SYRIA: UN Security Council 'bears responsibility' for war crimes in Syria

[6 March 2014] -

All sides fighting in Syria's civil war are using shelling and siege tactics to punish civilians, and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) "bears responsibility" for allowing such war crimes to continue, a U.N. appointed human rights commission said on 5th March.

The independent investigators, presenting their most recent report documenting atrocities in Syria, specifically called out the UNSC for failing to refer grave violations of the rules of war to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution.

"The Security Council bears responsibility for not addressing accountability and allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with total impunity," Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the U.N. commission of inquiry, told a news conference.

"One of most stark trends we have documented is the use of siege warfare, the denial of humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities such as medical care and clean water have forced people to choose between surrender and starvation," he said.

The UNSC, whose five permanent members wield veto power over resolutions that could force the international body to intervene on behalf of Syrian civilians, is divided over the conflict, with Russia — and to a lesser extent China — blocking measures aimed at punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. 

More than 140,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, which enters its fourth year next week. Intense fighting has caused an estimated 2.5 million Syrians to flee the country as refugees and has left 6.5 million people internally displaced.

Divided world powers have backed both anti-government rebels, which include the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and more militant Al-Qaeda-linked groups, and Assad in the conflict. The diplomatic deadlock has rendered the UNSC’s influence ineffective on the issue and has exacerbated the bloodshed.

Fighters and their commanders may be held accountable, but so might states that transfer weapons to Syria, the report said.

Syrian government forces under Assad have besieged cities, including the Old City of Homs, relentlessly shelling residential neighborhoods and depriving civilians of food as part of a "starvation until submission" campaign, the report said.

The report also alleged that the Syrian air force had dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo with "shocking intensity," killing hundreds of civilians and injuring many more.

"I remember most vividly speaking to a doctor who was treating survivors of barrel bomb attacks. Some victims including infants had lost limbs," said Pinheiro.

Rebels fighting to topple Assad, especially foreign fighters including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have stepped up attacks on civilians, taken hostages, executed prisoners and set off car bombs to spread terror, the report said.

The report — covering the period between July 15, 2013 and Jan. 20, 2014 — is the seventh by the U.N. since the commission was established in September 2011, six months after the uprising against Assad began.

While the investigators have not been allowed into Syria, their latest findings were based on 563 interviews conducted by Skype or telephone with victims and witnesses still in the country, as well as in-person with refugees in surrounding countries. 

War crimes abound

The human rights commission, which includes two dozen investigators — among them former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte — said all sides participating in the conflict violated rules of war enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

The war crimes include torture, massacres, rapes and recruitment of child soldiers.

When asked specifically about Assad's responsibility, Pinheiro declined to divulge the names of individuals the commission suspected of war crimes. “We mentioned several times the responsibility of people in the high echelons in the (Syrian) government,” he said.

"The reports, if they were not able to ensure accountability in the present, I think that they will be important material for the future. But also our data bank and list of perpetrators that we have established," he added.

Despite some tactical gains by the Syrian government and its allied foreign fighters, including Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, its fighting against armed rebel groups has reached a stalemate, causing significant casualties and material losses, the report said.

"The government relied extensively on the superior firepower of its air force and artillery, while non-state armed groups increasingly resorted to methods of asymmetric warfare, such as suicide bombs and use of improvised explosive devices," the report stated.

As part of a strategy aimed at weakening the rebels and breaking the will of their popular base, government forces have besieged and bombarded civilian areas, it explained.

"Partial sieges aimed at expelling armed groups turned into tight blockades that prevented the delivery of basic supplies, including food and medicine, as part of a 'starvation until submission' campaign."

The report also blamed anti-government rebels for the continuation of violence and suffering of civilians throughout Syria, saying that they had "inflicted severe physical or mental pain or suffering on civilian populations in areas under their control," including on prisoners.

Referring to the northern Raqqa area under the control of the ISIL, the report said: "The acts committed by non-state armed groups ... in areas under their control against the civilian population constitute torture and inhuman treatment as a war crime and, in the context of (Raqqa), as a crime against humanity."

Rebels have encircled Nubl and Zahra, besieging 45,000 people in the two Shia towns in Aleppo province, it said.

"The siege is imposed by groups affiliated to the Islamic Front, Jaish Al Mujahedeen, Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Syrian Revolutionary Front by checkpoints erected around the area and by cutting off their electrical and water supply lines."


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