21 October 2016
Distinguished Vice-Presidents of the Council,
Distinguished Chair of the International Commission of Inquiry,
Once again, this Council has been called to discuss the disgraceful human rights crisis in Syria. The violations and abuses suffered by people across the country, including the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo, are not simply tragedies; they also constitute crimes of historic proportions.
Well over 300,000 Syrians have been killed, and countless others wounded and traumatised in the course of this civil war – now also a proxy conflict, fuelled by cynical regional and international interests. Tens of thousands of people have been abducted, summarily executed or arbitrarily detained and tortured. Broken, uprooted and displaced families now number well over half the Syrian population. Hospitals, schools, marketplaces, water facilities and neighbourhood bakeries have been deliberately and repeatedly attacked. Millions are routinely denied life-saving aid. And the attack last month on a humanitarian aid convoy took these pervasive violations of international law to a new low of barbarity.
The ancient city of Aleppo, a place of millennial civility and beauty, is today a slaughterhouse – a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed. As we speak, hundreds of thousands of people are trapped in 17 other besieged locations, and face life-threatening shortages of food, medicine, and basic supplies. In Deir ez-Zour, Hama, Rural Damascus and many other locations, civilians are suffering acutely in the context of ongoing fighting.
The collective failure of the international community to protect civilians and halt this bloodshed should haunt every one of us. Not only does it violate every norm of human rights, to our dishonour; its costs will be borne by our children, and future generations. Forces unleashed by the Syrian conflict have metastasised extremism across the region and beyond. Terrorist attacks linked to the crisis have struck around the world.
My staff and the staff of the Commission have documented violations of international humanitarian law by all parties in Aleppo. Armed opposition groups continue to fire mortars and other projectiles into civilian neighbourhoods of western Aleppo, but indiscriminate airstrikes across the eastern part of the city by Government forces and their allies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of civilian casualties.
These violations constitute war crimes. And if knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against civilians, they constitute crimes against humanity.
Responsibility for halting the Syrian crisis rests primarily with the Security Council, but not exclusively, so the General Assembly may also have a role.
In the course of today’s deliberations, I urge members of the Human Rights Council to cast aside political disagreements and focus exclusively on the women, men and children whose suffering cries out for our help. No hypothetical advantage in global gamesmanship could possibly outweigh this pain and horror. All of us owe it to the people of Aleppo to find a way to achieve consensus on principled action. I urge you to call on the Security Council to set aside rivalries and act as one, in accordance with international security and peace. Influence must be used to advance a political solution to the conflict. Flows of arms and equipment to the parties to the conflict must cease. And the situation should be urgently referred to the International Criminal Court. Every party to this conflict must know that they will be held accountable for the international crimes they commit – all, without selective protection or discrimination.
In Aleppo, there must be an immediate, prolonged and all-encompassing ceasefire to enable the passage of humanitarian relief to all in need – impartially and unconditionally. All parties must provide assistance and free passage for all civilians wishing to flee, without any form of reprisal – including passage across international borders. It should also be clear that they retain the right to return to their city – and that civilians who choose to remain in Aleppo must also be protected, under international humanitarian law.
Lastly, the tireless work of the Commission of Inquiry, which honours this Council, demands support from all of us. Both my staff and the Commission require access to witnesses, including refugees, to perform our mandates. I urge you to refrain from making this work a pawn of political rancour.
Excellencies, in this, the defining human rights crisis of our era, let us speak with one voice, for human life and human rights.