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Head of UN independent panel urges diplomatic solution to worsening Syria conflict

Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria members, Chairperson Paulo Pinheiro (right) and Karen AbuZayd brief press.
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria members, Chairperson Paulo Pinheiro (right) and Karen AbuZayd brief press.

Head of UN independent panel urges diplomatic solution to worsening Syria conflict

The Syrian crisis can only be resolved through diplomatic means, the head of a United Nations-backed inquiry today urged, while warning that the conflict in the Middle Eastern country was steadily worsening amid the growing presence of armed jihadist groups.

In an interview with UN Radio, the chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, expressed concern that the conflict in Syria had deteriorated since his Commission presented its report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva last month.

“The civil war is much more acute and much more serious than one month ago,” said Mr. Pinheiro, noting that children, women and the elderly were suffering disproportionately from the continuing violence.

“The civilian population is paying the price of this conflict because the Government regularly bombards the neighbourhoods where the rebels are and the rebels take refuge among the civilians without distinguishing themselves from the general population,” he continued.

According to the UN, an estimated 20,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 19 months ago. In addition, a further 2.5 million Syrians urgently need humanitarian aid, and over 340,000 have crossed the border to Syria’s neighbouring countries.

Mr. Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat who previously served as the UN Special Rapporteur for Burundi from 1995 to 1999, acknowledged the difficulties the Commission had encountered in preparing its report, including a lack of access to the embattled country for fact-finding missions. He noted, however, that the lack of an on-the-ground presence did not imply a lack of information.

“It’s precisely because we don’t have access to Syria that we need to prepare our report using all the possibilities,” Mr. Pinheiro stated, adding that his commission was retrieving its information from a range of sources, such as refugees and families still inside the country as well as members of the armed forces and the opposition’s Free Syrian Army.

The Commission chairperson also drew attention to the expanding list of potential war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict.

At the presentation of his report to the Human Rights Council in September, Mr. Pinheiro made clear that the Commission had found reasonable grounds to believe that Government forces and members of the Government-controlled militia known as the Shabiha, had committed war crimes, gross violations against human rights and crimes against humanity.

Violations conducted by Government forces include murder, summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, violations of children’s rights, pillaging and destruction of civilian objects – including hospitals and schools.

In a recent survey of the violence, the UN World Health Organization noted that almost 67 per cent of Syria’s public hospitals have been affected as a result of the conflict, and half of the country’s ambulances have been the subject of attack, leaving many of them out of service, according to the health agency.

Mr. Pinheiro noted that armed opposition groups had also committed war crimes, including murder and torture, and were recruiting children under 18 years of age to fight or perform auxiliary roles.

The Commission chairperson said that the additional element of radical Islamist groups to the fighting mix was proving to be “more scary and worrisome,” and that the jihadists were “taking advantage opportunistically of the conflict” to pursue their own agenda as well as commit abuses.

But, he stressed, there was a clear disparity in terms of the intensity of human rights violations perpetrated by the Syrian Armed Forces and the opposition groups for what he described as “a simple reason” – the Government forces outnumber the rebels.

Turning to the efforts for the international community to agree on a unified approach to resolving the conflict, including the deadlock in the UN Security Council, Mr. Pinheiro stated that only diplomacy would suffice in bringing the violence to an end.

“It’s the responsibility of the international community. It’s the responsibility of the Security Council to find the solution,” he said. “There is no military solution for the crisis. The only solution is diplomatic and political, through a negotiation. We are repeating this as a mantra.”