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Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to the Human Rights Council

Geneva, 19 September 2016

M. le Président
Excellencies,

Today marks the 15th time that the Commission is before the Human Rights Council. The Syrian conflict is now into its sixth year. The Commission’s work just passed its own five year benchmark. Since the beginning, we have endeavoured to investigate violations by all sides to this conflict, gathering information by all means at our disposal.

Our ability to access information sources is as critical as ever. On one hand, we have recently received information shared by the Syrian Government with UN offices. This data is being considered within the framework of our investigations, including reports of ISIL crimes and mass graves found in Palmyra. We reiterate to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic that such information would best be shared with us directly, and that it could directly facilitate our investigations inside the country.

On the other hand, as Syrian refugees have increasingly fled outside the region, it has become more difficult to access victims and witnesses with fresh information. We are appealing to countries inside Europe hosting newly arrived Syrian refugees to grant us access and remove any barriers to our work. Time is of the essence, particularly if the Commission is to continue preparing well-documented reports on the current situation in the country, rather than reports of a historical nature.

Our appeals for access are directly reflective of the dire situation Syrian civilians have faced in recent months. Every day of war that passes is one more day of unimaginable suffering for Syrian men, women and children.

That said, this is a time in which there is a glimmer of hope created by the most recent cessation of hostilities brokered by the United States and the Russian Federation. This agreement has already resulted in a substantial reduction of violence and a drastic decrease of civilian casualties over the last week. If this fragile progress is to be sustained, the impediments of the past cannot be replicated going forward. This current reduction of violence must be accompanied by unimpeded, sustained and rapid humanitarian access to all those in need. The politicisation of humanitarian assistance by ANY party to the conflict must not be allowed. For, as we have witnessed time and again, roadblocks made of red tape are just effective as roadblocks made of weapons of war.

Indeed, a similar pact to reduce violence, reached last February, brought a respite from violations that faded all too quickly. Our latest report to this Council, launched on 6 September, documented how all parties returned to the battlefield and resorted to tactics that directly targeted and impacted on civilians. Violence was further exacerbated by the continuing multiplication of fronts and an ever-growing number of external powers involved in the war. That Syria is the battleground for the interests of so many actors leaves civilians the primary victims of rampant war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The resurgence of violence that followed the breakdown of the February cessation of hostilities agreement was marked by bombardments that all but erased what was left of the health-care infrastructure in some parts of the country. Since the beginning of the year, seventy-one (71) health facilities have been attacked. In Aleppo alone, twenty-five (25) hospitals and clinics were deliberately reduced to rubble, mostly by pro-Government forces’ airstrikes but also by anti-Government groups’ ground shelling. Critically needed medical staff and first responders were killed or fled for their lives, making it next to impossible to provide even the most basic medical assistance.

As if not dramatic enough, in early September the situation in Aleppo was worsened by the cut-off of the last of only two access roads to the city which effectively amounts to the besiegement of 275,000 civilians. With shortages of food and essential goods increasing, there are well-founded fears of yet another looming humanitarian crisis.

It is beyond unconscionable that sieges continue to be used as a tactic of war. Confined populations are bombed and starved until they surrender. These strategies show a blatant disrespect for the most basic humanitarian principles. Not only do they prevent freedom of movement of civilians, but also severely limit their right to access humanitarian aid.

How sieges are imposed and administered disregard international principles, which makes it all the more important how sieges are ended. In Darayya the civilian population was forcibly displaced by Government forces as part of an agreement to end the siege. Under no circumstances can this become a precedent.

The lifting of sieges must be carried out in accordance to minimum human rights and protection standards. Basic guarantees must be put in place to ensure the freedom of movement of residents and access to the most essential of services and desperately needed aid. A paramount consideration should be the right of residents to remain in their homes if they choose. They should not be forced to leave without any recourse to protection, humanitarian assistance or services that are the essence of these rights. Those choosing to leave, however, must have the right to return to their homes in safety, retaining the property rights and the livelihoods they left behind.

Designated terrorist groups operating in Syria continue to use brutality to subjugate civilians under their control. Throughout Idlib, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously named Jabhat al-Nusra) relies on the authority of makeshift courts whose procedures bear no resemblance to a fair trial. Prisoners under the control of the terrorist group are brutally tortured and denied medical treatment, while others die due to the torture they endure. Reports have been received that these local courts have been used to justify summary executions of detainees.

The so-called Islamic State continues to kidnap, torture and ruthlessly kill perceived enemies, including civilians and minorities. Sexual minorities in particular are routinely executed by being thrown from buildings as punishment for allegedly committing homosexual acts.

In June, infighting between Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman reportedly led to hundreds of civilian casualties in Douma in eastern Ghouta. Groups including Ahrar al-Sham continue to take civilians hostage for ransom or to effect prisoner exchanges. While being held, hostages are subjected to beatings and electric shocks.

Syrians have been persistently subjected to arbitrary arrest, abduction or disappearance. All parties must immediately and unconditionally release civilian prisoners arbitrarily detained, especially women, children, and the elderly. It is critically important to prevent these violations, including through the monitoring of places of detention by internationally recognised organisations. Such access is not a controversial proposition, but rather a long standing practice in conflicts for the last 100 years.

Syria’s people want to know where their relatives are being detained, how they are being treated and the circumstances under which they have died. They need to be able to file claims for missing or disappeared loved ones. This fundamental right to truth is critical to restoring any faith they may have, now or in future, in the international community, governmental structures or political processes meant to bring sustainable peace.

Wherever they are, children remain one of the groups most vulnerable to violations. Many die or are maimed when civilian inhabited areas are bombed and shelled. Teenage boys are recruited by belligerents to fight. Some parents reluctantly agree to let their sons go to battle in exchange for a salary that will help support the family. Others are arrested for alleged links to one warring party or another.

Many children venture to leave the country on their own. But instead of safety some find themselves being held abroad for weeks in unsanitary detention cells. As a matter of urgency, the accommodation of children in shelters with adequate living space and conditions must be prioritised.

All parties must respect the new cessation of hostilities. The agreement lays down the groundwork for all sides to abide by international law standards that protect the civilian population. This is the opportunity for all parties to show that they are genuinely committed to protect the people they claim they are fighting for. In parallel to a reduction of armed violence, they must adopt measures that prevent other violations. Only by doing this can the cessation of hostilities last and open the path for an all-inclusive process to end the conflict.

Thank you.