Human rights situation worsens in Syria, says Inquiry Report

2021-09-17, 3:17pm Human rights

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Human rights Logo. Predrag Stakic. Wikimedia Commons.

Geneva, 16 Sep (Kanaga Raja) – Over the past year, the deepening economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and human rights violations through shelling, air strikes, improvised explosive devices, targeted killings, arbitrary and incommunicado detention and torture have combined to worsen the human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic.

This is one of the main conclusions highlighted by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

The Syrian Arab Republic does not yet offer a safe and stable environment for sustainable and dignified returns of refugees, nor for the 6.7 million displaced persons inside the country, said the report.

The Human Rights Council is currently holding its regular 48th session from 13 September to 8 October.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic is comprised of Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro (Chair), Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, and Mr. Hanny Megally.

“One decade in, the parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians. The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven in this war-torn country,” said Mr Sergio Pinheiro, the chair of the Commission.

“The overall situation in Syria looks increasingly bleak. In addition to intensifying violence, the economy is plummeting, Mesopotamia’s famous river beds are at their driest in decades, and widespread community transmission of the COVID-19 seems unstoppable by a health care system decimated by the war and lacking oxygen and vaccines. This is no time for anyone to think that Syria is a country fit for its refugees to return”, said Commissioner Ms AbuZayd.

In their report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, the Commissioners said the 5 March 2020 ceasefire led to a significant decrease in hostilities in the north-west, but the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic remained volatile.

The economic situation continued to deteriorate, and the COVID-19 pandemic further strained the country’s war- torn health system.

The Secretary-General’s appeal in March 2020 for a nationwide ceasefire and for Group of 20 members to waive sanctions in order to ensure access to food and essential health supplies, including COVID-19 support, remained unheeded.

The report said daily life presented mounting challenges for civilians. Fuel shortages placed many in a desperate situation when, in early January, the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources announced that it would reduce fuel distribution – for some types of fuel, by almost a quarter – due to supply chain delays, which it blamed on the impact of sanctions.

On 15 April 2021, the Central Bank again devalued the Syrian pound, from LS 1,250/US$1 to LS 2,500/US$1.7 leading to further increases in the price of goods and medication.

The World Food Programme found that 12.4 million Syrians (nearly 60 per cent of the population) were food insecure – the highest number ever reported – while 43 per cent reported poor food consumption, which is double the figure reported last year.

Meanwhile, lagging testing capacity, an acute shortage of oxygen supplies and slow delivery of vaccines under COVAX, the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, impaired responses amid widespread community COVID-19 transmission, said the Commission.

Of the estimated 13.4 million Syrians needing humanitarian assistance as of March 2021 – a 21 per cent increase from 2020 – 4.9 million reside in the north-west of the country.

Meanwhile, conflict endured and military tensions remained high, with government forces, non-State armed groups, United Nations-designated terrorist groups, and five foreign armies operating in close proximity, although front lines remained static during the period, said the Commission.

Forces of the Russian Federation conducted at least 82 air strikes in support of the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, while the international counter-Da’esh coalition, led by the United States of America, carried out at least 56 air strikes in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The Commission tracked at least 19 incidents of reported air strikes by Israeli forces on territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, including a particularly deadly one on 13 January against pro-government forces.

It said that Idlib and the surrounding governorates remained the epicentre of violence, including attacks on joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the de-escalation zone.

Aerial and ground attacks intensified in early 2021, affecting de-conflicted hospitals and gas facilities.

The Commission said in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions, detonations of improvised explosive devices became a near weekly occurrence for civilians.

The Commission said it documented seven such incidents, which killed and maimed at least 243 women, men and children and damaged civilian infrastructure.

It noted that Presidential elections in the Syrian Arab Republic were announced on 18 April and took place on 26 May. The President, Bashar al-Assad, who has led the Syrian Arab Republic since 2000, was re-elected with 95 per cent of the vote.

Voting was restricted to government- controlled areas and among parts of the diaspora abroad, and the credibility of the elections, which were not monitored by the United Nations, was questioned.

The southern area of the Syrian Arab Republic, in particular Dar’a Governorate, saw increasing insecurity during the reporting period, including targeted killings and clashes between armed individuals and State security services.

Some clashes were followed by demands from government forces for certain individuals to be expelled to areas controlled by armed groups.

