17 September 2018
The Human Rights Council in a midday meeting today held an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, regretted that the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were being completely ignored in Syria where over six million Syrians were internally displaced, including one million displaced in the first half of 2018. Children displaced lacked balanced diets and an adequate standard of living, while women and girls living in makeshift camps, tent communities and abandoned buildings were vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse. In recaptured areas, such as parts of eastern Ghouta, electricity and water lines remained cut. An all-out offensive to recapture Idlib would generate a humanitarian catastrophe. Mr. Pinheiro emphasized that it was essential that human rights and accountability issues remained key priorities. Families were entitled to the truth as to why, how, when and where their relatives had died.
Speaking as the concerned country, Syria noted that the Commission’s latest report was characterized by double standards and contradictory accusations that had nothing to do with reality. Syria condemned the biased treatment of war crimes committed by Turkish forces and by the illegal United States coalition forces. The invading Turkish forces indiscriminately targeted civilians, hospitals, and rescue teams, leading to the displacement of civilians. The Commission also remained silent about the displacement of thousands of civilians and facilitated the exodus of terrorists. Far from being objective, the Commission adopted the opinion of countries that sponsored terrorism and encouraged terrorists to continue their crimes and lengthen the war that plagued Syria.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that the internal displacement of more than one million people this year demonstrated once again an alarming unwillingness of the Syrian authorities and other parties to comply with the most basic principles of international humanitarian law. Speakers warned against another imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, and pointed out numerous challenges connected to the protection of housing, land and property rights, such as the Law No. 10 enacted by the Syrian regime, which would result in the State’s widespread confiscation of property from displaced persons. They also drew attention to the work of the Commission to document women’s human rights violations and sexual and gender-based violence in Syria. Other speakers said that the report was not objective and that it sought to promote the political views of certain countries, noting that it was strange that the Commission continued to speak about the evacuation of fighters as forced displacement. Genuine dialogue and cooperation should be pursued for the promotion and protection of human rights, and accusations based upon incorrect information must be rejected. The Council had to end the practice of one-sided accusations against the Syrian authorities.
Speaking were European Union, Norway on behalf of the Nordic countries, Liechtenstein, Qatar, Canada, Kuwait, Brazil, Estonia, Israel, France, Switzerland, Germany, Egypt, Maldives, UN Women, Saud Arabia, Russian Federation, Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, United Arab Emirates, Croatia, Spain, China, Czechia, Cuba, Australia, Venezuela, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Chile, Romania, Algeria, Bahrain, Albania, Belgium, Greece, United Kingdom, Ecuador, Poland, Ireland, Turkey, New Zealand, Jordan, and Belarus.
Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations: Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, United Towns Agency for North-South Cooperation, Conseil International pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l'Homme, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Charitable Institute for Protecting Social Victims et The Palestinian Return Centre Ltd.
The Council will next hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
The Council has before it the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (A/HRC/39/65).
Presentation by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that this year marked the twentieth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. These principles had detailed for the first time a pragmatic framework to protect internally displaced persons, addressing grey areas and gaps to increase protection for most vulnerable civilians. It was therefore astounding that those principles were totally ignored in Syria where over six million Syrians were internally displaced, including one million in the first half of this year. This year, during the course of six battles, pro-Government forces had recaptured major parts of territory from armed groups and terrorist organizations, in Aleppo, northern Homs, Damascus, Rif Damascus, Dara’a and Idlib governorates, with a high cost to the civilian population. Whether fleeing clashes in Dara’a, exiting through humanitarian corridors in eastern Ghouta, or transferring out in buses under so-called “evacuation agreements” from northern Homs or Damascus, civilians uprooted from their homes were offered little to no respite. Displaced civilians suffered from the loss of their homes, jobs, and social connections. In Syria’s northwest, in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates, which were both currently under the control of a complex array of armed groups or terrorist organizations, internal displacement rendered victims further vulnerable and at risk of violence. Displaced children lacked balanced diets and an adequate standard of living. Women and girls living in makeshift camps, tent communities and abandoned buildings were vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse. In recaptured areas, such as parts of eastern Ghouta, electricity and water lines remained cut. It was estimated that up to three million civilians were currently residing in Idlib, the last bastion of anti-government armed groups and terrorist organizations in Syria. Many of them had been displaced since the onset of the conflict, often multiple times. Millions of civilians in Idlib had nowhere left to flee. An all-out offensive to recapture Idlib would generate a humanitarian catastrophe.
It was essential that human rights and accountability issues remained key priorities. Recently, hundreds of Syrian families had begun to receive word from civil registries that the status of relatives they believed to have been arrested, detained or disappeared had been changed to reflect their custodial deaths. In a few cases, families had received death notices which indicated that their loved ones had died several years ago and their cause of death was listed as heart attack or stroke. At the very least, families were entitled to the truth as to why, how, when and where their relatives had died. This was a minimal first step in a process that was essential to future accountability and justice for victims. In areas where fighting had abated, the return in safety and dignity of the internally displaced and the refugees had to be voluntary, without unnecessary obstructions.
Statement by Syria
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, said the latest report by the Commission of Inquiry was characteristic of double standards, which mixed political judgement in their findings and provided contradictory accusations that had nothing to do with real events. Syria condemned the biased treatment of war crimes committed by Turkish forces as well as the illegal United States Coalition forces fighting against Syria, violating international law and the United Nations Charter. The invading Turkish forces had led to the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, hospitals, and rescue teams, and to the displacement of civilians. The report confined itself to a certain narrative, avoided accountability and justified Turkish conduct which contradicted international law. This manipulation was characteristic of the Commission of Inquiry, which also remained silent on the displacement of thousands of civilians and facilitated the exodus of terrorists. Syria condemned the unjust accusations of the Commission and the targeting of its civilians. Syria denounced all unfounded accusations concerning the shelling of civilians and asked the Commission to stop narratives hostile to the Syrian Government.
The accusations stated that the Government was not taking precautions to protect civilians when, in fact, they were implicated in reconciliation efforts. The Syrian Government respected international humanitarian law and took all necessary measures to protect civilians in conflict areas. The Syrian State was determined to recover its sovereignty and eliminate terrorism within its borders. Contrary to distortionary campaigns, protectionism was at the centre of Syria’s initiatives. Syria tried to ensure safe corridors and provide for the basic needs of its citizens in cooperation with humanitarian agencies. Syria also denied accusations of the use of chemical weapons as found by the Commission. The Commission’s conduct was collusionary and served the political aims of perpetrators of the aggression. The Commission, while presenting its report, far from being objective, had adopted the opinion of countries that sponsored terrorism and only encouraged terrorists to continue their crimes and lengthen the war that had plagued Syria.
European Union reiterated its call to the Syrian authorities to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry and to grant it access. It called on all parties, particularly the Syrian regime and its allies, to cease hostilities and take all measures to protect civilians, and to prevent a massacre in Idlib. Norway, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, condemned all use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for holding those responsible accountable. There were numerous challenges connected to the protection of housing, land and property rights, such as the Law No. 10 enacted by the Syrian regime. Liechtenstein noted that the internal displacement of more than one million people demonstrated once again an alarming unwillingness of the Syrian authorities and other parties to comply with the most basic principles of international humanitarian law. It warned against another imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib.
Qatar regretted the failure of the international community to reach an agreement on forming a constitutional committee in Syria. The violations and crimes committed against the Syrian people could not be tolerated and the Syrian regime was attempting to avoid legal consequences for the deaths of detainees. Canada noted with dismay that in the first half of 2018, the parties to the Syrian conflict had forcibly displaced more than one million men, women and children. It was deeply concerned about the adoption of the Presidential Decree No. 10 which would result in the State’s widespread confiscation of property from displaced persons. Kuwait strongly condemned the systematic human rights violations suffered by the Syrian people and was deeply concerned about the tone of the report by the Commission of Inquiry. It warned that military action in Idlib would trigger a humanitarian catastrophe, and it called on all parties to secure channels for a humanitarian evacuation.
Brazil said the situation in Idlib was of particular concern, and Idlib’s three million civilians should be the priority, as each Syrian was a rights holder, not collateral damage. Brazil condemned any use of chemical weapons by any party under any circumstances. They supported the new joint investigative mechanism mandated by the Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Estonia said that they had witnessed an unprecedented level of collective displacement, with “evacuation agreements” brokered under the Russian Federation, which did not ensure the dignity and safety of people. The regime was also engaged in preparing a massive offensive against the Idlib region, which would have devastating human consequences. Israel was concerned by the lack of attention given to Iran’s presence in Syria. They also denounced the acts of repeated use of chemical weapons by regime forces. The residents of Idlib faced an uncertain future. For its part, Israel said it would continue to provide assistance to victims fleeing the conflict.
