Header image for news printout

UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria: The siege and recapture of eastern Ghouta marked by war crimes, crimes against humanity

GENEVA, 20 June 2018 – Following the end of the longest running siege in modern history, lasting more than five years, the UN Commission of Inquiry has condemned this method of warfare in Syria as barbaric and medieval, reporting that civilians in eastern Ghouta experienced immense physical and psychological harm while enduring near daily bombardments and extreme deprivations – in some cases leading to preventable deaths. 

In a 23-page report released today, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to desist from resorting to sieges in the future, concluding they are characterised by war crimes.    

In March, the Human Rights Council requested an urgent, comprehensive, and independent inquiry into recent events in eastern Ghouta. Today’s report traces the siege and recapture of eastern Ghouta by pro-Government forces.

Dramatically escalating their military campaign to recapture the besieged enclave between February and April, pro-Government forces carried out aerial and ground bombardments which claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian men, women, and children. By April, numerous homes, markets, and hospitals had been all but razed to the ground, amounting to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberately attacking protected objects.

In an effort to avoid the bombardments, terrified civilians relocated to makeshift basement shelters in February, where they subsisted for months underground in dire circumstances.

“It is completely abhorrent that besieged civilians were indiscriminately attacked, and systematically denied food and medicine,” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “What is clear from the terminal phase of this siege is that no warring party acted to protect the civilian population”, he continued.

Through the widespread and systematic bombardments of civilian inhabited areas and objects in eastern Ghouta, and the continued denial of food and medicine to besieged civilians during the period under review, pro-Government forces perpetrated the crime against humanity of inhumane acts causing serious mental and physical suffering, the report finds.

Between February and April, besieged armed groups and terrorist organisations also relentlessly fired unguided mortars into neighbouring Damascus city and nearby areas, killing and maiming hundreds of Syrian civilians.  

“Even if pro-Government forces are bombing and starving the civilian population of eastern Ghouta into submission, there can be no justification for the indiscriminate shelling of civilian inhabited areas in Damascus”, said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “Such actions by armed groups and members of terrorist organisations also amount to war crimes.”    

The report notes that, by the time Government forces declared eastern Ghouta successfully recaptured on 14 April, some 140,000 individuals were displaced from their homes, tens of thousands of whom are being unlawfully interned by Government forces in managed sites throughout Rif Damascus. 

“The blanket internment of all civilians who fled eastern Ghouta through humanitarian corridors, including women and children, is reprehensible,” said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “In many instances, the on-going internment of these individuals amounts to arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and the unlawful confinement of tens of thousands of individuals,” she continued.

Pursuant to local truces and “evacuation agreements”, up to 50,000 civilians from eastern Ghouta were displaced to Idlib and Aleppo governorates, none of whom were provided aid by the Syrian Government.

The report also states that the cumulative physical and psychological harm wrought by the five-year siege continues to impact negatively hundreds of thousands of Syrian men, women, and children countrywide. 

The Commission’s report is scheduled to be presented on 26 June during an interactive dialogue at the 38th session of the Human Rights Council.

Background

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which comprises Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, and Mr. Hanny Megally has been mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate and record all violations of international law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The full report and supporting documentation can be found on the Human Rights Council web page dedicated to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/IICISyria/Pages/IndependentInternationalCommission.aspx

*****

For further media information:
(Geneva) Rolando Gómez, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Tel: +41-79-4774411, email: rgomez@ohchr.org and Cédric Sapey, OHCHR, Tel: +41-79-201 0125, email: csapey@ohchr.org


Human Rights Council resolution A/HRC/37/1.