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Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic: Parties to the Conflict Continue to Perpetrate War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, Infringing on the Basic Human Rights of Syrians

23 September 2021

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi: The Façade of Normalisation Hides a Very Concerning Human Rights Situation

The Human Right Council this afternoon held separate interactive dialogues with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, and with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that 10 years after the Council had established this Commission, the parties to the conflict continued to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity, infringing on the basic human rights of Syrians.  There seemed to be no moves to unite the country or seek meaningful reconciliation.  “This is no time for anyone to think that Syria is a country fit for its refugees to return.  The war on Syrian civilians continues,” the Chair said.  Through this past decade of suffering, violations and abuses that the Commission had attempted to bear witness to, the root causes of this conflict had remained unresolved and unaddressed.  The main difference now was that it was not only the Syrian Government but also the different armed and terrorist groups controlling territory that also engaged in patterns of violations, abuse, and exploitation of regular Syrians. 

Syria, speaking as a country concerned, regretted that the meetings and mechanisms of the Council had become a platform for defaming States on the basis of fabricated reports and baseless and unacceptable accusations.  The unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria were causing great humanitarian suffering and the hostile approach adopted by the Commission was neither professional nor objective.  The Commission’s methodology of work was tainted by professional errors, violations of evidentiary standards, and disregard for the facts on the ground.  It did not respect the principles of neutrality, objectivity and non-selectivity set out in resolution 60/251. 

In the discussion on Syria, speakers noted that the report shed light on the continued violations committed across the country, in particular by the Syrian regime and its allies but also by non-state actors, including the Syrian National Army.  Some speakers called for a meaningful engagement by the Syrian regime and its allies towards the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254.  Other speakers called for a solution without external interference and with full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  They rejected the imposition, for political reasons, of resolutions and human rights mechanisms that did not enjoy the agreement of the country concerned.   

Speaking in the discussion were: Finland on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Germany, Qatar, Liechtenstein, Greece, United Arab Emirates, Israel, France, Switzerland, Australia, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Kuwait, Armenia, Egypt, Iraq, Albania, Venezuela, Netherlands, Bahrain Cuba, Malta, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, United States, Russian Federation, Belarus, Turkey, Ireland, Brazil, Belgium, China, Cyprus, Italy, Georgia, Jordan, UN Women, Chile, United Kingdom, Romania, Nicaragua, Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia.

Taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: International Council Supporting Fair Trial and Human Rights, Maat for Peace, Development and Human Rights Association, World Jewish Congress, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Advocates for Human Rights, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, International Commission of Jurists, The Palestinian Return Centre Ltd, World Council of Arameans and Chair of the Commission of Inquiry.

The Council also held an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Doudou Diène, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, presenting the Commission’s final report, said the Commission had focused its investigations on the most serious human rights violations committed in Burundi since President Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020.  Despite President Ndayishimiye’s numerous promises to sustainably improve the human rights situation in Burundi, to date, only symbolic gestures had been made.  Nothing had been done to truly reopen the democratic space and fully guarantee the fundamental freedoms of expression, information and association.  The façade of normalisation hid a very concerning human rights situation.  The Commission regretted that the human rights situation in Burundi had not significantly improved since President Ndayishimiye took office and that serious human rights violations, some amounting to crimes against humanity, persisted. 

Burundi, speaking as a country concerned, said that several factors and positive signals, recognised by the international community, should encourage the Human Rights Council to let Burundi see to its harmonious development.  There had been improvements concerning good governance, the fight against injustice, and freedom of opinion and of the press, among others.  Burundi believed that no special external mechanism or body for human rights was warranted.  The best way to promote human rights involved cooperation, dialogue, technical assistance and capacity building for human rights bodies.

The Burundi Independent National Commission on Human Rights took the floor.

In the discussion speakers strongly supported the recommendations given by the Commission and remained deeply concerned about continued human rights violations in Burundi.  Concerns were expressed about reports of intimidation, violence, and forced disappearances by State security forces, intelligence forces, and their proxies.  Some speakers recognised the efforts of the Government of Burundi to improve the human rights situation and welcomed the strengthening of national mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights.  One speaker firmly opposed the practice of politicising human rights and demanded that the Council terminate the mandate of the Commission on Inquiry. 

