Statement by Paulo Pinheiro Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
New York, 24 October 2023
Excellences, Collègues, Mesdames et Messieurs,
In the context of the conflict in Syria you have heard us repeat many times that there can be no justification for deliberately attacking civilians. Last year we reviewed the conduct of hostilities since the beginning of the conflict and found all parties guilty of disregard for civilian casualties. Today I stand before you to say we are witnessing the largest escalation of hostilities in Syria in four years. Yet again there appears to be total disregard for civilians lives in what are often tit for tat reprisals.
This month alone Syrian forces retaliated after an attack on a graduation ceremony at the Homs Military Academy that killed and injured scores. In just four days of ground shelling over greater Idlib some two hundred civilians were killed and injured, and medical facilities, schools and markets impacted yet again. Tens of thousands are again displaced and on the run.
In apparent retaliation for an attack that injured two members of Turkish security forces in Ankara on 1 October, Turkiye reportedly responded with heavy bombardments on SDF-held Hasakeh, destroying and damaging power and water stations, affecting hundreds of thousands of civilians.
On Sunday reported airstrikes by Israel on Damascus and Aleppo international airports, the second such attacks this month, put them temporarily out of action and may have yet again impacted the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Excellences, the longstanding lack of respect for fundamental international humanitarian law norms in Syria not only kills and maims victims on all sides in Syria, it has undermined and eroded the very essence of the international protection system and we are seeing the results today in other ongoing conflicts.
Last month, our latest report to the Human Rights Council described the desperate humanitarian situation and increased fragmentation of the country. The Syrian Army and the Russian Airforce launched numerous attacks on the earthquake-impacted northwest Syria, killing and injuring civilians. Assassinations, kidnapping and arbitrary detention are on the rise in southern Syria. The killing of scores of civilians, many shot dead at point blank range, occurred in the desert of Central Syria. In north-eastern Syria we documented cases of torture and deaths in SDF custody, while more than 49,000 people, mainly women and children, still languish in inhumane conditions in Al Hawl and Al Rawj camps.
Since then, the situation in Syria has worsened.
Syria remains the world’s largest refugee crisis, with more than seven million Syrians having fled the country and more than six million displaced inside. Syrians abroad want to return home if they can be safe, and if they can access their homes. At the moment many cannot. They also need sustainable livelihoods. The living conditions of the Syrian people continue to deteriorate alarmingly. The Syrian pound lost over 80% of its value in just three months and over 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. Those most vulnerable, including women heading households, are most affected. There is no evidence during the past decade that sectoral unilateral coercive measures have resulted in positive behavioural changes by the government or others. It is ordinary people who bear the brunt of their impact and related over-compliance. Member States must assess this impact to mitigate any consequences on the daily lives of people. In this regard, we also welcome the humanitarian exemptions to facilitate flow of aid, and call for their extension.
Despite this grim picture, important signs give us some hope. The demonstrations in Suweyda remind us that Syrians have not given up on their freedom to peacefully assemble and claim their rights. All parties must respect the Syrian people’s freedoms of opinion, expression and assembly, and recognise their legitimate aspirations and human rights. This is key for ending the conflict.
We welcome your establishment of the institution on missing persons to holistically address this ongoing national trauma. This institution provides a unique opportunity to help Syria tackle the huge challenge of finding the tens of thousands who are missing or disappeared and to help the families cope with their loss. We appeal to the Government of Syria, and all parties with information on the missing or disappeared, to proactively engage with the new institution to provide clarity on their fate and whereabouts.
We are also heartened that the voices of Syrian survivors and victims are amplified by the proceedings at the International Court of Justice - a significant step in a process that could order the Syrian State to finally cease the systematic practice of torture.
More than 15 million Syrians are reliant on humanitarian assistance. And yet, next month there will again be uncertainty over whether cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid destined for the most vulnerable communities can continue, when the Government’s current consent for two crossings risks expiration on 13 November. This situation needs to end. The international community must ensure that cross-border humanitarian assistance is provided at the necessary scale and in a sustainable, predictable manner.
As engagement with the Government of Syria increases, it is critical that the human rights and legitimate demands of the Syrian people, including victims and survivors, are central to all your diplomatic efforts. Turning our backs on them, or just simply maintaining the status quo, perpetuates rather than relieves their misery. The international community can and must do much more.
I thank you.