It’s time for the UN Security Council to overcome its veto-paralysis and push for accountability for ongoing violations to ensure perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable, said Amnesty International, ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the crisis in Syria on 15 March.
Since peaceful protests began in Damascus in 2011, Syrian government forces, and later armed opposition groups, with the support of their allies, have subjected millions of civilians to unlawful ground and air attacks, widespread and systematic arbitrary detention, torture leading to deaths in detention, enforced disappearance, sieges leading to starvation, and forced displacement.
Over the past decade, Russia and China have vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to deter violations in Syria at least 15 times.
“Members of the UN Security Council have the power and the mandate to help the people of Syria. Instead, they have completely failed them. Ten years on, perpetrators of horrific violations, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, continue to inflict immense suffering on civilians as they evade justice,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
“Russia and China have repeatedly abused their veto powers to restrict the provision of life-saving cross-border humanitarian aid, to stop a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and to block resolutions that would impose arms embargoes or targeted sanctions against individuals on all sides responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Russia, as well as Iran and Turkey, have also lent their backing to parties to the conflict responsible for atrocities in Syria, enabling them to continue to commit abuses. Russia and the USA have also directly participated in the armed conflict; Russia conducted unlawful attacks alongside the government of Syria, and the USA led the coalition that fought against the Islamic State armed group in Raqqa and other areas, and was also responsible for widespread destruction resulting from unlawful attacks.
“For far too long, states have shamelessly put political allegiances and interests before the lives of millions of children, women and men– effectively enabling the horror story in Syria to continue with no end in sight,” said Lynn Maalouf.
“It is high time for the powers backing the forces on the ground to realise that they can’t continue to ignore justice and accountability if there is to be any hope for a safe and dignified future for the Syrian people.”
Glimmers of hope for justice
In 2016, following successive failures at the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly established an international mechanism to investigate and prosecute some of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011. This has offered Syrians the only avenue for justice to date, as it facilitates pursuing cases through national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Despite a decade of stagnation, in recent months the first glimmers of hope for justice emerged. Last month a Syrian government official was convicted of crimes against humanity in Germany for the first time. Eyad al-Gharib, a Syrian security officer, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for his role in aiding and abetting the torture of detained protesters in Damascus.
On 4 March 2021, Canada requested formal negotiations under the UN Convention Against Torture to hold Syria accountable for human rights violations. The Netherlands made a similar request in 2020.
“Without justice the cycle of bloodshed and suffering in Syria will continue. A handful of states are leading the way by taking crucial steps towards justice, now it is time for others to follow suit,” said Lynn Maalouf.
The situation in Syria today remains bleak. Civilians in the north-west of the country, including Idlib, western Aleppo and north-western Hama governorates, face the imminent threat of another wave of hostilities, meanwhile insecurity and continued repression in Daraa and Sweida in southern Syria has led to arrests, enforced disappearances and unlawful killings.
The Syrian government continues to restrict access of humanitarian aid organizations to areas under its control, exacerbating a desperate economic and humanitarian crisis. In parallel, arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment and abductions continue by armed opposition groups supported by Turkey and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in northern Syria.
A decade of war crimes
Throughout the conflict both the Syrian government and armed opposition groups have repeatedly committed violations of international humanitarian law.
Syrian government forces, responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, have carried out unlawful attacks killing and injuring tens of thousands of civilians and damaging civilian facilities including hospitals, schools and homes. They have used imprecise explosive weapons including barrel bombs and internationally banned cluster munitions, and even chemical weapons.
The US-led coalition conducted air strikes during a four-month bombing campaign against the Islamic State armed group in Raqqa. The air strikes, some of which violated international humanitarian law, killed and injured hundreds of civilians and destroyed civilian homes and infrastructure.
The Syrian government has also arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared tens of thousands of people for peacefully exercising their rights, including lawyers, human rights defenders, journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and political activists. Detainees are held in inhuman conditions and routinely face torture leading to thousands of deaths in detention.
Armed opposition groups have also abducted individuals in areas they control subjecting them to torture and other forms of ill-treatment and concealing their whereabouts or fate.
All parties to the conflict have also carried out unlawful killings.
Amnesty International continues to call on the Syrian government and all armed opposition groups to immediately release of all those arbitrarily detained and to reveal the fate and whereabouts of all those forcibly disappeared, abducted or otherwise detained, provide unfettered access to independent monitors to all places of detention, and reasonable access for family members and lawyers for detainees.
The armed group calling itself the Islamic State (IS), Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and other armed opposition groups supported by Turkey and Gulf states have also committed war crimes and other violations. Coalitions of armed groups supported by Turkey, have carried out unlawful attacks in areas under the control of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units known as the YPG. The YPG, now part of the Syrian Democratic Forces supported by the US, were also responsible for the forced displacement of civilians and demolishing of civilian homes.
Since the conflict began, tens of thousands of people have been internally displaced and live in camps or building sites in dreadful conditions lacking basic needs such as food and medicine. At least five million have fled the country – mostly to neighbouring countries where they face restrictions on their access to services or aid, leaving many destitute.