Syria’s brutal war threatens international peace and security

Based on 480 interviews and a wealth of documentary material relating to violations which took place in the Syrian Arab Republic between 20 January and 15 July 2014, the latest report details the immeasurable suffering of the Syrian people. Fighting has engulfed civilian areas, destroying the barest possibility of normal life. The impact has been particularly grave for women and children, whose most basic rights are being infringed daily.

Describing the conflict in Syria as “outrageous in its disregard for accepted international norms”, Pinheiro and his fellow commissioners have recorded hundreds of atrocities, including scores of massacres, committed by all sides.

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) committed torture, murder, acts tantamount to enforced disappearance, and forcible displacement as part of an attack on the civilian population in Aleppo and Ar Raqqah governorates, amounting to crimes against humanity.

In areas controlled by ISIS, in the north and north-east of Syria, the country’s largest and most populous region, executions have become “a common spectacle on Fridays”, the report says. Dozens of executions have been documented, mostly of adult men but also of boys aged between 15 and 17 and two women who were stoned to death. The executions are generally shots to the head at close range or beheadings, often performed in front of crowds, including children. The bodies are frequently displayed for days after on crucifixes.

The report also describes amputations, the lashing of men for smoking, possessing alcohol, trading during payer times and failing to fast during Ramadan, and multiple accounts of women being beaten with sticks for appearing in public with their faces uncovered.

Other non-State armed groups, named in the report, committed massacres and war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking, violations of international humanitarian law tantamount to enforced disappearance, rape and sexual violence, recruiting and using children in hostilities and attacking protected objects. Medical and religious personnel and journalists have been targeted. Residential neighbourhoods have been besieged and indiscriminately shelled and there have been instances of suicide and car bombs being used to terrorise civilians.

The Commission confirmed 18 massacres for which non-State armed groups are responsible, including, in April, the shelling of the Badr al-Din al-Husseini Institute in the Old City of Damascus, which killed 17 and injured a further 86 children and adults.

The Commission found that Government forces continued to perpetrate massacres and conduct widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance amounting to crimes against humanity as well as gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of murder, hostage-taking, torture, rape and sexual violence, recruiting and using children in hostilities and targeting civilians.

Government forces also disregarded the special protection accorded to hospitals and medical and humanitarian personnel. Indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardment and shelling led to mass civilian casualties and spread terror.

The Commission found overwhelming evidence of mass killings of civilians by Government forces in 35 instances, including in February, the dropping of a barrel bomb on a transport hub in Rif Aleppo. In that particular incident, a witness reported that there were about 200 people waiting for buses. She described seeing “dead bodies, some charred and others with severed limbs, scattered all over the place, people screaming in pain and others burning inside minibuses.” In April, a school in Aleppo city was hit by two consecutive missiles, which killed 35 people, 33 of them children.

Additionally, the Commission reports that there are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents, likely chlorine, were dropped in barrel bombs, by Government forces, on several occasions over a ten day period in April and May in Idlib and Hama governorates.

The report paints a haunting picture of the fear ordinary Syrians have of the “pervasive and inescapable” checkpoints. There is no imagining the suffering of the thousands of Syrians picked up from these checkpoints and from military hospitals, who are then held by the Government and subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including severe beatings, prolonged hanging by the wrists and electrocution, the Commission says.

The war in the Syrian Arab Republic has taken a devastating toll on children’s lives. UNICEF estimates more than half of the 2.8 million school age children are no longer in the schooling system. Children are increasingly recruited by non-State armed groups and by the Government’s Popular Committees to participate in hostilities and provide support.

One of the most disturbing findings of the current report, Pinheiro says, is the recruitment of boys as young as 10 by ISIS. ISIS has established training camps to recruit children into armed roles under the guise of education. At the camps, the children recruited received weapons training and religious education. The recruitment and use of children under 18 is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law, the commission says, and using children below the age of 15 is a war crime.

“The evidence collected shows that the international community has failed, has completely failed, in one of our most elemental duties – to protect civilians,” Pinheiro says.

The Commission says some states continue to deliver mass shipments of arms, artillery and aircraft to the Syrian Government, or contribute with logistical and strategic assistance. Other states, organizations and individuals support armed groups with weapons and financial support. The weapons they transfer to the warring parties in Syria are used in the perpetration of war crimes and violations of human rights.

The Commission has recommended the imposition of an arms embargo and called on the international community to curb the proliferation and supply of weapons. It has previously recommended and continues to recommend that the Security Council refer the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic to the International Criminal Court.

The conflict in Syria has led to the deaths of more than 190,000 people, the internal displacement of more than 6.5 million and the flight to nearby countries of nearly three million.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was established in August 2011 by the Human Rights Council to investigate all alleged violations of international law.

1 September 2014

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