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As peace talks stall, violence soars once again in Syria
by UN News, Human Rights Watch
6 September 2016
As peace talks stall, violence soars once again in Syria – UN report
Following an all-too-brief respite in fighting resulting from February’s cessation of hostilities agreement, there has been a tragic increase in violence targeting Syrian civilians crushing hopes of peace in the war-torn country, a group of UN experts reported today.
In its latest report, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria notes how recent indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including on medical workers and facilities, blocked humanitarian convoys, enforced disappearances, summary executions, and other crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, have left Syrians in a state of despair.
"The relentless attacks and sieges against civilians shows no signs of abating giving people little, if any, hope, of a lasting peace in the country", said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro.
Violence has reached unprecedented levels in Aleppo as parties wrestle for control over the eastern part of the city. Casualties have rapidly mounted at an alarming rate as civilians have been unable to flee from daily airstrikes. While some perish in the attacks, others later die from lack of life-saving medical services, a consequence of the pro-Government forces’ bombardments that have destroyed over twenty hospitals and clinics in Aleppo governorate alone since the beginning of the year.
Countless medical staff and first responders who provide vital services lost their lives in such attacks, further worsening a situation already desperately precarious before the current offensive. “The intensifying attacks on medical care – including maternity hospitals, paediatric units and emergency wards – are in flagrant disregard of the letter and the spirit of international humanitarian law. Such attacks seek to levy the suffering of civilians by belligerents in order to gain military advantage”, said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro.
As hostilities resumed in areas that had enjoyed relative peace for the first time in five years, so did aerial and shelling bombardments, primarily by pro-Government forces. Anti-government armed groups continued to indiscriminately shell civilian inhabited neighbourhoods, and engage in hostage-taking for ransom. Attacks by both sides have killed and maimed scores of civilians, many of them children.
In Government-held areas, the designated terrorist group ISIL, also known as Daesh, continues to carry out suicide attacks, in cities such as Jableh and Tartous, deliberately killing hundreds of civilians.
In Government-controlled areas of Aleppo city as well as the YPG-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, ground shelling attacks by armed group coalitions, including Ahrar al-Sham and the terrorist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, now renamed Jabhat Fatah al-Sham have killed scores of men, women and children.
“Nearly 600,000 civilians in Damascus, Rif Damascus, Dayr Az-Zawr, Homs and Idlib governorates continue to suffer brutal conditions created by protracted sieges”, the report states. Across the country, starvation through besiegement continues to be used as a tactic of war with devastating consequences. Darayya, besieged by Government security forces for almost four years, saw young children and elderly people dying of starvation. Survivors described subsisting on grass and unsafe drinking-water, a phenomenon also reported throughout other besieged areas.
“Recent developments in Darayya, including the forcible displacement of the civilian population as part of political negotiations, contravene well-established principles of international law” said Commissioner Vitit Muntarbhorn. “Efforts being undertaken by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien and his Office to address the needs of all those affected by the evacuation must be fully supported.”
The report further stresses that, parallel to the immense suffering that the intensification of hostilities has brought upon the Syrian population, other less visible human rights violations committed by warring parties have not waned. Out of the public eye, thousands of civilians and fighters rendered hors de combat continued to be arrested or abducted in the streets and subsequently disappeared in detention. Survivors of detention describe horrifying methods of torture, including sexual violence, and the death of inmates as a result of torture, inhuman prison conditions and lack of access to adequate medical care.
The Syrian conflict and the on-going violations it sustains will only come to an end with a return of the parties to the negotiation table. The relief brought by the cessation of hostilities agreement is ample evidence that only the exercise of political will by relevant stakeholders, including in the international community, can reduce the suffering of the Syrian people.
“It is imperative that the key parties negotiate an end to this conflict, while bearing in mind that any peace agreement must necessarily provide justice for the victims”, said Commissioner Carla Del Ponte.
* Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic:
August 30, 2016
UN Security Council: Ensure Justice for Syria Atrocities. (Human Rights Watch)
The United Nations Security Council should urgently impose sanctions on the Syrian government for chemical weapon attacks in Syria and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. In a report issued on August 24, 2016, a UN-appointed investigation attributed two chemical weapon attacks to the Syrian government and one to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which is already under UN sanctions.
The Security Council will consider the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) report on August 30.
The 95-page joint inquiry report addresses nine cases related to the use of chemical weapons in Syria between 2014 and 2015. The Security Council should renew and expand the inquiry’s mandate to ensure continued investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria with a view to identifying all those responsible and deterring any further use.
“Now that a UN investigation has officially identified responsibility for several chemical weapon attacks in Syria, the focus should turn to bringing those responsible to account,” said Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The chemical weapons issue will only be closed when those who ordered and executed these atrocities are convicted and behind bars, and their victims compensated.”
The joint inquiry found that Syrian military helicopters dropped bombs containing chlorine in at least two attacks during the 2014-2015 period. Human Rights Watch investigations into both cases concluded that the evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government forces used toxic chemicals dropped in barrel bombs.
The inquiry also found that ISIS used sulfur mustard gas in an attack on areas held by armed opposition groups in August 2015. In a 2013 resolution approved after a Sarin chemical attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus killed hundreds of civilians, the Security Council agreed to impose measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if chemical weapons were used in Syria.
No mechanism currently exists to ensure criminal justice for countless grave abuses in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons, Human Rights Watch said.
Syrian authorities and non-state armed groups have not taken any meaningful steps to ensure credible justice for past and ongoing crimes in violation of international law.
The failure to hold those responsible to account has fueled further atrocities by all sides. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Security Council to urgently give the ICC a mandate as a crucial first step toward accountability.
International efforts to ensure justice for serious crimes in Syria have proved elusive. In May 2014, Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC. More than 60 countries co-sponsored that resolution, and 13 of the council’s 15 members voted for it.
The years since the failure of that resolution have been characterized by ongoing atrocities by all sides in Syria. The Russian and Chinese governments have no plausible basis to oppose Security Council actions to ensure impartial accountability in Syria, Human Rights Watch said.
On August 7, 2015, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2235, establishing the JIM to “identify to the greatest extent feasible individuals, entities, groups, or governments who were perpetrators, organisers, sponsors or otherwise involved in the use of chemicals as weapons.”
At the time, Russia said the establishment of the JIM would close the gap in identifying those responsible for the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. The United States emphasized that “pointing the finger matters.”
The report marks the first time that a UN-backed investigation has blamed specific parties for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the JIM is not a judicial body and lacks the authority to hold those responsible accountable. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had earlier undertaken a fact-finding mission in Syria, but it was not charged with attributing responsibility for any incidents involving the use of chemical weapons it documented.
Under its mandate, the JIM was limited to examining cases in Syria in which the OPCW fact-finding mission had determined that an incident likely involved the use of chemicals as weapons. Because the mission had only made such determinations for incidents between 2014 and 2015, the inquiry did not include the chemical weapon attack on Ghouta on August 21, 2013.
The Ghouta attack killed hundreds of civilians, including many children, making it the most significant use of chemical agents since the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in attacks on Iraqi Kurds in 1987-1988. UN experts who visited Ghouta concluded that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used. Human Rights Watch findings strongly suggested that Syrian government forces were responsible for the attack.
The JIM was unable to determine responsibility in six cases it examined, and noted that further investigation was needed in three of those. Human Rights Watch has investigated many of these incidents and determined that available evidence pointed to Syrian government responsibility. The JIM continues to receive allegations and information about recent attacks with chemical weapons in Syria.
The Security Council should renew the joint inquiry’s mandate to allow it to continue its investigation into these and other allegations of chemical weapon attacks in Syria. Extending the JIM’s mandate would put all parties on notice that their leaders could be held liable as a matter of command responsibility for chemical weapon crimes their forces take part in, Human Rights Watch said.
The Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified on October 14, 2013, prohibits attacks that use industrial chemicals such as chlorine as a weapon. Among other obligations, each member country agrees never to “assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention.”
