now been completed. We urge the Iraqi authorities to take this opportunity to institute an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. Given the significant weaknesses of the Iraqi judicial system and its heavy reliance on confessions extracted under torture, there is obviously a very serious risk that miscarriages of justice could occur. Implementing executions in such circumstances would risk Iraq being in breach of its international legal obligations.

We have also received disturbing information that Ministry of Justice has ceased to communicate information to the UN in relation to executions when they are implemented. We would remind the Government of Iraq that executions, and the implementation of any punishment by the State following sentences handed down by properly constituted courts, are a matter of public interest and should be implemented in a transparent manner with full public disclosure in conformity with due process obligations.

ENDS
For more information and media requests, please contact please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org)


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