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Urgent debate on the human rights situation in Syria - Opening Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights

Urgent debate on Syria

29 May 2013

Geneva, 29 May 2013

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,

The situation in Syria reflects a colossal failure to protect civilians. Day after day, children, women and men suffer the brutality of unbridled violence and gross human rights violations by all parties. The increasing number of foreign fighters crossing Syria’s borders to support one side or the other, is further fueling the sectarian violence, and the situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilizing the region as a whole.

General situation

Credible reports from my monitoring teams indicate that government forces continue to carry out indiscriminate and disproportionate shelling and aerial attacks resulting in civilian deaths and injuries throughout the country, including in Al-Qusayr.

Government forces and affiliated militias have reportedly carried out acts of collective punishment against civilian populations perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition. The reported massacres in Al Bayda and Ras Al-Nabaa in Baniyas, following similar mass killings in other parts of Syria, show a pattern of extreme acts of collective punishment. Arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial executions by Government forces have continued unabated. 

          The flagrant disregard of international law is not limited to the Government side. Many anti-Government armed groups are reportedly engaging in military operations within civilian-populated areas. Some of these groups continue to carry out executions of captured members of pro-Government forces and affiliated militias. The abduction of civilians by anti-Government armed groups, as well as killings, violence and threats of reprisals against civilian populations perceived to be supportive of the Government are also believed to be escalating. 

Both parties to the conflict have targeted cultural property and places of worship, including mosques and churches, as part of a wider context of large-scale destruction of housing and other buildings and infrastructure throughout Syria.  


Since anti-Government armed groups took control of the city of Al-Qusayr and the surrounding area in 2012, a year-long Government-imposed siege, accompanied by frequent shelling, has resulted in a deteriorating humanitarian situation, with shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies. The situation has greatly worsened over the last month, as efforts to capture Al-Qusayr have intensified, with hundreds more desperate families fleeing the area.

I am deeply concerned about the safety of the civilians still trapped in and around Al-Qusayr. Intense shelling, and clashes between Government forces and supporting militias and anti-Government armed groups have reportedly resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries.

I am also concerned about reports suggesting that some anti-Government armed groups are operating in populated areas and have failed to clearly distinguish themselves from civilians in Al-Qusayr.

I urge both sides to protect civilians from the ongoing violence and to allow safe passage to those who wish to flee. Under international law, all parties are called upon to distinguish themselves from civilians during hostilities and to take all feasible precautions to limit their suffering.  

International dimension

Mr. President, the conflict in Syria is spinning out of control. 

Immediate action to stop further bloodshed and suffering is needed, and this urgent debate provides an opportunity for the international community to review its approach. It is also an opportunity for individual States and other actors to do some soul-searching. States with influence on both sides must pull together to stop this conflict, instead of pursuing opposing paths that have so far simply contributed to the spiraling devastation of Syria.

The solution must be political. It will not be military. Outside forces, including some States, are reported to be actively fueling the conflict by providing weapons and ammunition to one side or the other. This emboldens the belligerents.

Large-scale forced displacement, including across borders, on the basis of religious or other affiliations, is no longer a prospect we can ignore. If the current situation persists, or deteriorates further, increased inter-communal massacres are a certainty, rather than a risk. Recent virulent instances of incitement to violence on grounds of religion or ethnicity, and the increasing involvement of a variety of extremist foreign fighters, are ominous signs of more violence to come.

Syria has long had a reputation for tolerance, with Sunnis, Shia, Alawites, Christians, Kurds, Druze and many other communities living side-by-side in relative harmony.

The international community must drive home an uncompromising message that all Syrians are entitled to live in their own country, in safety and without fear, regardless of their religion, ethnicity or political affiliation.

Mr. President,

In the run-up to the proposed International Conference on Syria in Geneva, States -- especially those with influence on the combatants -- must act collectively to stop this dreadful conflict from getting even worse. The collapse of the State of Syria would have devastating consequences, not just for Syrians, but also for the region and the whole world.

          The message from all of us should be the same: we will not support this conflict with arms, ammunition, politics or religion.

We must put our differences aside, and States with influence should use it to apply strong pressure to halt all further use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardment of civilian areas. States with influence must make it clear they are unified in not tolerating any further killings, destruction or sectarian incitement, by anti- or pro-Government elements.

States with influence must insist – and ensure – that the Government and opposition groups permit humanitarian agencies to operate without restrictions in order to provide the massive assistance that is so urgently needed across this devastated land.

Mr. President, the Syrian conflict will end one day, one way or another. We must plan for that ending in the hope that it is in a month, not in five, ten or twenty years.

There will be many daunting post-conflict challenges that need to be tackled, and which we need to start reflecting on now.

The urgent needs of Syrians for humanitarian relief and for economic and social reconstruction will require the maintenance or restoration and reform of functional State institutions, including the army, police, judiciary and civil administration.

We must also put our differences aside in respect of upholding international laws and standards. Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court to ensure accountability for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. War crimes and crimes against humanity are being routinely committed and the prevalent culture of impunity is helping to prolong the conflict.

A referral to the ICC is likely to have a deterrent effect that may help to protect lives. Would-be perpetrators should be under no illusion that they will escape justice.  Referral to the ICC will give an incentive to the many people on both sides, who are not responsible for serious crimes, to distance themselves from the extremists driving the country to destruction. It will demonstrate clearly that the only viable future is to hold discussions, seek reconciliation, find solutions and stop the carnage.  

Proposed Geneva Conference
Mr President, for all the above reasons, I welcome the efforts to hold the long-awaited international conference in Geneva to find a political solution to the conflict. I call on all involved States to place respect for human rights firmly on its agenda.

This is an extremely important opportunity for States with influence to pull the parties back from the brink of catastrophe. Reflecting on the immense human and economic cost of previous protracted conflicts, we should do our utmost to avoid allowing another one to develop in the heart of such a particularly volatile region.

 This Council should send a clear message to all parties to the conflict, and the external actors wittingly and unwittingly fuelling it: the conflict must cease, with an immediate cease-fire as a confidence-building measure leading up to the Geneva conference; the flow of arms must stop; and the process of national dialogue must begin now.

Thank you.


For more information or media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / [email protected]); Liz Throssell (+41 22 917 9434 / [email protected]) or Cécile Pouilly (+ 41 22 917 9310 /[email protected])

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