Speaking in the discussion were: Norway, European Union, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Egypt, Venezuela, Netherlands, Kenya, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, United States, Russian Federation, Ireland, Belgium, China, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Tanzania, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Iran.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: International Federation of ACAT, Human Rights Watch, Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l'homme and East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. 

At the end of the meeting, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Greece and Armenia spoke in right of reply.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here.  All meeting summaries can be found here.  Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth regular session can be found here.

The Council will resume its work at 10 a.m. on Friday, 24 September, to conclude its interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, followed by an interactive dialogue on the interim oral update of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Belarus.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

Presentation of Report

KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that 10 years after the Council had established this Commission, the parties to the conflict continued to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity, infringing on the basic human rights of Syrians.  There seemed to be no moves to unite the country or seek meaningful reconciliation.  As mentioned in the report, during the reporting period, the Syrian economy had been rapidly deteriorating, causing bread prices to soar and a striking more than 50 per cent increase in food insecurity compared to last year. 

“This is no time for anyone to think that Syria is a country fit for its refugees to return.  The war on Syrian civilians continues,” the Chair said.  The past months had seen the return of sieges and siege-like tactics.  The security situation in certain areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces had also deteriorated, seeing increased attacks by Da’esh remnants, conflict with Turkish forces, and mounting discontent and protests amongst the population.  Strikingly, years after the territorial defeat of Da’esh, thousands of women and children remained unlawfully interned in camps across northeast Syria in the territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces coalition. 

In the midst of a pandemic, the Government of Syria, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Syrian National Army, and Syrian Democratic Forces continued to hold a vast number of detainees in appalling detention conditions where detainees in fragile health may not survive a COVID-19 outbreak.  She further recommended that United Nations Member States facilitated the creation of a mechanism with an international mandate to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding missing persons, including persons subjected to enforced disappearance.  In light of the implosion of the Syrian economy,  she recommended for States to remove all obstacles to humanitarian aid, including those exacerbated by sanctions, that had overly cumbersome humanitarian exemption procedures. 

Ms. Koning Abuzayd concluded by saying that through this past decade of suffering, violations and abuses that the Commission had attempted to bear witness to, the root causes of this conflict had remained unresolved and unaddressed.  The main difference now was that it was not only the Syrian Government but also the different armed and terrorist groups controlling territory that also engaged in patterns of violations, abuse, and exploitation of regular Syrians.  She urged the Council to address the needs and aspirations of the Syrian population, and to finally put this conflict to an end, to end this war, to release the arbitrarily detained and to locate the missing and reunite them with their families.  

Statement by the Country Concerned

Syria, speaking as a country concerned, regretted that the meetings and mechanisms of the Council had become a platform for defaming States on the basis of fabricated reports and baseless and unacceptable accusations.  The unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria were causing great humanitarian suffering and the hostile approach adopted by the Commission was neither professional nor objective.  Presidential elections were a matter at the heart of a State’s sovereignty and the Commission was not eligible to give any assessment on this.   The raising of allegations concerning chemical weapons in the Commission's report departed from the mandate established by the Council.  The Commission’s methodology of work was tainted by professional errors, violations of evidentiary standards, and disregard for the facts on the ground.  It did not respect the principles of neutrality, objectivity and non-selectivity set out in resolution 60/251. 

Discussion

Speakers regretted that the human rights situation had continued to worsen for many Syrians.  The report had shed light on the continued violations committed across the country, in particular by the Syrian regime and its allies but also by non-state actors, including the Syrian National Army.  Respect for international humanitarian law was an obligation for all and the protection of civilians, including humanitarian and medical personnel, remained an absolute priority.  Some speakers condemned the persistent, widespread, systematic and serious violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.  Speakers urged the Syrian regime to ensure full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.  Some speakers called for a meaningful engagement by the Syrian regime and its allies towards the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254.  One speaker said that without a political solution in line with Security Council resolution 2254, there would be no safe, dignified, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees and displaced persons, these cycles of violence would continue to be repeated and civilians would continue to pay a high price.

