Government and opposition forces in Syria are committing war crimes by using civilian suffering, such as blocking access to food, water and health services, as a method of war, United Nations experts said today, highlighting the “most critical” situation of a quarter of a million people under siege.
“As reports are piling up of indiscriminate shelling of civilians, enforced disappearances and executions, another horror of the war in Syria is becoming apparent: the deprivation of basic necessities of life and the denial of humanitarian relief as a method of war,” they warned, calling on all sides to halt such actions, in a statement issued by the UN human rights office (OHCHR).
“Numerous cases show that Government and pro-Government forces as well as armed opposition groups are impeding humanitarian relief to populations facing extreme deprivation, including children, women, older persons, persons with disabilities, the chronically sick, and civilians and persons hors combat held in detention,” they said.
The six rapporteurs, unpaid independent experts appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to whom they report, stressed that denial of access to food, water and health services and wantonly destroying housing clearly violate the human rights to food, water, sanitation, housing, health, and freedom from inhumane treatment enshrined in international treaties.
“The acts being committed amount to crimes against humanity, carried out as a deliberate and systematic effort to cause civilian suffering. They also constitute war crimes and serious violations of customary international humanitarian law which binds all parties,” they said.
They stressed that targeting medical units and personnel, making civilians the object of attack, subjecting them to inhumane treatment, obstructing humanitarian relief, attacking objects crucial for the survival of civilians, and using starvation as a method of warfare is explicitly banned.
The UN estimates that 9.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid from the nearly three years of conflict that erupted when originally peaceful protestors sought the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. More than 6 million people are in critical need of sustained food assistance.
The situation is most critical for the quarter of a million people living in communities under siege, such as Nubul and Al-Zahraa in rural Aleppo; Eastern Ghouta, Darayya and Moadamiyah in rural Damascus; the Old City in Homs; and Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
The UN estimates that over 100,000 people trapped in and around the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk are now in severe risk of starvation. From other besieged areas, reports are emerging of chronic child malnutrition and health problems caused by a lack of access to vital nutrients and safe drinking water.
“Apart from obstructing humanitarian access through sieges and tight check-points, attacks have been carried out to destroy harvests, kill livestock, and cut off water supplies, with the apparent aim of starving out the targeted populations,” the experts noted.
“At the same time, entire neighbourhoods and residences are being razed, aggravating the dire housing situation, causing further displacement,” they added, also voicing alarm at consistent reports of deliberate destruction of hospitals and medical units, and of arrests, ill-treatment, torture and killings of doctors, nurses, medical volunteers and ambulance drivers.
“These acts are morally abhorrent, and present a major obstacle to building peace,” they stated. “We are outraged by the extreme human suffering caused by the apparent blatant disregard for human rights and humanitarian law. We urge all parties to the conflict to ensure immediate humanitarian relief to the large parts of the population experiencing extreme deprivation. The use of civilian suffering as a method of war must stop.”
The experts are: Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter; Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover; Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, Raquel Rolnik; Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez; and Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque.