As the United Nations human rights chief warned today of “shocking” violence and abuses in and around the city of Aleppo and other parts of war-ravaged Syria, top-level diplomats meeting in Munich on ending the crisis agreed to work out the terms of nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in the coming week.
A note to correspondents issued this evening by a UN spokesperson set out the details of the agreement reached in Munich by the ISSG – the International Syria Support Group working since November to secure a broader ceasefire and Syrian political negotiations – comprising the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries including the United States and Russia.
According to the ISSG statement, “to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week” in seven besieged areas inside Syria, including the town of Madaya, which drew worldwide attention recently after UN and Red Cross workers reported people starving to death or being killed trying to flee.
The statement explains that the cessation of hostilities will commence in one week, “after confirmation by the Syrian Government and opposition, following appropriate consultations in Syria.” During that week, an ISSG task force will develop relevant modalities. The ISSG also agreed that a cessation of hostilities should apply to any party currently engaged in military or paramilitary hostilities “against any other parties other than Da’esh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organizations” by the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, earlier today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, strongly condemned rapidly worsening human rights situation in and around the city of Aleppo and other parts of Syria, where he said “shocking violations and abuses are committed on a daily basis.”
“The warring parties in Syria are constantly sinking to new depths, without apparently caring in the slightest about the death and destruction they are wreaking across the country. Women and children, the elderly, the wounded and sick, the people with disabilities are being used as bargaining chips and cannon fodder day after day, week after week, month after month. It is a grotesque situation,” he warned.
Dire humanitarian conditions throughout Syria
The human rights chief also stressed that hundreds of thousands of civilians in other parts of Syria are also facing dire humanitarian conditions, particularly those under sieges imposed both by Government forces and affiliated armed groups, and by armed opposition groups, including ISIL.
“In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, Madaya, Deir ez-Zour, Fuah and Kafreya people are in an utterly desperate situation, with many deaths, including of young children, as a result of severe malnutrition and lack of access to medical care,” he said.
In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, a town located a few kilometres from Damascus, since Government forces established a full siege in December, some 35,000 civilians have been enduring intense shelling and aerial attacks, and a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, with food prices rising sharply and no infant-formula milk available.
While some food was delivered to the pro-Government eastern side of town, at least six civilians, including five children, died directly as a result of malnutrition in January, and more than 25 children under the age of two are said to be suffering from malnutrition and related health problems.
In Madaya, at least 26 people have died from malnutrition since the beginning of the year, despite the arrival of a large humanitarian convoy on 11 and 14 January, and at least 300 people – including women and children – are in need of immediate evacuation.
Some 200,000 people living under an ISIL-imposed siege in Deir ez-Zour are experiencing severe water shortages and a total lack of electricity. Reports indicate that several people accused of smuggling food into the city have been executed by ISIL fighters.
Despite the delivery of humanitarian aid to the villages of Fuah and Kafreya on 11 and 14 January, the High Commissioner's Office (OHCHR) reports that the situation remains grim, as approximately 20,000 civilians remain under siege by the armed opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra Front, who issued threats that they would slaughter the villagers in retaliation for Government actions against areas under their control.
Violation of international humanitarian law
“The deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” Mr. Zeid said. “The targeting of civilians, including thousands of children, is abhorrent and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those responsible for such acts, including under command responsibility, must be brought to justice.”
“I remind all parties of their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians at all times and to allow full access to humanitarian relief, to collect and care for the sick and wounded, and not to take actions which would deprive civilians of their right to food and health,” the UN human rights chief added.
Mr. Zeid also stressed that all parties to a conflict have obligations under international humanitarian law not to place the civilian population in peril by taking shelter amongst them, or in protected structures such as schools and hospitals.
“The peace talks in Geneva must be resumed as early as possible,” he insisted. “It is unconscionable that the various parties cannot even manage to sit around the table, when, because of their actions, more than a quarter of a million people have died, and the rest of the population is suffering to such a degree. A lasting peaceful resolution of this horrific war must be built on a solid foundation of human rights."