Some speakers called for a solution without external interference and with full respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  They rejected any direct or indirect armed intervention without the agreement of the authorities of that country, which constituted flagrant violations of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of sovereign countries, of international law and of the United Nations Charter.  Some speakers regretted the double standards in the confrontation of terrorist acts as well as attempts to destabilise Syria and other countries in the region.  They rejected the imposition, for political reasons, of resolutions and human rights mechanisms that did not enjoy the agreement of the country concerned.  Some speakers said the report clearly demonstrated the flawed practice of the Commission of using human rights discourse to serve opportunistic purposes and noted that the Commission regularly went beyond its mandate by discussing the possible use of chemical weapons by the authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic or the political process in the country.  One speaker regretted that every session of the Council had to address the situation in Syria and called for the lifting of illegal unilateral coercive measures against the country.

Interim Remarks

PAULO SÉRGIO PINHEIRO, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that the Commission had not forgotten about terrorism as acts of terrorism had been documented in its reports.  The war on terror could not be used to justify violations of human rights such as attacks on hospitals, schools and forced displacements.  Since the Commission’s first report, it had consistently criticised economic sanctions.  The report recommended that all Member States removed all obstacles to humanitarian aid, including those caused by sanctions.

HANNY MEGALLY, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that access to all parts of Syria for human rights monitors was something the Commission had been calling for since the beginning and regretted that it had not happened.  The Syrian Government controlled 70 per cent of the country so it was definitely in their power to allow that access.  Permissions were often needed to circulate in Damascus which was also a hindrance.  For humanitarian access, everyone was shocked that there was now only one border crossing open when there should not be a limitation to access to humanitarian aid, especially when there were vulnerable people in need of humanitarian assistance.  On the question of a mechanism for the forcibly disappeared, Mr. Megally explained that a lot of work had been done already on this issue and he was heartened to see Syrian families coming together for a proposal to strengthen this work.  It was high time that all actors that had been working on this issue came together to look at ways to make this work more effective, so that families could find out what had happened to their missing relatives.  For this to happen, there needed to be a process that was seen to be impartial, a mechanism that would need funding and expertise.  Mr. Megally said he had hoped that with the elections behind Assad and with 70 per cent of the country back under his control, there would be a reduction in hostilities, but he had not seen improvements; there had been a shocking return to siege and displacement and increased bombardment and clashes, on top of assassinations.  The economy had plummeted, the pandemic was back on the rise, and the situation was getting worse.  On the protection of health workers, Mr. Megally said that this was really a dilemma, as it seemed to be a habit by actors on the ground to target them; he condemned all attacks on civilians. 

Discussion

Speakers said that the report highlighted the continued worsening living conditions of the Syrian population and the rise in the number of internally displaced persons to 6.7 million.  Concerns were expressed about the deprivation of liberty of civilians by government forces, as well as by violent militant groups.  Women were most often subjected to unlawful detention at the same time as their male relatives or following the detention of their spouses, which led to increasing gender-based human rights violations.  Some speakers were concerned about water security in Syria and called on the Commission to investigate these disruptions, and more broadly the issue of water security.  Speakers further underscored the crucial importance of seeking accountability by searching for, apprehending, prosecuting and punishing those responsible for the atrocities committed in Syria.  Some speakers called on the international community to urgently step in to ensure that the inhumane blockade was immediately lifted and that civilians regained access to life-saving items.  Additionally, they encouraged the Commission to investigate the recruitment of Syrian mercenaries for use in foreign conflicts, particularly child-mercenaries.

Some speakers said that the reality had proved that external intervention, provoking confrontation and imposing sanctions, could not solve the problem and would only bring the Syrian people deep suffering.  They advocated for a political solution.  One speaker said that once again they were faced with mandates that had not been requested by the country concerned, much less supported.  Another speaker urged States to respect the self-determination, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Concluding Remarks

PAULO SÉRGIO PINHEIRO, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that he remained at the disposal of the Council to discuss any aspects of the report and the recommendations at any time.  The work of the Commission was motivated by the hope for a better future for those who considered Syria their home.  He concluded by thanking Ms. AbuZayd for her contribution to the work of the Commission. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

Presentation of Report

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, presenting the Commission’s final report, said the Commission had focused its investigations on the most serious human rights violations committed in Burundi since President Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020.  Despite President Ndayishimiye’s numerous promises to sustainably improve the human rights situation in Burundi, to date, only symbolic gestures had been made.  Nothing had been done to truly reopen the democratic space and fully guarantee the fundamental freedoms of expression, information and association.  The façade of normalisation hid a very concerning human rights situation.

