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Rampant human rights violations and war crimes as war-torn Idlib faces the pandemic UN Syria Commission of Inquiry report

07 July 2020


GENEVA, 7 July 2020 – Syrian children, women and men endured  unfathomable suffering during the military campaign launched late 2019 by pro-government forces to re-take the last remaining areas under armed groups’ control in Syria. Deadly dangers awaited civilians at every turn - from indiscriminate aerial bombardments and ground shelling, to arrests and torture, pillaging and dire displacement conditions at the border, according to a new report by the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry. Now a perfect storm is in the making as this war-torn region faces the global pandemic.

In a 29-page report released today covering the period from November 2019 to June 2020, the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reports on 52 emblematic attacks by all parties which led to civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. These include 17 attacks impacting hospitals and medical facilities; 14 attacks impacting schools; 9 attacks impacting markets; and 12 other attacks impacting homes.

The special investigation into recent events in Idlib province and surrounding areas, leading to nearly one million people being displaced in only three months, was requested in June by the Human Rights Council.

“It is completely abhorrent that, after more than 9 years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives” said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “Children were shelled at school, parents were shelled at the market, patients were shelled at the hospital…, and entire families were bombarded even while fleeing”, he continued. “What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians”.

Dramatically escalating their military campaign to recapture Idlib and parts of western Aleppo, Syrian Government forces alongside the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out air and ground attacks which decimated civilian infrastructure, depopulated towns and villages, and claimed the lives of hundreds of Syrian women, men and children. Numerous hospitals, schools, markets and homes were destroyed by aerial and ground attacks, the latter including the use of cluster munitions, in acts amounting to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberate attacks on protected objects.

The widespread and indiscriminate bombardment carried out by pro-government forces on Ma’arrat al-Nu’man and Ariha (Idlib governorate) as well as Atarib and Darat Azza (western Aleppo) beginning in the second half of December and mid-February, foreseeably led to mass displacement, as civilians had no choice but to flee, and may amount to the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer, murder and other inhumane acts. 

When civilians fled, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorists pillaged their homes. As battles waged, they detained, tortured, and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists. Female media workers were doubly victimized, as the terrorist group continued to systematically discriminate against women and girls, including by denying their freedom of movement. HTS, moreover, indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas, spreading terror amongst civilians living in Government-held areas.

“Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights and extremely limited humanitarian assistance”, said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”   

The nearly one million civilians displaced are now facing an uncertain future. As if the suffering they endured was not enough, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the already dire humanitarian situation in Syria, including in Idlib and western Aleppo. “Now more than ever, civilians need sustained and unfettered access to humanitarian assistance which must neither be politicised by Member States nor instrumentalised by parties to the conflict”, said Commissioner Hanny Megally. “Pandemics know no borders, neither should life-saving aid.”

The Commission urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to cease attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and also urged Member States to pursue accountability for the crimes outlined in its report.

The Commission’s report is scheduled to be presented on 14-15 July during an interactive dialogue at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council.


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.

More information can be found on the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic's webpage.

Media contact:  Rolando Gómez, Media Officer, OHCHR, Human Rights Council Branch, [email protected] + 41 79 477 4411