The Commission said siege-like tactics were used on several occasions to put pressure on the local community to acquiesce.

Targeted killings, or attempts thereof, also increased in Dar’a; several instances appeared to be retaliatory acts by locally based armed actors.

The Commission said it sought to investigate 18 such incidents occurring between July 2020 and February 2021, and received reports of hundreds more.

The use of the described siege-like tactics by pro-government forces violates the rights of people living in those areas, including their rights to freedom of movement, to food and to health, and may amount to the war crime of collective punishment, the Commission emphasized.

“There are also reasonable grounds to believe that government forces also resorted to hostage-taking, which would constitute a war crime.”

The targeted killings, when carried out by parties to the conflict, violate the prohibition of direct attacks against civilians and amount to the war crime of murder, said the Commission, adding that there is no indication that the Government launched any investigation into these killings.

Incidents of deaths in detention continued to be documented, with 13 reports received during the reporting period from Dar’a and Rif Damascus alone.

In one example, a man from Jasim who had “reconciled” was arrested by military security forces following the recapture by government forces of the area in 2018.

In May 2021, the family was informed through informal government contacts that he had died in detention in July 2020. No body or death certificate was received.

Cases of incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance remained pervasive. As previously documented, government forces and officials continued to conceal the fate and whereabouts of those detained, and to extort large sums of money in exchange for releasing information to families, said the Commission.

These cases of arbitrary detention add to the considerable evidence already described in the Commission’s March 2021 report on detention, in which the Commission documented continuing patterns of crimes against humanity and war crimes, it added.

Tens of thousands of people remain in incommunicado arbitrary detention or forcibly disappeared by government forces.

Regarding cases of death in detention, the Commission said that it is not aware of any investigations having been launched.

The confiscation of property and land through public auctions in areas retaken by government forces in the north- west of the Syrian Arab Republic, particularly in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib Governorates, continued to inhibit the return of internally displaced persons.

Affected areas included arable land with high value crops, such as pistachio and olive trees. Some of this land was burned or destroyed after being retaken, while other areas were tilled by pro-government forces to generate profit for the authorities and specific individuals.

In October 2020, the local authorities in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib Governorates started auctioning annual leases, purportedly to allow individuals to work the land while the owners remained displaced.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform announced on 24 November that the goal of the auctions in those governorates was to cultivate all idle agricultural lands capable of growing wheat.

However, said the Commission, interviewees alleged that the auctions were often just a facade to formalize the already existing appropriation and exploitation by various pro-government forces of land belonging to displaced owners, pointing to the unchanged usage of the land before and after the auctions.

The acts of confiscation of private property, in particular those that are likely to generate personal gain, may amount to pillage, which is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime, said the Commission.

“The property rights of displaced persons are also specifically protected as a customary norm of international humanitarian law, and must be respected by all parties.”

Private property is also protected under international human rights law, as no one is to be arbitrarily deprived of their property, the Commission added.

A decrease in violence in the north-west of the country since the 5 March 2020 ceasefire initially led to the return of many displaced civilians. However, hostilities increased in early 2021, involving aerial and ground offensives.

Sustained attacks devastated civilian infrastructure, including markets and hospitals. Additionally, gas facilities and vital economic supply routes were further affected by attacks in March, crippling the provision of vital resources and access to aid distribution.

Several such attacks resembled patterns previously documented during the offensive on Idlib and western Aleppo between November 2019 and March 2020, said the Commission.

Most recently, a devastating offensive focusing on the Jabal al-Zawiyah region, Idlib Governorate, resulted in the displacement of more than 11,000 people by mid-June, it said, adding that investigations are ongoing.

Alongside the attacks carried out by government forces, and compounding the suffering of civilians throughout the Idlib and western Aleppo regions, members of armed groups intensified ground attacks on government-controlled areas, affecting primarily residential areas and causing civilian casualties.

Between November 2019 and March 2020, government forces and opposition groups battled for control over Idlib Governorate and the western area of Aleppo Governorate, forcing many residents in strategic locations near active front lines to flee their homes.

After attempting to recapture Ariha in late 2019, government forces resumed their efforts towards that end in July 2020.

Amid chronic fuel shortages and a severe economic crisis, pro-government forces launched several attacks that affected resource provision, access to goods and fuel supplies for large parts of the population.

