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Independent UN panel calls for diplomatic surge to end ‘daily reality’ of war crimes in Syria

Paulo Pinheiro (left), Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, with High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
UN Photo/Violaine Martin
Paulo Pinheiro (left), Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, with High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Independent UN panel calls for diplomatic surge to end ‘daily reality’ of war crimes in Syria

With Syria engulfed in an escalating and increasingly brutal civil war, a panel of United Nations human rights experts today issued its latest report on the crisis, detailing war crimes it says were committed by both the Syrian Government and opposition forces, and calling for a “diplomatic surge” to end the violence.

“War crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria where the harrowing accounts of victims have seared themselves on our conscience [...] Referral to justice remains paramount,” says the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria in a new report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.

Created in August 2011, the Commission is chaired by Paulo Pinheiro, and includes experts Karen Koning Abuzayd, Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn. The report, the investigative team’s fourth, covers the period 15 January to 15 May 2013, and documents for the first time systematic imposition of sieges, the use of chemical agents and forcible displacement.

“Syria is in a free-fall,” Mr. Pinheiro told the Council this morning. “No one is winning and will not win the war. More weapons will only lead to more civilians dead and wounded.”

Mr. Pinheiro stressed that dialogue is the only way to find a solution to the conflict which has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 civilians and displaced more than four million since it began over two years ago.

“We ask that States exert influence over the parties to the conflict to compel them to protect civilians,” he added.

From findings based on 430 interviews and other collected evidence, the four experts stress in the report that there is a human cost to the increased availability of weapons in Syria, where arms transfers heighten the risk of violations, leading to more civilian deaths and injuries.

While the experts note that Government forces and affiliated militia have committed “murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts,” as part of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations, they also note that armed anti-Government groups have also committee war crimes, crimes against humanity, including murder, sentencing and execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and pillage.

“The violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not, however, reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia,” the report says.

In addition, the precarious situation of Syria’s 4.25 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) is compounded by recent incidents of IDPs being targeted and forcibly displaced.

There are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons. The experts say that allegations have been received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by Government forces.

In four attacks – on Khan Al-Asal, Aleppo, 19 March; Uteibah, Damascus, 19 March; Sheikh Maqsood neighbourhood, Aleppo, 13 April; and Saraqib, Idlib, 29 April – “there are reasonable grounds to believe that limited quantities of toxic chemicals were used.”

It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrator. Other incidents also remain under investigation.

Conclusive findings – particularly in the absence of a large-scale attack – may be reached only after testing samples taken directly from victims or the site of the alleged attack.

“It is, therefore, of utmost importance that the Panel of Experts, led by Professor Sellström and assembled under the Secretary General's Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons, is granted full access to Syria,” the experts say.

“A diplomatic surge is the only path to a political settlement. Negotiations must be inclusive, and must represent all facets of Syria’s cultural mosaic,” says the Commission, calling on the international community to support the peace process based on the Geneva Communiqué and the work of the UN and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria.

The Commission also calls on the international community to counter the escalation of the conflict by restricting arms transfers, especially given the clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law.