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

United Nations Human Rights Council 

35th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva, 14 June 2017

M. le Président
Excellences,

This update marks the twentieth time that I have addressed this body concerning the unspeakable toll of violence being inflicted on the people of the Syrian Arab Republic. Thus, I have been reflecting upon six years of work that my colleagues on the Commission of Inquiry and I have done, and upon all the lost lives, hopes, and futures that our investigations have documented. Civilians, who take no part in the fighting, are in the unenviable role of being the target of most warring parties.

The de-escalation zones agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, the guarantors of the last round of the Astana talks, have resulted in a discernible reduction in levels of violence in the zones around Idlib and western Aleppo. Hostilities continue unabated in the zones around Homs, Damascus and southern Dara’a.

Sadly, the enduring violence in these areas has not changed in nature.

Violence continues to be directed against civilians, with complete disrespect for civilian protection and the laws and principles that form the basis of the Commission’s mandate. Whether it be the unrestrained use of airstrikes against residential neighbourhoods, attacks against doctors and hospitals, or the use of suicide bombers that deliberately target civilians, fighting remains brutal in purpose and reprehensible in method. To the detriment of the countless Syrians in desperate need of assistance, the de-escalation zones have yet to bring any tangible improvement in the delivery of humanitarian aid. In fact, in those areas more urgently in needs of humanitarian assistance, the United Nations has only been permitted one humanitarian delivery in 2017.

Outside of the de-escalation zones, the conflict continues to rage with disastrous consequences for civilians.

Over the past few months ISIL lost territory at a rapid pace in northern and central Syria. As we speak, an SDF assault backed by the international coalition on Raqqa city is underway to expel the terrorist group from its de facto capital. If successful, this offensive could liberate the city’s civilian population from the group’s oppressive clutches, including Yazidi women and girls, whom the group has kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide.

The imperative to fight terrorism must not, however, be undertaken at the expense of civilians who unwillingly find themselves living in areas where ISIL is present.

In areas controlled by extremist factions, we are gravely concerned with the mounting number of civilians who perish during airstrikes. For civilians to enjoy the protection to which they are entitled, warring parties must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and, in particular, the rules of distinction, proportionality, and precaution. We note in particular that the intensification of airstrikes, which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa, has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.

Being forced to abandon their homes for an uncertain future is a wretched experience shared by Syrians across the country. Since eastern Aleppo city was evacuated in December, Government forces and armed groups have entered similar agreements in nine other besieged areas, namely: Barzeh, Qaboun, Wadi Barada, al-Waer, Tishreen, Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya. As a result of these agreements, thousands of civilians have been internally displaced, most moving to Idlib and others to western and northern Aleppo.

Those displaced as a consequence of such agreements are particularly vulnerable to violence. It was in the context of the evacuation of Foua and Kefraya in mid-April that a terrorist bombing targeted evacuees in al-Rashidin, killing more than 100 displaced persons, including 68 children.

In Idlib, the presence of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, which unites the terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham with a number of other extremist factions, makes the areas in which civilians reside a frequent target of aerial bombardments by pro-Government forces. The 4 April chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun which killed 83 men, women, and children, and injured up to 293 more serves as a sombre example of the dangers that life in Idlib governorate poses.

The evacuation agreements themselves also raise concerns and in some cases amount to war crimes. Instead of mitigating the impact of the conflict on civilians, they appear primarily motivated by the strategic considerations of the warring parties that negotiate them and generally eschew the participation of civilians. These evacuations are preceded by years of intentional attacks on civilian infrastructure, denial of access to food and basic medical care, and the denial of fundamental human rights, seriously calling into question the nature of any choice civilians are given to remain or leave. There is no voluntariness nor choice when those who stay often face the risk of being either arbitrarily arrested or forcibly conscripted.

 In despair, civilians see no option but to leave.

For the more than 600,000 people who remain trapped in besieged areas, prolonged and deliberate denial of humanitarian aid continues to cause severe shortages of food and basic necessities. Over and over again we have been told of stunted children whose health will be affected for life due to malnutrition, of pregnant women miscarrying because they do not have enough food and lack access to adequate medical care.

In sieges imposed by pro-Government forces, the suffering of encircled populations is compounded by daily airstrikes that steadily destroy hospitals, markets, bakeries, schools and mosques. As casualties mount and critically needed infrastructure is decimated, civilian life is made impossible in a strategy intended to force surrender at the highest cost.

Ultimately, the only way to end civilian suffering is to end this war.

Time and time again, warring parties and influential States have failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by respites from hostilities. And time and again, Syrian men, women, and children pay the price for the continuation of the war.

Warring parties must not let yet another opportunity pass by. The parties must press to ensure that any de-escalation in hostilities is accompanied by renewed efforts to access communities in need, to strengthen the human rights protections for all people across Syria, and to generate meaningful momentum for peace.

To bring about a sustainable peace, to begin to heal the divides that have torn Syrian society apart, there must be meaningful accountability for the catalogue of horrors my colleagues and I have documented. Genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, blatant violations and abuses of human rights law and continuous, wilful violations of international humanitarian law – this lack of respect for international norms, and basic notions of humanity, must not continue to go unaddressed.

In this context, the unique power of this Council to pass resolutions and to hold special sessions where required to renounce categorically brutal violence cannot be overstated. The Council stands as the voice of conscience in the face of atrocities, reminding Member States with influence over the warring parties that only a durable political solution will bring an end to this conflict.

The establishment of de-escalation zones is a step in the right direction. They potentially help to support the conditions necessary for more comprehensive political discussions within the Geneva framework led by Special Envoy De Mistura. It is critical that the principles of the Geneva communiques and Security Council resolution 2254 are given the full support of Member States. An inclusive political settlement is the only long term hope to end this conflict and the suffering of Syrian civilians.

Thank you.