The laws of war applicable in Syria prohibit the use of chemical weapons. The use of prohibited weapons with criminal intent, that is deliberately or recklessly, is a war crime.
“Russia and China don’t have a leg to stand on by continuing to obstruct the Security Council on Syria sanctions and an ICC referral,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “The Security Council diminishes its importance if it doesn’t take strong action against demonstrated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.”

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Increasingly complex conflicts devastating impact on Children
by Leila Zerrougui
UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict
23 August 2016
In her annual report to the UN General Assembly, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, highlighted the devastating impact on children of increasingly complex conflicts, despite concerted efforts over the past year.
“The impact on children of the collective failure to prevent and end conflict is severe, with regions in turmoil and violations against children intensifying in a number of conflicts,” Leila Zerrougui said in the report, which covers the period from August 2015 to July 2016. “The violations are directly related to the denigration of respect for international humanitarian and human rights law by parties to conflict.”
Emerging crises and protracted conflicts profoundly disrupted children’s lives during the reporting period. She noted that the proliferation of actors involved in armed conflict and cross-border aerial operations created highly complex environments for the protection of boys and girls. In 2015, and again in the first half of 2016, Afghanistan recorded the highest number of child deaths and injuries since the UN started systematically documenting civilian casualties in 2009. In Syria and Iraq, violence continued unabated. In South Sudan, following a year during which children were victims of brutal violations, hopes for improvement all but evaporated with the resumption of conflict last month. In Yemen, the escalation of conflict continued with alarming levels of child recruitment, killing and maiming and attacks on schools and hospitals.
The report also takes stock of the achievements accomplished in the twenty years since the publication of Graça Machel’s report, “Impact of armed conflict on children,” which led to the creation of the mandate of the Special Representative by the General Assembly. Since 2000, over 115,000 children have been released as a result of action plans and advocacy. Engagement with non-State armed groups is growing and recently contributed to a historic agreement between the Government of Colombia and the FARC-EP to release all children in the ranks of the FARC-EP.
The advocacy generated by this mandate, and reinforced by the campaign “Children, not Soldiers”, has led to a global consensus among Member States that children do not belong in security forces in conflict. This progress in addressing recruitment and use over the last 20 years has been built upon and utilized in work to reduce other grave violations, notably sexual violence and attacks on schools and hospitals.
In that regard, the new development agenda brings new opportunities to reinforce and create synergies with the child protection agenda. The Special Representative called on the General Assembly in her report to pay special attention to children affected by conflict to fulfil the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals. In particular, she called for adequate resources for education in emergencies and for support to children disabled during conflict.
Other issues addressed in the report to the General Assembly include the impact of violent extremism on children. During the reporting period, children were severely affected, and often the direct targets of acts intended to cause maximum civilian casualties. Recruitment and use of children, abductions and other grave violations were prevalent concerns as armed groups controlled large swaths of territory. The Special Representative urged Member States to avoid responding to these threats with operations that can “create or add to real or perceived grievances in the affected population.”
The report also states that increasingly large numbers of children have been arrested, detained, used as spies and for intelligence gathering, or even sometimes sentenced to death for their alleged association with parties to conflict.
“Detention of children should always be the last resort for the shortest time possible and guided by the best interests of the child. If they are accused of a crime during their association with armed groups, children should be processed by the juvenile justice system rather than by military or special courts,” said Leila Zerrougui.
Attacks on health care and protected personnel
In the past months, attacks on medical facilities, including aerial bombardments, have increased concerns over the protection of health care in conflict. This has severely disrupted access to lifesaving assistance for children growing up in conflict zones, and can have long-lasting consequences as it often takes years to rebuild capacity. The Special Representative calls on all parties to conflict to take clear measures to protect hospitals as outlined in the report.
Armed conflict has resulted not only in human casualties, but also in an ever growing number of displaced children. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced away from their homes among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are children. In the Report, the Special Representative encourages Member States and other partners to support initiatives to help displaced children rebuild their lives, particularly through ensuring that education is prioritised in emergency settings.
* Access the report via the link below.

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