Statements Independent investigation
Statement by Paulo Pinheiro Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic - 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
21 March 2023
Geneva, 21 March 2023
M. le President, Excellences,
Today we offer our heartfelt condolences to the victims of last month’s devastating earthquake in Türkiye and the Syrian Arab Republic and we urge the international community to respond generously to the appeals for support by local and international humanitarian agencies.
Last week Syrians marked 12 years of continuing crisis and conflict that has killed over 300,000 civilians and injured many more. Last month the north and north-west of the country was decimated by a once in a century earthquake that has killed at least 50,000 in Türkiye; 4,500 in opposition-held northwest Syria; and 1,500 elsewhere. Syrians in both areas have condemned the actions of the Syrian state and other parties to the conflict who delayed and obstructed aid instead of facilitating it, and lamented the inaction or inability of the international community or the UN to help them rapidly. They feel abandoned and betrayed.
Since the earthquake, we have witnessed heroic acts to help victims, and heartening generosity and solidarity. Many Syrian refugees and IDPs, who themselves are living below the poverty line, have donated whatever they could, and prepared aid shipments to cross frontlines and borders.
But we also saw parties to the conflict again instrumentalize, politicise and impede aid to the victims. The Syrian Government delayed giving consent for cross-border aid to flow into the northwest for the first critical week after the earthquake and, incredibly, impeded aid delivery along with the UN-designated terrorist group HTS and the opposition “Syrian National Army” (SNA). The international community responded to Türkiye’s immediate request for rescue teams and equipment, but they utterly failed to do the same in northwest Syria, which became an epicentre of neglect.
All parties to the conflict failed to secure an agreement to immediately pause hostilities.
We are looking into reported fresh incidents of shelling, obstruction of humanitarian assistance and looting of vacated homes in the very earthquake-affected areas by the parties. These also include the recent reported Israeli airstrikes on Aleppo Airport, which has been a conduit for humanitarian aid.
We again call on all parties to agree on an immediate cessation of hostilities and to consent to impartial humanitarian relief being delivered unimpeded to those in need, whether through cross-border or cross-line modalities. In this vein, we commend the relaxation of sanctions by the USA, the EU and the UK and the consent to additional humanitarian border crossings by the Syrian Government and we hope that both continue beyond their current expiration dates.
We also support the calls by many Syrians and others for a thorough review of the effectiveness of the UN and the wider international community’s humanitarian response to the disaster to ensure that lessons are learned and failures are not repeated.
These tragic events only added to the calamities of the continuing war in Syria.
Our latest report documents aerial and ground attacks in the north-west, during which hundreds of civilians were killed and injured. Government forces targeted farming communities, including children, and agricultural equipment with precision-guided munitions. Syrian Government forces killed and injured dozens of civilians in a cluster bomb attack on seven displacement camps in Idlib governorate. In northern Aleppo, they killed and injured at least 45 people in a rocket attack on and around a busy market in al-Bab. Airstrikes by the Russian Aerospace Forces caused further death and injury to civilians. These and other attacks may amount to war crimes.
Insecurity also prevailed in Dar’a and Hama governorates with clashes between government forces and armed groups, and incidents of targeted killings. Da’esh also launched an attack against civilians, a sombre reminder of its continuing presence.
August attacks by Turkish armed forces caused civilian casualties in Qamishli and in and around Ayn al-Arab (Aleppo), in the lead-up to Türkiye’s operation “Claw Sword” launched in November.
Later, in December in Suwayda’, protests erupted against the deteriorating socio-economic situation and Government forces responded with live ammunition, killing one and injuring other demonstrators.
Detention and related violations by State security forces were among the underlining root causes of the Syrian conflict.1 Twelve years on, arbitrary arrests and torture, enforced disappearances, and deaths in detention continue with appalling systematicity. Relatives of detainees were increasingly extorted by security forces, as the economic situation deteriorated further. Such predatory practices also affected returning refugees, migrant workers and IDPs. Other returnees saw their homes looted or property confiscated, without any possibility to effectively reclaim their homes, land and property. It remains abundantly clear that Syria is still not a safe place to return to.
Turning to areas outside government control, in the north-west, SNA and HTS members tortured detainees and held many incommunicado, some for years, in acts tantamount to enforced disappearance. Detainees in SNA custody died of torture and ill-treatment. Allegations of executions by HTS, a practice we have documented previously, continue to reach us.
Due process, including access to lawyers or information about their charges, as well as contact with families were denied by HTS and SNA members. Children were also being held in SNA and HTS-run detention facilities. Destitute families in northern Aleppo were subjected to extortion by SNA members to secure the release of their relatives.
Arbitrary detention, including of people expressing dissent, also continued in the north-east. In al-Hawl and Roj camps, some 56,000 people, mainly women and children who are widely assumed to be families of Da`esh members, subsist in conditions that amount to cruel or inhuman treatment and constitute the war crime of outrage upon personal dignity. Asayish and SDF reported having found Yazidi women and girls in captivity in these camps during a summer operation supported by the international counter-Da`esh coalition. We welcome the increasing numbers of repatriations of children and their mothers by some States, and urge all member states to act with utmost speed to repatriate their nationals, given the appalling security and humanitarian conditions in these camps.
In Idlib, HTS continued to restrict fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression by intimidating and harassing activists and journalists.
The harms caused by these violations have shaped Syrian women’s experiences differently. Sexual and gender-based violence, including threats and intimidation, permeate all walks of life from simple efforts to obtain or renew documents to risks when crossing checkpoints and treatment in detention. National legislation offers no protections against domestic violence or marital rape. Stigmatization and the lack of protection services render sexual violence survivors reluctant to come forward and share their experiences or even seek medical assistance. Others do not report their experiences after being threatened with murder for “honour” related reasons. In some cases, victims have been forced to marry the perpetrators. In northern Aleppo, SNA members confiscated the homes of women who resided alone, underlining the precarious situation of women and their housing rights.
We have long advocated for and supported Syrian families’ calls for an independent international entity to assist in the search for those missing or disappeared and to provide others forms of support to the families. This initiative is firmly in the humanitarian track and complements the efforts towards accountability. We welcome the progress that has been achieved in this direction, including the Secretary-General’s study that calls for the establishment of such an entity.
The Secretary-General briefs the UN General Assembly on this issue next Tuesday. Member states simply must move directly from discussion and debate to urgently pass a resolution establishing this body. I thank you.
1 A/HRC/46/55, para 5.