In parallel to the attacks on Ariha, government forces renewed their efforts to recapture Atarib town.

To illustrate, on 21 March 2021, at around 8.30 a.m., at least six rockets were launched over a span of 20 minutes towards a “de-conflicted” cave hospital in Atarib, three of which directly hit the facility, said the Commission.

At least 8 civilian patients, including 1 woman and 2 boys, were killed, and 13 others injured, including 5 medical workers.

The attack further damaged vital medical equipment and one generator, and nearly destroyed the entrance to the orthopaedic clinic and underground-floor waiting rooms.

According to the Commission, it has reasonable grounds to believe that pro-government forces have violated the international humanitarian law principle of distinction in launching indiscriminate attacks damaging civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, and impeding access to objects indispensable to the survival of the population, such as fuel and humanitarian supplies, including through the use of cluster munitions.

Furthermore, the indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians may amount to war crimes, it said.

Moreover, in the case of the attack on the cave hospital in Atarib, the Commission said it has reasonable grounds to believe, based on the absence of a known military objective in the vicinity, the use of guided munitions and patterns previously observed, that pro-government forces may have committed the war crime of directing an attack against a medical facility.

The Commission concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that members of non-State armed groups have continued to violate the principle of distinction in launching indiscriminate attacks that hit populated areas and causing civilian casualties and damage.

“This may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians.”

During the period under review, civilians in the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions suffered increased levels of violence, including numerous car bombs and artillery shelling that killed and injured scores of men, women and children and damaged civilian infrastructure, said the Commission.

Compounding the fragile security situation, civilians continued to endure international human rights violations at the hands of forces operating under the umbrella of the opposition Syrian National Army.

During the period under review, at least 59 incidents, causing approximately 641 casualties involving the use of explosive devices, reportedly occurred in Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn.

The Commission documented seven such explosions in crowded zones that resulted in at least 243 casualties in areas controlled by the Syrian National Army.

The Commission also noted that detention practices in the Syrian Arab Republic have consistently displayed a heavily gendered dimension.

During the reporting period, the Commission continued to document gender-based violations, including of a sexual nature.

Female former detainees described being subjected to multiple rapes, beatings and torture by members of the Syrian National Army forces guarding them, and regularly denied food, it said.

Others were threatened with rape during interrogation sessions, assaulted and harassed, including while being held in solitary confinement, which amplified fears and the intimidation.

With regard to the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, no party has claimed responsibility for the attacks, said the Commission.

There are, however, significant indications that all seven of the attacks launched on and in the region of Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn were carried out by armed group factions or fighters, as opposed to members of State forces.

There are reasonable grounds to believe that the seven attacks, through the use of improvised explosive devices with wide-area effects in populated civilian areas, may amount to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians, said the Commission, adding that investigations are ongoing.

During the period under review, the security situation in certain areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces deteriorated, and violent attacks by Da’esh remnants increased.

Meanwhile, the families of missing persons, who had been disappeared by Da’esh, were still waiting to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones more than two years after the territorial defeat of Da’esh in 2019.

The Commission also said that during the period under review, Syrian Democratic Forces members arrested civilian men, including media personnel, in the context of large-scale anti-terrorism operations initiated in summer 2020.

Interviewees described how, with warplanes overhead, anti-terror units of the Syrian Democratic Forces carried out night raids on several homes, including of activists.

According to the Commission, it is long overdue that the Government and other parties to the conflict cease attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and:

(a) Ensure and facilitate unimpeded access for the independent humanitarian, protection and human rights organizations in every part of the country, including to places of confinement or detention;

(b) Immediately cease torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual and gender-based violence, in places of detention; cease all forms of incommunicado detention and release the infirm, those with disabilities, older persons, women, children and those who were arbitrarily detained; and take all feasible measures, in line with Security Council resolution 2474 (2019), to search for and reveal the fates of those who were detained and/or disappeared, and further establish an effective channel of communication with families to ensure that their legal, economic and psychological needs are addressed adequately; and

(c) Pursue a long-lasting, nationwide ceasefire, in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), that allows Syrians to focus on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and creates the conditions for meaningful peace talks, building on the relative reduction in the level of violence in the Syrian Arab Republic since the onset of the pandemic.

Published in SUNS #9419 dated 17 September 2021