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The conflict in Syria reaches a tipping point: violence at unimaginable levels

An estimated 9.3 million people in Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. More than four million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes and close to three million have left the country as refugees. In his latest update to the Human Rights Council, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, warned that the longer the conflict drags on, the greater the risk that the statistics mask the individual stories of “unimaginable suffering”.

“In documenting a mere fraction of these stories the Commission has uncovered large-scale violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pinheiro said at a news conference to discuss the Commission’s latest findings, which cover the period mid-March to mid-June 2014.

The Commission of Inquiry on Syria, established by the Human Rights Council, in August 2011, soon after the uprising began, has been investigating and documenting alleged violations of international human rights law by all parties to the conflict. In its regular reports back to the Council, the Commission has described multiple instances of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed by all sides and has consistently urged a negotiated political settlement between all of the parties involved.

More than three years on from the outbreak of fighting, Pinheiro said the conflict in Syria now threatens the entire region: “With warring parties in unrelenting pursuit of the illusion of a military victory, violence has escalated to an unprecedented level.” The situation is now at a “tipping point”, Pinheiro said.

The reason for the continued escalation in violence is no secret, the Chair told reporters, pointing to the abandonment of attempts to reach a negotiated political settlement to end the fighting and the continued supply of weapons, fighters, funds and other material assistance by a number of States and individuals either to the Government or non-State armed groups. “None of these States can claim ignorance that the weapons they transfer to the warring parties in Syria are used in the perpetration of war crimes and violations of human rights,” Pinheiro said.

“The international community, and specifically the Security Council, has yet to demand that the individuals perpetrating crimes against the men, women and children of Syria are held responsible,” the Commission says. In May, the Security Council vetoed a resolution which would have referred the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court.

“Through [its] inaction, a space has been created for the worst of humanity to express itself,” Pinhiero commented. 

The Commission’s update to the Council depicts a world for Syrians where “decisions about whether to go to the mosque for prayers, to go to the market for food and to send their children to school have become decisions about life and death.”

Both government forces and non-State armed groups are targeting civilians more often, according to the Commission, and increasingly children have been attacked.
The Commission describes assaults on functioning schools, including a government missile attack on a primary school in Aleppo which killed 36 people, 33 of them children. In Damascus, in April, in one of several such attacks, an armed group fired three mortars into a high school, killing ten children.

The Security Council, in its resolution 2139 on humanitarian access, demanded that restrictions on the flow of food, water and medicines should not be used to punish entire populations, but that resolution has been “egregiously violated”, the Commission said. 

The Government of Syria, by “effectively criminalizing medical care and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching those in need,” the Commission said, “has ensured that those who are wounded in attacks will not receive adequate treatment and likely die from their injuries.” Targeting of field hospitals and medical facilities is so commonplace, across the country, the Commission said, that staff do not mark their locations with a red cross or crescent for fear of inviting an attack.

Whilst also citing many instances where non-State armed groups have laid siege to towns and destroyed essential infrastructure, the Commission said the military strategy employed by the Government of terrorizing civilians, starving them, clearing them out of their local areas has been “catastrophic”.

According to this latest review, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in custody, particularly in detention centres in Damascus. Thousands of photographs of corpses given to the Commission indicate death by starvation and most “bear marks of horrific abuse – including strangulation, open wounds, burns and bruising.” A preliminary analysis by the Commission indicates the photographs were taken in Government military facilities. Non-State armed groups are also reported to be increasingly subjecting civilians to ill-treatment and torture. There are accounts of these groups taking civilian hostages, of public executions of their prisoners and targeting of journalists.

Warning that “a regional war in the Middle East draws ever closer”, Pinheiro said, “the international community has stumbled and fallen when it has come to seeking justice for and in our protection of the Syrian people.”

19 June 2014

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