Following the end of the 2020 electoral process, the number and frequency of violations had initially decreased.  However, from June 2021, the Commission had noted an increase in violations, mainly in the context of the fight against armed groups allegedly responsible for attacks perpetrated throughout the country since August 2020.  The Commission considered that there were reasonable grounds to believe that a significant number of political opponents had been victims of violations under the guise of pursuing the persons responsible for the armed attacks.  In any case, there was no justification for such practices.  The just fight against criminality and terrorism must be carried out in strict compliance with human rights.  The democratic space remained closed and tightly controlled by the Burundian authorities despite some encouraging gestures, seeking to appease the international community.  The Government had taken measures aimed at tightening its grip over the activities and functioning of civil society organizations.   

Mr. Diène said that it was obvious that the Burundian authorities considered that civil society’s sole purpose was to assist the Government and support Government projects, thereby denying the very principle of freedom of association.  The authorities’ hostility and mistrust towards civil society persisted.  President Ndayishimiye and his Government had finally recognised the existence of dysfunctions in the justice system which had been documented by the Commission.  However, the measures to address these challenges were far from adequate and could only be harmful and counterproductive in the long run.  Another central promise of President Ndayishimiye was the restoration of the rule of law.  In this case too, nothing had been done to sustainably resolve the erosion of the rule of law. 

Mr. Diène concluded by saying that the Commission regretted that the human rights situation in Burundi had not significantly improved since President Ndayishimiye took office and that serious human rights violations, some amounting to crimes against humanity, persisted.  It was vital that the international community continued to follow very closely the development of the human rights situation in the country and to encourage the Burundian Government to take measures that could truly improve the situation.  On the basis of the responsibility to protect, it was crucial not to abandon the Burundian population.

Statement by the Country Concerned

Burundi, speaking as a country concerned, said that several factors and positive signals, recognised by the international community, should encourage the Human Rights Council to let Burundi see to its harmonious development.   There had been improvements concerning good governance, the fight against injustice, freedom of opinion and of the press, the situation of health care and the fight against COVID-19, education, the humanitarian field, the promotion of a dialogue between the political parties and the President, and the dialogue with members of civil society and religious leaders, among others.  Concerning the promotion and protection of human rights, Burundi had several institutional frameworks that were up and running, including the Independent National Human Rights Commission.  Concerning national reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was operational and was doing an excellent job.  Burundi believed that no special external mechanism or body for human rights was warranted.  The best way to promote human rights involved cooperation, dialogue, technical assistance and capacity building for human rights bodies.

Burundi Independent National Commission on Human Rights commended the Government for its achievements in human rights, including the rights to health, education, and disability.  The Government must continue and strengthen its efforts and open investigations into every allegation of human rights violations.  The National Council called on international human rights mechanisms to assist and support the Government's efforts.  As the primary responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights lay with the Government, the international community would do well to support national mechanisms, such as the National Council.

Discussion

Speakers strongly supported the recommendations given by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi and remained deeply concerned about continued human rights violations.  Speakers expressed concerns about reports of intimidation, violence, and forced disappearances by State security forces, intelligence forces, and their proxies.  Speakers spoke of illegal invasions and searches of homes and businesses, arbitrary arrest of an anti-corruption activist based on false charges, culminating in her assault and rape, and targeting of supporters of constitutional election law, as well as journalists.  They urged the Government to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, and other human rights violations.  They called on the Burundian authorities to commit themselves resolutely to the fight against impunity, a fundamental aspect of peacebuilding. 

Some speakers recognised the efforts of the Government of Burundi to improve the human rights situation in the country and welcomed the strengthening of national mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights.  They said that the internal political situation in Burundi was stable, the Presidential elections were successfully held, and that the new leadership of the country continued to implement comprehensive measures to improve the human rights situation.  The return of Burundian refugees was being facilitated and the sustained efforts to improve press freedom in the country were commendable.  Some speakers said that external interference in the internal political process in Burundi was inadmissible and they did not support the adoption of country-specific resolutions without the consent of the Government of the affected State.  One speaker firmly opposed the practice of politicising human rights against Burundi and demanded that the Council terminate the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry as they had previously noted the counterproductive nature of establishing it.  They called on the authors of resolution 45/19 to refrain from politicising the issue of human rights in Burundi.

Link: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/09/le-conseil-des-droits-de-lhomme-examine-les-rapports-de-ses