- Bashar al-Assad - civil war - human rights - rape - sexual assault - Sexual harassment - Syria - UN Security Council
Chilling UN report details war crimes in Syria
Syrian government troops and rebels committed war crimes, according to a much anticipated UN report released Wednesday. But the report concluded that rebel violations were not as grave or frequent as those committed by government troops and militias.
Shortly before dawn on July 12, water and electricity supplies, as well as mobile-telephone services, were cut as Syrian government troops surrounded the town of Tremseh, in Syria’s Hama district.
At around 5am, the shelling began. Three hours later, government ground forces, supported by helicopter gunships, entered the predominantly Sunni Muslim town. Individuals attempting to flee were shot in the fields on the outskirts of the town. The assault continued through the day until government forces retook control of Tremseh and withdrew by around 8pm.
The assault on Tremseh is just one of several attacks in Syria that have been documented in chilling detail in a report by a panel appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, released on Wednesday.
The 102-page report, covering the period from Feb. 15 to July 20, concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces and pro-government shabbiha militia “had committed crimes against humanity” - including the killing of 108 civilians in the village of al-Houla in May, nearly half of them children.
The government operation in Tremseh - like the May 25 attack on al-Houla - displayed what the report called a “prominent pattern” that “began with a blockade, then shelling, then use of snipers, and an assault by ground forces including the Shabiha, followed by house searches.”
But Syrian government and pro-government militias are not the only ones held accountable in the report. Anti-government armed groups also committed “war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial execution and torture,” according to the panel.
Critically though, the report noted that “the violations and abuses committed by anti-Government armed groups did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by Government forces and the Shabiha.”
Reporting from Geneva, where the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council is based, FRANCE 24’s Vicky Morgan noted that the report alleges systematic violations were authorised by senior Syrian government and military officials.
“Basically, they’re pointing their finger at both sides of the conflict. But on the government side, they’re pointing at the very highest levels,” said Morgan. “The violations on the government side, they say, were committed pursuant to state policy.”
Allegations of sexual abuse and violations of children’s rights
More than 18 months after the Syrian uprising began, there have been numerous witness testimonies, journalistic accounts, as well as reports by Syrian and international human rights groups documenting the situation in the country.
The importance of the latest report by an expert commission headed by Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sergio Pinheiro lies not just in its size and scope, but also in the fact that it carries the weight of the UN imprimatur.
“The facts in the report are not fundamentally new. However, what’s new and extremely important is for an official UN body to compile all this information and to reach very strong conclusions,” said Fred Abrahams of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This is not a report on just one or two incidents; it’s a comprehensive account that is of great value because it’s a credible report that looks at both sides and concludes that the Syrian government response is part of state policy,” added Abrahams.
While the panel repeatedly stressed that the lack of physical access in Syria made their work extremely difficult, the investigators nonetheless managed to interview more than 1,000 people.
These included victims of sexual violence committed by government forces and shabbiha fighters.
The victims of sexual abuses included men, women and children, with multiple reports of sexual assault by male detainees in detention centres.
The commission also found reports of violations of children’s rights, including arbitrary arrests and detentions. “Children described having been beaten, whipped with electrical cables, burned with cigarettes and subjected to electrical shocks to the genitals,” the report states.
Of the 168 interviews the commission conducted concerning alleged violations of children’s rights, 30 interviewees were under the age of 18. “In interviews, the adverse psychological and social impact of the violence on children was evident,” the report noted.
War crimes in al-Houla
The detailed report also contains a special inquiry into the May 25 killings in al-Houla.
In June, the commission had delivered interim findings on the al-Houla massacre to the UN Human Rights Council. But the latest report provides detailed findings - including government and shabbiha access to some of the murder sites.
At one of the sites, where more than 60 people were killed, the report maintained that “a large number of perpetrators would have been required to commit the crime.” The size of the group, along with the movement of vehicles and weapons, would have been “easily detected” by government forces stationed nearby.
Based on the evidence, the report concludes “the elements of the war crime of murder have been met. The killing of multiple civilians, including women and children, was deliberate and connected to the ongoing armed conflict.”
Many legal and human rights experts believe the findings of the commission could be used to strengthen calls for an international investigation and prosecution for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“We have been calling for this case to be referred to the International Criminal Court and that can only happen through the [UN] Security Council,” said Abrahams. “So far, Russia and China have been blocking any moves, but this report may help erode resistance from Moscow and Beijing.”
The panel has recommended that the president of the Human Rights Council forward the report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who could bring it to the attention of the Security Council.
A confidential list of people and armed units believed to be responsible for crimes against humanity is to be submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in September.