Opening Remarks by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic at press conference in Geneva 9 March 2021 for the launch of the latest report by CoI Syria


10 March 2022

Dear friends,

It is a pleasure to see you all.

I am joined here virtually by my fellow Commissioners Hanny Megally and Lynn Welchman. Please allow me a moment to very briefly introduce Professor Welchman, who was appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council in December. She is a Professor of Law at SOAS London, a distinguished academic with vast human rights experience in the Middle East and North Africa, and we are very fortunate to welcome her to the Commission. 

We are here to present to you our latest report on the human rights situation in Syria covering the last six months of 2021.

Some of you may be asking what lessons can be learnt from the Syria crisis – in particular the role of Russia – when we look at what is happening in Ukraine today.

The failure to respect human rights and IHL in Syria has eroded respect for fundamental norms and exposed a deadly cynicism by armed actors, where might makes right and denial and obfuscation are employed to deflect blame or criticism and undermine accountability.
Just look at the situation today for Syrians who have lived through a devastating ten years of conflict: Hundreds of thousands have been killed. More than half of the pre-war population have been displaced. More than 100,000 are missing or forcibly disappeared. Syria’s cities and infrastructure have been destroyed. Today the poverty rate in Syria is an unprecedented 90 percent. 14.6 million people in Syria depend on humanitarian aid.

Warring parties’ attempts to resolve the Syrian conflict militarily over the past decade have enabled the violation of nearly every core human right, the commission of almost every crime against humanity listed in the Rome statute and nearly every war crime. We can only hope that world leaders are doing everything they can to avoid a similar fate for Ukraine.

In a continuing pattern documented by the Commission for years, pro-Government forces - including Syrian and, since September 2015 also Russian forces, operating side by side – have continued to indiscriminately bomb densely populated areas in the northwest. Their attacks killed and injured civilians, also where Russian fixed-wing aircraft were observed over the targeted areas. Civilians were also targeted and killed by sophisticated Krasnopol-type precision-guided artillery attacks.

In the 14 attacks by Syrian and Russian forces that we detailed in the northwest [see annex IV of the report] over these past few months, scores of children were killed, including on their way to school; and the last functional medical centre in Jabal al Zawiya was rendered inoperable.

At the same time as Russia and Syria are insisting on humanitarian aid being delivered from Damascus rather than cross-border, their attacks in the northwest occur along the very road where such “cross-line” humanitarian aid would travel [see map Annex III].

Many Syrian IDPs in the northwest are still living in flimsy tents, stuck in snow, rain, mud – and yet, some actors seem to spend more energy on preventing aid to get to them rather than facilitating it.

We worry too about the negative consequences of the Ukraine crisis ON Syria. Inflation is already skyrocketing, and the government has begun rationing essential commodities including fuel. Prices of imports have shot up and we should remember that most of Syria’s wheat import comes from Ukraine or Russia.

Friends, we have also been concerned by recent reporting on systemic failures in investigations into possible war crimes and other incidents causing civilian harm in Syria in 2018-2019 by the United States-led coalition. We repeat our recommendation to the United States and to all parties to conduct credible, independent and impartial investigations into incidents entailing civilian casualties in which their forces are implicated to ensure those responsible for violations are held accountable, to ensure non-repetition, and to make their findings public.

In our investigations we also found that Government forces and other parties to the conflict continue to arbitrarily detain and torture perceived political opponents or those who speak out – including to their death.

They also continue to deliberately conceal the fate and whereabouts of detainees, in many case leaving family members exposed to extortion for information or in danger of arrest or physical risks when searching for missing loved ones. We have commended the UN General Assembly for adopting resolution 76/228, requesting the Secretary General to study this issue and have lent our voice to those of the families of missing and disappeared in Syria in calling for the creation of an independent, international mandate to coordinate and consolidate claims regarding those missing, including people subjected to enforced disappearance.

Friends, gender-based discrimination and violence continues in Syria. Internally displaced women more often lack necessary civil documentation and struggle to access their legal rights. Girls are increasingly forced into early marriages and boys are sent to do child labour or recruited into the conflict. The Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) group controlling the Idlib pocket enforce so-called morality codes which amounts to gender-based discrimination.

In the report [Annex V] we also note a small but increasing repatriation by Member States of their citizens detained in the notorious Al Hol and Al Roj camps in northeast Syria. But close to 60,000 internees, 40,000 of them children and most others women, are still unlawfully held in the camps in appalling conditions, amounting to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The camp residents are under constant risk of being injured, killed, or trafficked. More than 90 murders and 40 attempted murders have occurred in Al Hol alone in the past year. We are repeating our call for Member States to bring home their women and children from the camps.

The recent heavy fighting in and around the SDF-run al-Sina prison in the Ghwayran neighbourhood of Hasakah city in the northeast, in which hundreds were killed and thousands displaced, highlighted the plight of hundreds of teenage boys, detained together with around 12,000 men suspected of links with ISIL in the SDF-controlled detention centres. 

Finally we have welcomed the important ruling this January by the Koblenz Court in Germany against a former Syrian intelligence officer active in the notorious Branch 251, who was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. There has been small but welcome progress on accountability. In the report, we again recommend Member States to redouble their efforts in this regard.

The plight of the Syrian people is not only a cautionary tale for other conflicts as it is often being framed in the media now, but a situation that still requires concerted diplomatic focus, humanitarian action, and compassion for all Syrians, whether inside Syria or as refugees or asylum seekers abroad.

I look forward to your questions and clarifications.