Statement by Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
05 July 2023
United Nations Human Rights Council
53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Geneva, 5 July 2023
Monsieur le Président du Conseil des Droits de l´Homme, Excellences, chers collègues,
As we speak here today in Geneva, people living in the earthquake-devastated northwest of Syria remain the target of air- and ground strikes, while the continuation of the aid they critically need is at risk. In only five days, the current Security Council authorization for cross-border aid into the area needs renewing.
Millions of people in Idlib have been displaced multiple times since 2011. To them, it is unacceptable to leave humanitarian access entirely under the control of parties to the conflict who have blocked aid in the past.1 We underscore the necessity of heeding the Secretary General’s call for a 12-month extension of aid through the border-crossings with Turkiye.2 There is an urgent need to re-examine how the UN and the international community are addressing their predicament, to ensure predictable and sustainable aid flows in the future.
In north-east Syria, some 51,600 people, mostly women and children, remain interned in appalling conditions in Hawl and Rawj camps, where aid is sorely lacking too. We welcome repatriations, mostly of women and children, by over a dozen countries3 around the world, since the beginning of the year, and the release of Syrians too. The pace of such voluntary repatriations and releases needs to speed up, given the conditions in the camps and the unlawfulness of the detention.
Last month, the local administration there announced, somewhat reluctantly, that it was planning to initiate trials against around 10,000 suspected Da’esh members it is detaining. We have long called for member States to take back their nationals and, where appropriate, hold them accountable through fair trials. This remains the best course of action, while ensuring respect for non-refoulement obligations.
Da’esh still poses a threat to civilians in Syria, including in their suspected involvement in recent improvised explosive devices attacks and the killings of dozens of civilians harvesting truffles in the north-eastern desert, many of whom were shot at point-blank range.
Syrian civilians were also killed in other suspected Syrian, Russian, Israeli, Jordanian, Turkish and US strikes these past months. As we have systematically insisted, all parties must take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. All indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, in particular attacks on objects indispensable for the survival of the civilian population, must cease immediately.
The Commission takes note of the League of Arab States’ decision to readmit Syria this spring. In principle, we view engagement and dialogue by all parties as necessary and important, in order to find a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria and to put Syria on a path toward ensuring accountability and restoring the basic human rights that have been so long denied.
However, the decision seems to have been primarily focussed on the challenges of dealing with the Captagon trade, Syrian refugees and the fight against terrorism. We were dismayed to see little reference to the human rights concerns which are the root causes of this conflict, and which this Commission has been documenting for twelve years. We hope in the coming months the Arab League will make these human rights concerns a priority in their dialogue with the Government. They include abusive detention practices (including arbitrary and incommunicado detention, torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances), violations of housing, land and property rights, and the rights of those displaced internally or outside the country. Our human rights concerns extend to all parties to the conflict.
Refugees surveyed have mostly said they fear returning because of the security situation in the country and the risks they run of extortion, being arrested and imprisoned, being conscripted and sent to the front lines, alongside a critical lack of livelihood and work opportunities. Very small numbers from the over 7 million Syrians who fled abroad are returning.
The tragic sinking last month of a migrant boat caused massive loss of life in the Mediterranean, with over 600 people missing including many Syrians. This serves as a sombre reminder that, 12 years in, more Syrians may be fleeing their country rather than returning, despite the huge risks they face along the escape route.
Returns of refugees to Syria must be voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable. Steps must be taken, including through independent international verification on the ground, to ensure that those who return face no harm and can receive adequate assistance to make their return sustainable.
Today such conditions do not exist. Excellences, grave crimes are still being committed. Arbitrary arrests, torture, ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and deaths in detention continue, not only by the State but also by UN-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the opposition “Syrian National Army” (SNA), as well as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north-eastern Syria.
We also have particular concerns about increasing recruitment of child soldiers by the non-state actors. According to the annual Secretary-General´s report on children in armed conflict, released last week, the number of children recruited by armed groups in Syria has steadily risen in recent years, reaching nearly 1,700 in 2022.
Pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women and girls have been amplified as a consequence of the conflict. As described in our policy paper released last month, widows and wives of the hundreds of thousands of men detained, disappeared or killed, and other women heads of households, face mounting challenges with regard to access to food, housing and birth registration of their children, early and forced marriages and protection against sexual- and gender-based violence.
Predatory security forces subject civilians to extortion for monetary gain. Journalists, NGO workers and media activists who speak up against abuses are often themselves the target of violations by the forces of the different authorities, stifling freedom of expression and association.
The Government and all other parties must cease torture and ill-treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence, in all places of detention. Is this too much to ask? That they release those arbitrarily detained and stop subjecting families to extortion? That they cease incommunicado detention and enforced disappearances and take all feasible measures [in line with Security Council resolution 2474 (2019)] to locate all those detained and/or disappeared, establish their fate or whereabouts and ensure communication with their families?
Given the lack of action for over a decade, we welcome the initiation of proceedings at the International Court of Justice to hold the Syrian State accountable for failing to adhere to its obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture.
We also welcome last week’s long-awaited General Assembly resolution establishing an international institution for the missing. Finally Syrian families are to be aided by an international body that can help clarify the scale of the problem and the whereabouts of tens of thousands missing loved ones, from all sides of the conflict, and provide support to victims and families while ensuring their full and meaningful participation. Their expectation is that the best expertise, methodology, technology available all over the world, and adequate resources will be mobilised for this institution.
he international community has hitherto abjectly failed to bring this conflict to an end. But now this ground-breaking institution can at least provide some support, some solace, and perhaps some hope, for the millions impacted by this phenomenon.