A UN investigation into atrocities committed in Syria

Syrian women with their children in the Rukban camp  Syrian women with their children in the Rukban camp © Amjad Ghsoun

This article in a brief presentation of the new United Nations report on human rights violations in Syria

On March 2, 2020, the Independent International Commission Inquiry in Syrian Arab Republic released a new report covering the period between July 2019 and January 2020The Commission, made up of three independent experts (Paulo Pinheiro, Karen AbuZayd and Henry Megally), was established by the Human Rights Council in 2011, shortly after the civil war began, to investigate atrocities committed in Syria. 

The report is based on 233 interviews, conducted both on the ground in Syria and from Geneva, as well as photographs, videos and medical records. The methodology employed also included fact-finding missions conducted in the Syrian region.

The study briefly summarizes the political and military developments of the conflict in Syria. Since the beginning of the war, both States and non-State actors participating in the conflict have committed a large number of hostilities. In addition, the Commission has underlined how rapidly shifting alliances between these parties continued to create “volatility” and undermine the peace process. Furthermore, the commissioners have conducted an investigation into the attacks of the pro-government forces on civilian targets as well as the operations managed by the terrorist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Regarding the first point, the Commission focused on unlawful attacks in Ma’rrat al Nu’man, Janudiyah village (a medical point) and Al-Bara which targeted civilian infrastructures and rendered the  civilian areas uninhabitable. Moreover, the incidents between 22 July 2019 and 16 August 2019 in Idlib governorate, where at least 3 million Syrians live in need, are meticulously described in the report: “Based on the evidence available, including witness testimonies, video footage, […] the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that a Russian aircraft participated in each incident described […] the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas”. According to the study, there is substantial evidence that Russian aircrafts were directly involved in the bombing of civilian areas where the attacks affected marketplaces, schools, shops and residential buildings. As violence escalated, at least 1.5 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced. The Commission has also underlined that the pro-government forces have repeatedly committed war crimes and violated binding international humanitarian law (IHL) in a form of attacks on medical facilities. The attacks have left many civilians with no choice but to flee. Although the government officials claimed that their aim was to attack terrorist elements, it is reasonable to believe that “pro-government forces intended to terrorize civilians, in an effort to depopulate the zone and accelerate its capture”. Civilian casualties in the Idlib governorate were also caused by the armed groups. In November 2019, the HTS fighters attacked several neighbourhoods in Aleppo killing seven civilians and injuring 29 others. In order to consolidate the power in areas under their control, the HTS fighters have imposed a tax on olive oil production in the town, recruited and used children in hostilities and persecuted activists and media workers. In addition, the presence of terrorists has impacted residents’ access to education, health and humanitarian aid.

Moreover, cases of killings, detentions and abductions were detected in Afrin and adjacent areas and have affected primarily Kurdish residents. Hence, the Commission has conducted interviews with victims of torture and ill-treatments, who were predominately male and of Kurdish origin. In addition, Syrian National Army members have carried out large-scale property confiscation operations in the above mentioned areas while the residents have described shooting incidents, car bomb explosions and other attacks involving improvised explosive devices.

In areas retaken by the Government, civilians have experienced limited access to basic services. For instance, electricity was only available on the main street whereas the transport of moveable property was heavily limited. In addition, the interviewees described  enforced disappearances, detentions and unlawful arrests. The Commission has found that the government forces have arrested family members to suppress political participation and used the arrest as a tool to exert pressure during negotiations. In areas such Dar’a and Darayya, the owners of property have been forced to sell it at reduced prices; furthermore, displaced people, once back home, have found their houses occupied by families of members of the security forces or armed groups.

 The second part of the study focuses on the impact of the ongoing conflict on civilians living in Syria. Since the beginning of the war, people were forced to flee their homes and relocate to displacement camps, where access to health care is limited and, in some cases, absent.  According to the Commission, 6.1 million civilians are currently displaced in Syria and 5.6 million are refugees outside the country. Displaced persons are often persecuted on the basis of multiple aspects, such as age, gender, ethnicity, separation and physical disabilities. At the time of writing, the Commission has registered hundreds of thousands of civilians living in overcrowded camps in northern Syria. Due to overcrowding, many of them have limited access to food, water, medicine and humanitarian assistance. The Commission expressed a particular concern over the situation in the Rukban camp, where children's conditions are deteriorating and many of them have died of “preventable causes”. In addition, the workers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have reported that, by January 2020, the number of people in the camp would be 15,000 with the estimated capacity of the Rukban camp pegged at 12,000. The Commission has also received reports regarding people who refused to be relocated due to the fear of forced conscriptions and arbitrary arrests while the ongoing violations in government-held areas impede safe returns.

The report also outlines many cases of gender-based violence against women, especially against Kurdish women in Syria, who are the most affected. Due to the fear of violence among the female Kurdish population  in Afrin District, many women have decided to resign from their jobs or to wear a headscarf when outside. For instance, the report involves a testimony of a woman who reported to have been sexually assaulted by members of an armed group at a checkpoint. Similar witnesses are numerous and can also be found among the Yazidi women. On the other hand, children’s lives have been scarred by the brutality of war and victimized in numerous ways. In North-East Syria from October 2019 onward, 150 schools have been closed and 60 others have been transformed into shelters for displaced persons. Hence, thousands of children have been deprived from access to schooling. The study also denounces the situation of women with familiar links to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. Many mothers of children in areas retaken by the governmental forces have faced obstacles in registering their children, since the authorities refused to accept documentation provided by the armed groups. As the report outlines, this decision “substantially compromises children’ rights to acquire a nationality, as well as access to health and education, and further exposes them to the risks of child exploitation and trafficking”. In addition, the report denounces the continuous deterioration of conditions of children in displacement camps. Boys and girls suffer from infectious diseases and malnutrition due to the marginal access to clean water, food and medical care. In camps under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, foreign children with familiar links to ISIL fighters are still waiting to return to their countries of origin, years after they were brought to Syria. Thousands of children from over 50 countries are in a legal limbo because many governments of origin refuse repatriation. According to the Commission, the situation is deplorable, since they remain at risk of statelessness in violation of the best interest of the child. The Commission revealed that the investigations into this matter are ongoing.

The report concludes with several recommendations for the parties to the conflict, the government and the international community.  The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, said: “I urge all parties to the conflict to engage in good faith dialogue to bring an end to this tragic conflict and to allow unfettered humanitarian aid and assistance through to all people in need immediately”. Furthermore,  the Commission recommended the Government to release all those unlawfully detained and cease all forms of unlawful deprivation of liberty. It is also recommended to allow unfettered access for independent humanitarian organizations and facilitate the civilian freedom of movement in retaken areas. In addition, the Commission urged the international community to take steps to end the violations of the IHL as well as urged the individual Member States to repatriate foreign nationals in Syria, in particular children with their families. Ultimately, the Commission called on the parties to use diplomatic means to de-escalate violence in northern Syria.


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Author: Silvia Luminati; Editor: Aleksandra Krol

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