France took note of war crimes committed by the Syrian regime, including deliberate attacks against civilians, indiscriminate attacks and the repeated use of chemical weapons. They continued to say that a return of refugees could not be envisaged with the impending attack on Idlib, which would result in a grave humanitarian crisis. Switzerland was alarmed by the growing number of displaced persons in Syria, who lived without basic services and protection. They asked how the international community could help the displaced persons and called for an immediate cessation of the fighting to find a political solution and to put an end to the suffering of the Syrian population. Germany noted with great concern that the Syrian regime had been found responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in a series of attacks in Douma. They called for accountability for those and other grave crimes. They also called on the allies of the Syrian regime to spare no effort to prevent a military offensive on Idlib.
Egypt reaffirmed that the main victims of the Syrian conflict were Syrians, and it called on all parties to put an end to the conflict. The deteriorating situation in Syria undermined the peace and stability of the region; the return of displaced persons could only be achieved through a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Maldives strongly condemned the gross human rights violations in Syria, and called on all parties to the conflict to reach a lasting and sustainable peace settlement. The catastrophic humanitarian situation in Syria showed the inability of the international community to protect civilians. UN Women drew attention to the work of the Commission to document women’s human rights violations and sexual and gender-based violence in Syria. The Commission had documented the use of sexual violence by parties as a tool to instil fear, to humiliate and to punish.
Saudi Arabia underlined the suffering of the Syrian people due to the military activities of the Syrian regime and its allies. The displacement of more than one million Syrians in such a short time span was proof that the regime wanted to change the demographic structure of the country. Russian Federation said that the report was not objective and that it sought to promote the political views of certain countries. Russia opposed the use of unilateral coercive measures because they increased the suffering of the Syrian civilians. It was strange that the Commission continued to speak about the evacuation of fighters as forced displacement. Netherlands reminded that the last de-escalation zone – Idlib – in Syria was home to nearly three million people. It called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, noting that fighting terrorism could not justify attacks on civilians.
Italy condemned the persistent and grave violations of human rights law in Syria. They also agreed that conditions for the voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees were not in place. Italy asked how the Commission of Inquiry could further tighten its cooperation with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria. Japan reiterated its position that the use of chemical weapons was not permissible under any circumstances and condemned their use in Syria. The crisis, they said, could only be solved through a political solution, not by military means. They urged all parties to cease the use of military means in order to ensure access to humanitarian assistance. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was concerned over reports by mechanisms operating under the name of human rights; this was far from the reality on the ground. Genuine dialogue and cooperation should be pursued for the promotion and protection of human rights, and accusations based upon incorrect information must be rejected.
United Arab Emirates was concerned about the violence in Idlib and the humanitarian impact on besieged civilians. They called upon the international community to bring assistance to the affected Syrians. The United Arab Emirates had already allowed refugees to cross into their country and had contributed financially to solve the conflict. Croatia called for the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. They noted that 6.5 million internally displaced civilians inside Syria were still not benefitting from the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement; the protection of those civilians was an urgent priority. Spain called for an investigative committee to be established to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The humanitarian situation remained grave with no access to services like drinking water. It was essential that access to humanitarian aid be a priority.
China stated that all parties should adhere to what amounted to a political solution to the conflict in Syria, and they should promote a Syrian-owned solution through dialogue and cooperation. It was important to fight terrorist organizations and to equally address the needs across the country. Discussions at the Council should be respectful of the independence and sovereignty of Syria. Czechia deeply regretted that the Commission had not been able to obtain access to Syria and it deplored the human rights abuses in the country. It called on all parties to ensure humanitarian access and it called for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Remarks by Members of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria
PAULO SERGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, replied to the Russian Federation and clarified that the Commission of Inquiry had never supported the use of unilateral coercive measures against Syria because those exacerbated the suffering of the Syrian people. Mr. Pinheiro underlined that the right of families to the truth should be respected by the Syrian authorities to a greater extent. He reminded that the Commission had been repeatedly calling on countries to curb the flow of conventional arms to and within Syria. Those who had not done so were complicit in committing human rights violations. It was the duty of all parties to the conflict to cease unlawful practices that led to the displacement of Syrians, Mr. Pinheiro stressed. Evacuation agreements should not be brokered without the will of concerned civilians.
KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, reminded that the Commission of Inquiry had already documented sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated against Syrian men and boys, women and girls. As for the inclusion of women in peace processes, Ms. AbuZayd invited delegations to have another look at the Commission’s recommendations. The Law No. 10 raised a number of issues and it did not appear to take into account missing persons, female-headed households, or the lack of civil documentation of a large number of displaced persons. Any changes to the existing legal framework had to respect the property rights of all Syrians. That meant the re-building of the destroyed property registrars.
