Skip to main content


Address by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, to the United Nations General Assembly Plenary Session, New York

29 July 2013

New York, 29 Juillet 2013

M. le Président
[M. le. Secretaire-Général,]
Mesdames, Messieurs

Syria is in free-fall. Relentless shelling has killed thousands of civilians and displaced the populations of entire towns. An untold number of men and women have disappeared while passing through the ubiquitous checkpoints. Those freed from detention are living with the physical and mental scars of torture. Hospitals have been bombarded, leaving the sick and wounded to languish without care. With the destruction of thousands of schools, a generation of children now struggle to obtain an education. The country has become a battlefield. Its civilians are repeatedly victims of acts of terror.

4.5 million people have been internally displaced. As the war rages on, 18 million people remain in their homes inside Syria. These families are the first providers of humanitarian aid to their fellow citizens. The estimated cost of the conflict to Syria’s economy is between 60 to 80 billion dollars, a third of its pre-war GDP. Over 2.5 million Syrians are now unemployed and struggling to survive.

The war remains deadlocked as both sides labour under the illusion that a military victory is possible. The Government has maintained control of major cities and lines of communication. It continues to rely on its superior weaponry and control of the skies. Hundreds of anti-Government armed groups have increased their operations in the northern and southern governorates. Few have evolved into better structured forces, able to fight across several fronts. The majority remain seriously fragmented, with fighters continually shifting allegiances, usually to better-resourced groups. Extremist elements are a minority but play an active role in hostilities. Violence has spiked in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria with clashes breaking out between Kurdish and anti-Government armed groups.

Syria’s porous borders have facilitated the involvement of regional armed actors, increasingly along sectarian lines. The conflict is extending beyond Syria’s borders, igniting tensions in the whole region.

Civilians are the real victims of this prolonged war. Crimes that shock the conscience have become a dreadfuldaily reality in Syria. Over 800 days since the unrest first began, it is apparent that violations against civilians and hors de combat fighters by both sides continue with little regard to law or to conscience.

Indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment continue across Syria. In particular, towns and villages hosting internally displaced persons from restive areas, such as Homs, have come under relentless attack.

Unlawful attacks by Government forces have been documented in almost every governorate. In many areas, most recently in the eastern Damascus countryside, shelling occurs on a daily basis. As the conflict has unfolded, the Government has deployed more imprecise weaponry, such as unguided missiles, cluster munitions and thermobaric bombs. Interviews with defectors suggest that there is a retributive element to some of these attacks, “punishing” civilians for the presence of armed groups in their towns and villages.

A significant proportion of the casualties are deaths as a result of indiscriminate or disproportionate shelling. Civilians have been killed by mortars landing in the streets; others have been crushed by rubble after their homes were destroyed by barrel bombs. More recently, civilians have been killed when surface-to-surface missiles destroyed not only their houses, but also their neighbourhoods.

Some anti-Government armed groups – notably around Nubul and Zahra in northern Aleppo and Fou’a in Idlib countryside – also indiscriminately shell villages where a significant civilian population resides. Such attacks result in civilian deaths and injuries. Of extreme concern is whether both Government forces and anti-Government armed groups are positioning military objectives within civilian areas, exposing residents to attack by the opposing side.

These unlawful attacks are a primary reason for the movement of people inside the country and over its borders. Entire communities are being stalked by shelling. Families move from place to place, through fields and along dirt roads, in search of dwindling safe havens.

Government forces, apparentlywith the support of the National Defence Army, have employed sieges across the country, cutting off supplies of food, water, medicine and electricity. The prolonged sieges occurring in Dara’a and eastern Damascus governorates have harrowing consequences on the lives of civilians, and in particular on young children and those requiring medical care. Multiple attacks on food security have been reported: interviewees describe harvests being burnt across Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Sieges are also employed by anti-Government armed groups, predominantly in northern Aleppo.

One of the most insidious aspects of the Syrian conflict has been the disappearance of thousands of people from their homes, at checkpoints and from the streets. Across Syria, families wait in desperate hope that their loved ones will be safely returned to them. One interviewee, held for over a year by a Syrian intelligence agency, was confronted upon his release by dozens of women thrusting photographs of their husbands, sons and fathers towards him, hoping that he had seen some of them during his detention.

