Damning report says Syria situation should be referred to ICC

Damning report says Syria situation should be referred to ICC©Freedom House/FlickrChildren in house destroyed by fighting in Alep in 2014
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The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria on September 19 presented a damning report to the UN Human Rights Council on abuses committed there between January 10 and July 20, 2016. The Commission, which was set up under an August 2011 resolution to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law in the war-torn country, stressed in its conclusions an urgent need for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Commission condemned the fact that its members were refused entry into Syria. It therefore had to base its investigation on interviews conducted in the region and from Geneva, notably with refugees, corroborated by academic, medical, photographic and satellite evidence.

Whereas there was a slight improvement in the situation at the beginning of the year after ceasefire agreements and the creation of humanitarian corridors, intense fighting resumed in March, creating five million new refugees, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

According to the commission of inquiry, the internally displaced are among the most vulnerable to human rights abuses, since the camps where they seek refuge are often the target of attacks.

Nearly 600,000 civilians are suffering a long state of siege in Damascus, Deir-Ezzor, Homs and the province of Idleb, under brutal conditions. Islamic State (IS) has also besieged part of the Deir-Ezzor region and, with the help of other non-State groups, surrounded Al Foua and Kafria in the Idleb region in March 2015.

Even if access to humanitarian aid in these regions has improved, the absence of cooperation between the parties to the conflict continues to cause malnutrition, leading to more and more deaths, says the report. It draws attention to the fact that international law bans the use of famine as a weapon of war. The Commission also condemns the refusal to set up evacuation corridors for civilians trapped in besieged areas, in particular the 300,000 trapped in eastern Alep after government forces in July cut off the Castello road, the only remaining link between Alep and Turkey. In addition, civilians were still in Manbij during fighting between IS and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The violations of international humanitarian law are systematic, says the report. Civilians are being targeted by the warring parties, who seem to have made this their main way of waging war. Thus hospitals and medical units, which are supposed to be protected areas, plus doctors and other health workers, have been attacked. Even the fact of helping the injured makes them a target, in violation of international conventions.

The Commission cites numerous cases of bombs exploding in June near the Al Bayan hospital and Al Hakim children’s hospital in Alep. The report details several attacks by government forces against hospitals in Syria although there was no military target near these hospitals at the time. These are deliberate violations of international norms, according to the Commission.

Inhuman detention conditions

The Commission also looked into grave violations of human rights in detention centres. It reports cases of summary executions and deaths in detention without the family of the deceased being informed. The Commission also reports widespread, systematic deaths in detention without any government investigation, which it says is further proof that crimes against humanity are being committed.

The report says the Syrian government and especially its intelligence services are committing systematic acts of torture against detainees. It says men, women and children are being targeted because perceived not to support the regime enough.

With regard to sexual violence, investigation is more difficult given that even if victims are willing to talk to investigators, they often do so months or years after the event. The Commission nevertheless gathered testimonies on rapes of both men and women in detention centres such as Hama, or threats of rape.

Non-State groups

With regard to atrocities committed by IS, the report mentions a series of suicide attacks in March near hospitals, notably in Jableh.

Civilians who managed to escape from IS detention centres in Alep and Raqqa recount being systematically tortured. Men and women have also been whipped in public or had body parts amputated for going against IS rules. The Commission reports several cases of forced marriages and sexual slavery. Children have also been forcibly recruited into the armed groups, as well as being frequent victims of indiscriminate attacks, it says.  

During the discussion that followed the presentation of the report to the Human Rights Council, the Syrian delegation condemned recent air attacks on Syrian territory by France and the United States. It slammed the fact that the report does not mention these attacks, whereas they have caused loss of life and allowed IS to gain ground, according to Damascus. Most of the other governments represented at the debate welcomed the Commission’s work and expressed support in particular for its urgent call to the UN Security Council to refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court.