Paulo Pinheiro Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
M. le President, Excellences,
Today, Syrians face increasing and intolerable hardships, living among the ruins of this lengthy conflict. Millions are suffering in displacement camps, while resources are becoming scarcer, donor fatigue is rising and now there is a cholera outbreak.
The war is not over despite a general reduction in fighting. Hostilities are intensifying on several fronts. Attacks keep claiming civilian lives and damaging key civilian infrastructure, including food and water resources, in the midst of a drought. In Idlib, children were killed on their way to school, an entire family was killed as they gathered for afternoon tea, and men were killed as they looked after their shops. Syria cannot afford a return to larger-scale fighting.
The situation in Dar’a is illustrative of the daily dangers civilians face in government-controlled areas, as targeted killings continue with impunity. In northern Aleppo, at least 92 civilians were killed or injured in attacks between January and June. Civilian homes, markets, schools and mosques were again damaged or destroyed.
In the northeast, bombings have also increased while five foreign armies remain active in the country, some in effective control over parts of Syria territory. In June, suspected Israeli airstrikes on Damascus Airport impeded the transportation of humanitarian supplies and related cargo.
Armed conflict is only one aspect of the hardships that Syrian civilians are facing. It is widely recognized that unilateral sanctions often result in unintended harmful consequences on populations. It is difficult to estimate the exact economic impact of the unilateral coercive measures that have been imposed on Syria, but they do indeed seem to have contributedto a further deterioration of the economic and humanitarian situation in the country – and we recommend that Member States conduct independent assessments of this, to mitigate unintended consequences on the daily lives of civilians, including by streamlining cumbersome humanitarian exemption procedures.
In government-controlled areas, torture and ill-treatment in detention and enforced disappearances remain systematic, and extends also to displaced Syrians who sought to return home. Heinous acts of torture may well be occurring as we speak to you here today. Families of detainees were forced to pay substantial bribes to State officials to secure their release or even merely to obtain news about a loved one.
Torture, including sexual violence, and ill-treatment also continued in detention facilities controlled by armed groups, and detainees have died as a result. In northern Aleppo, members of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA) scaled up the arrests of individuals with alleged ties to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or with the self-administration authorities. Many of those detained were initially forcibly conscripted by the YPG, and are thereby now being doubly victimized.
M. le President,
Fundamental freedoms including of movement, expression, association and peaceful assembly remain heavily restricted throughout Syria. Activists, journalists and others expressing opposing views were subjected to intimidation, threats or arrest, depending on which party controlled the area in which they reside.
The government’s new decree on cybercrimes risks further curtailing freedom of expression and exposing those expressing opposing views to imprisonment. NGO workers were arrested and organizations dissolved or their assets seized. We welcomed the Syrian government’s positive engagement with the UPR process at this Council in January of this year, and the subsequent actions this spring on some of the recommendations made, but we would welcome even more news of changes in conduct on the ground.
In the north-west, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) enforced restrictions on media and press freedoms and interfered in the work of local organizations, including those working on gender-based violence. They continued detaining journalists, activists and others who spoke out against their rule. Likewise, the SNA restricted civic activities in Aleppo, which resulted in self-censorship and undermined the ability of women activists to meaningfully participate and contribute to public life.
Press freedom also came under threat in the north-east when self-administration authorities suspended the licence of a large media network. Journalists were arrested and kidnapped by unidentified individuals, and the offices of political parties were attacked.
Unbearable living conditions in displacement camps have left many with little choice but to return to their homes, even when located in frontline areas.
Others were prevented from returning by the lack of guarantees that they would be able to enjoy their housing, land and property rights upon their return.
For example, in Dayr az-Zawr and Hama, the Syrian army continued to seize and use private property belonging to displaced Syrians perceived as opposing the Government. In Idlib, HTS confiscated the properties of displaced individuals who were critical of their rule or perceived to be supporting the Government. In northern Aleppo, systematic property appropriation by SNA members first forced many to leave the area and now continues to prevent their return, as people who dared to claim their properties back were arrested and detained.
Women whose spouses went missing or were detained faced particular difficulties when attempting to secure tenure to their homes and properties, mainly due to traditionally established gender norms and discriminatory inheritance practices.
M. le President,
The attack on al-Sina’a prison in Hasakah city on 20 January was a stark reminder of the threat that Da’esh still poses. The fighting in and around the prison killed hundreds while attacks to push back Da’esh – including ground troops and deployment by the US of F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters - caused significant civilian property damage and destruction.
This facility, and others in north-eastern Syria, hold some 10,000 suspected Da’esh fighters and other men allegedly affiliated with the group. The attack highlighted the plight of hundreds of older boys who are detained there. They have now been detained in insufferable conditions for almost four years, with some enduring untreated mental illness, malnutrition and tuberculosis in overcrowded cells.
Nearly 58,000 people, including 37,000 children, remain unlawfully deprived of their liberty in Al-Hawl and Rawj camps, where humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate and the security situation was exacerbated by murders and deadly clashes. Here we believe the international community has a shared responsibility for this situation: The need for repatriations is more urgent than ever, even as momentum is finally growing. We commend the countries that have repatriated their nationals, but at the current speed, it will take decades to empty the camps. Excellencies, you must move faster.
M. le President,
One of the Syrian war’s greatest tragedies is the unknown fate of the tens of thousands missing or forcibly disappeared, and the suffering endured by their families. We welcome the recent release of the Secretary-General’s urgent report on this issue, and the clear recommendation it made for the establishment of an international body, as called for by families and survivors.
This body, focusing strongly on victims and survivors and inclusive of families, must be established as soon as possible. It must focus on clarifying the fate and whereabouts of missing persons. It must also provide adequate support to victims, survivors and the families of the missing. It must address the gendered impact of disappearances, notably female relatives of the missing, and especially those who are particularly vulnerable.
Don’t look away, the Syrian people await your response. I thank you.