HANNY MEGALLY, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said Canada had asked about cooperation with the new attribution mechanism of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The Commission of Inquiry had always sought full cooperation with international and United Nations organizations. It welcomed the establishment of this new mechanism and it hoped to be working very closely with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the mechanism when it was established. He drew attention to the support that displaced persons in Syria needed. More than 6.5 million people lived in very difficult and tough conditions inside the country. Refugees once they left the country were getting more support than internally displaced persons inside the country. Humanitarian assistance should be taken as a norm and consent for humanitarian assistance should not be arbitrarily withdrawn. As for enforced disappearances, Mr. Megally said that what the Commission could do next was to press for access to people in detention, and seek transparency in terms of the names of those detained, more information about their whereabouts, and for more discussion about accountability as to why detainees were no longer alive.
Cuba reaffirmed its support for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria, with full support for its territorial integrity. Those that had financed the conflict due to their agendas deserved responsibility for countless victims. Australia was gravely concerned at the Commission’s preliminary findings suggesting chlorine was used in the aerial attack on Douma in April. Any return of refugees had to be safe, voluntary and dignified, with property rights respected. Venezuela reiterated solidarity with the people and Government of Syria and condemned terrorist attacks. Peaceful efforts of the United Nations Special Envoy and diplomatic good-faith efforts were welcomed.
Georgia condemned deliberate attacks civilians in Aleppo, Northern Homs, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa governorates that had resulted in an additional one million displaced persons. Iran said that the Syrian crisis had produced a humanitarian catastrophe. The mass exodus of people and killings were the result of the work of ISIS, Al Nusra and affiliated movements, and the sanctions were only exacerbating the suffering of civilians in Syria. Iraq said that the tragedy faced by the Syrian people had entered its eight year. The fact that areas neighbouring Iraq were now controlled by the Government and not by terrorists was welcomed, as was the hope that a new stage of peace and return of refugees would come.
Chile said that all warring parties needed to cooperate with agencies that tried to uphold minimum humanitarian standards, and the illegal conduct of those parties needed to end. They said the guiding principles of humanitarian displacement needed to be respected and the Syrian Government should seek to incorporate those principles into their legislation. Romania was deeply concerned by the failure of parties to the Syrian conflict to assume their responsibility regarding the situation of the civilian population. The number of displaced persons was being made worse as the level of destruction in areas marred by conflict denied any possibility of their return. Algeria said that reconciliation was critical in Syria and that all parties involved in the conflict should seek this path. It was undeniable, they said, that the collaboration of terrorist groups with armed groups was an aggravating factor to the prolongation of the conflict, so they called for intensified efforts to end it through political means.
Bahrain regretted that Syrian blood had been shed for a seventh consecutive year, with civilians caught between the militias and the regime while being attacked by terrorist groups. Bahrain condemned aerial attacks which caused civilian and other deaths, and vehemently condemned the use of chlorine bombs. Albania encouraged the Commission of Inquiry to continue its work. They supported the call for local authorities to provide a clear path of access to humanitarian aid for displaced people. They also shared the concerns that military action in Idlib would cause a humanitarian catastrophe. Belgium said that in none of the instances documented by the Committee of Inquiry did warring parties attempt to provide even the most basic services to the displaced. They were deeply concerned about the escalating military action by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib, and repeated that criminal accountability was crucial to achieve sustainable peace.
Greece noted that while the world advanced towards a post-Da’esh era, all must not lose sight of what extremism had brought to Syria and its consequences on the civilian population. The conflict had caused great numbers of refugees, a number of whom were currently stranded in Greece. United Kingdom was gravely concerned about the risk of a military offensive by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib and the potential mass displacement that it could cause. Such disaster was avoidable if all actors respected the ceasefire and heeded the recommendations in the Commission’s report. Ecuador condemned horrific violations and called upon all parties, both direct and indirect, to end hostilities and stand in solidarity with victims. There was an urgent call for dialogue so that humanitarian assistance could be provided to civilians and justice restored.
Poland said that a sustainable end to this horrendous crisis could only be reached by an agreement leading to a genuine political transition in line with Security Council resolution 2254 and the 2012 Geneva Communique, negotiated by the Syrian parties within the United Nations-led Geneva process. Ireland said that failure of the warring parties to take precautions to protect civilian life had had horrific consequences so Ireland reiterated the Commission’s recommendation that the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement had to be adhered to by all parties. Turkey said that the Commission’s latest report did not adequately represent the facts regarding the conduct of Operation Olive Branch, an anti-terror operation, carried out under international law, in accordance with right to self-defence as enshrined in the relevant Security Council resolutions.