To ‘disappear’ someone is to place heror him outside the protection of the law. It is often a gateway to the commission of further crimes such as torture. Torture, as documented in our reports, continues to be committed on a widespread and systematic basis, most frequently inside the detention centres of Government intelligence agencies. Torture has also allegedly occurredinside state and military hospitals. Some anti-Government armed groups also torture captured soldiers during interrogations, employing the same methods used by intelligence agencies.

Crimes of sexual violence, including rape, have been documented as occurring at checkpoints, during house searches and in detention centres. As affirmed by the Security Council in its Resolution 2106of 24 June 2013,sexual violence, when committed as a war crime or crime against humanity, can significantly exacerbate and prolong situations of armed conflict and may impede the restoration of peace and security.

War casts aside the rule of law. Massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity. Most have been perpetrated by pro-Government forces. Unlawful killings by anti-Government armed groups have occurred, notably in Aleppo, Al Raqqah and Dayr Al-Zawr governorates.

There have been strong overtones of sectarianism in many of the violations committed. The Syrian conflict is extremely complex. It is vital that its sectarian dimension be placed within the broader geopolitical context. Indeed, it is politics that pushes sectarianism and that now engenders violence of a more sectarian nature, and which empowers its perpetrators.

The Commission’s ability to reach victims from all sides, and to present a full picture of the conflict, has been dramatically curtailed by the denial of access to Syria. We are heartened by the recent visits to Damascus by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Leila Zerrougui and by Professor Ake Sellström, Head of the Panel of Experts. The Commission sincerely hopes that the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic will grant us access in the near future making it possible for us to observe, more thoroughly and from all angles, the conflict.

Monsieur le Président,

What I have described today may outrage, but these violations are not new. Since August 2011, they have been the focus of 10 reports and updates by the Commission of Inquiry. For those who continue to perpetrate violations of international law, there appears to be no fear of future accountability for their actions. Turning a spotlight upon their unlawful conduct has not had the effect of stopping, or even slowing it.

That civilians should come under such sustained unlawful attacks should shock your conscience and spur you to action. But it has not. As the conflict drags on, you – and the world – have become accustomed to levels of violence that were previously unthinkable. The absence of decisive action, by the community of States as a whole, has nourished the culture of impunity that has developed inside Syria today.

This war is a chronicle of missed opportunities on the part of influential states and the international community. I repeat the view I expressed as the war began. There is no military solution to this conflict. This view has also been expressed by many others, including our colleagueLakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Representative for the United Nations and the Arab League.

Those who supply arms to the various warring parties are not creating the ground for victory but rather the illusion of victory. This is a dangerous and irresponsible illusion as it allows the war to unfurl endlessly before us. As the conflict extends, it opens the door to further immense human suffering and the possible conflagration of an entire region.

The Government must cease using imprecise weaponry, such as unguided missiles, on civilian areas. Both sides must discontinue the use of sieges as a method of warfare. Above all, there must be a cessation in the fighting to allow for humanitarian relief to move unhindered through the country, and to provide a space for the first steps towards dialogue to be taken.

It is time for the international community to act decisively. There are no easy choices. To evade choice, however, is to countenance the continuation of this war and its many violations. The conflict will not find its own peaceful solution. Its path does not flow towards negotiation. Nevertheless a return to a negotiation leading to a political settlement is imperative. The world must hear the cry of the people – stop the violence, put an end to this carnage, halt the destruction of the great country of Syria!

To create conditions amenable to negotiations is your responsibility, and it is most particularly the responsibility of influential states. Future negotiations should build upon the tenets of the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Accountability must form part of the negotiations if any future peace is to endure.

We cannot continue to recite a litany of violations and abuses to little effect either on the warring parties inside Syria or those walking along the corridors of power. It is not enough to be appalled.

There is an obligation to do what you must to bring this war to a close. This will require the international community not only to recognise, but also to demand, a diplomatic solution.

It is time to do what youmust to bring Syria to a just and lasting peace.

Thank you.