New Zealand voiced deep concern that after seven years of war, 5.5 million refugees had fled Syria and more than 6.5 million lived displaced in the country. With military attacks on Idlib intensifying, it called on all parties to uphold international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities. Jordan emphasized the importance of safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, adding that all involved parties should work to find a political solution to the conflict. It called for moderation and avoidance of a new round of suffering. Belarus noted that the report was unbalanced, and that the Commission continued to focus on the actions of pro-Government forces, while omitting those of armed factions that used civilians as human shields. That approach was at odds with the mandate of the Commission; the Council had to end the practice of one-sided accusations against the Syrian authorities.
Khiam Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Torture pointed out to distorted facts and contradictions that dominated the discussions about Syria in the Council. It deplored the campaign led by the United States and Saudi Arabia against the Syrian Government, based on dubious information provided by such organizations as the White Helmets, who were financed by the United States to disseminate propaganda. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom welcomed the Commission’s emphasis on the forced nature of displacement in Syria and its assessment that the so-called “evacuation agreements” were in fact war crimes of forced displacement. It also welcomed the inclusion of a section on housing, land and property rights in the report, pointing out to discriminate laws and practices. United Towns Agency for North-South Cooperation reminded of the millions of Syrian children who had been deprived of their right to education. What was more serious was that those defending the rights of children had been subjected to torture and detention.
Conseil international pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l’Homme said that Russia, its allies and the Syrian Government had unveiled the truth. Continuing, they said the United States, Israel and other allies supported terrorism in Syria and sought chemical weapons. They also called for an end to sanctions against Syria. Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew the Council’s attention to the recent targeting of the Druze ethno-religious group by ISIL. They also urged Syrian and Russian forces to prioritise the protection of vulnerable communities and asked that any new constitution created in the aftermath of the conflict reflect Syria’s heritage of religious and ethnic pluralism. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence said that recent measures adopted by the United States and Israel added to the complexity of the Syrian conflict. They called on the international community to purge terrorists from Syria and to identify and bring those terrorists to justice in a fair judicial process.
Charitable Institute for Protecting Social Victims said the economic and social structure of Syria had fallen apart. More than 30 per cent of all schools and educational structures had been targeted. More than 45 per cent of medical centres were unable to provide services and approximately 89 per cent of the population was living in poverty. Palestinian Return Centre Ltd said that Palestinian refugees had fallen prey to arbitrary detentions. Some 566 Palestinians had been tortured to death inside Syrian prisons. Nearly 90 per cent of detainees were women or girls and some were expectant mothers. The Government should disclose the fate of those detainees and stop the in-jail massacres.
Syria, speaking as a concerned country in concluding remarks, said that today the Commission of Inquiry had stated that Syrians had nowhere to go after Idlib. However, those who had nowhere to go were terrorists; those who either went away to their home countries or those who had to be prosecuted. As for the Syrian civilians, it was only normal for them to seek safety in their own country. It was welcomed that the Commission had finally acknowledged the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures and now concrete recommendations were needed. Countries that imposed such unethical measures had to reassess their view and stop delivering lessons. As for a political settlement and the return of refugees, that argument was only being used to prolong the conflict even more.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, in concluding remarks, welcomed comments by the delegation of Iran and said that the Commission had never supported sanctions or proposed that sanctions should be imposed. In fact, the Commission had written about the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures. The conflict in Syria was not over and the situation was extremely worrying. There were listed Security Council terrorist groups and foreign fighters in Idlib. Contrary to what the Syrian delegation said every time and what Belarus said today, the Commission was able to document human rights violations perpetrated by a number of Islamist Syrian rebel factions in Idlib. There were also armed occupation groups, many of which were evacuated to Idlib and were not part of the terrorist groups. It was ludicrous to believe that the Commission would be saying that terrorists should not be fought. However, efforts to combat terrorists did not mean negating the lives of civilians. All parties were urged to continue ongoing negotiations to avoid another humanitarian tragedy in Idlib.
KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in concluding remarks, said that the Commission considered all letters with allegations of human rights abuses and footnoted them in its reports. The Commission had been begging to engage with the Government of Syria since the beginning of its work.
HANNY MEGALLY, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, in concluding remarks, replied to the United Kingdom and said that the issue of detention and missing persons had been a major concern for the Commission. The Commission had already issued a report on detention in Syria, including its recommendations and how to tackle that problem. He reminded the delegation to go back to that report. The Commission would continue to closely investigate what was happening with detained persons. It was appalling that families were informed about the death of their loved ones by going to registries, which was a particularly heartless way to inform them.
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