Human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 Ju
Human Rights Council Thirty-fourth session 27 February-24 March 2017 Agenda item 4
Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention
Human rights abuses and international humanitarian law violations in the Syrian Arab Republic, 21 July 2016- 28 February 2017*
Conference room paper of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
SUMMARY After almost six years of conflict, civilians continue to bear the brunt of the brutal violence waged by warring parties in the Syrian Arab Republic. Government and pro-Government forces continue to attack civilian objects including hospitals, schools and water stations. A Syrian Air Force attack on a complex of schools in Haas (Idlib), amounting to war crimes, is a painful reminder that instead of serving as sanctuaries for children, schools are ruthlessly bombed and children’s lives senselessly robbed from them. Government and pro-Government forces continue to use prohibited weapons including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and weaponised chlorine canisters on civilian-inhabited areas, further illustrating their complete disregard for civilian life and international law.The terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham persists in carrying out summary executions including of women, and recruiting children in Idlib governorate. Coordinated attacks undertaken by the terrorist group alongside armed groups launched by indirect artillery fire resulted in dozens of civilian casualties, including many children. Life under the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rule continues to be marked by executions and severe corporal punishments of civilians accused of violating the group’s ideology, and the destruction of cultural heritage sites including the Tetrapylon in Palmyra (Homs).Armed groups launched numerous indiscriminate attacks with indirect fire artillery systems, including with unguided, locally manufactured weapons, killing and maiming civilians in Aleppo, Idlib and Dara’a governorates. Armed groups based in Idlib further exacted justice through the use of “shari’a courts” which lacked fair trial standards, while other groups carried out arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances and committed torture countrywide. Across northern Syria, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) or Syrian Democratic (SDF) forces have displaced communities in order to clear areas mined by ISIL. In some cases, YPG or SDF forces did not provide adequate humanitarian aid to displaced communities. YPG forces persist in forcibly conscripting men and boys for military service.Over the period under review, the number of Member States carrying out airstrikes or deploying ground forces on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic increased, raising concerns regarding the escalation of the conflict and the potential to exacerbate civilian harm.
Page I. Introduction 4 A. Challenges 4 B. Methodology 4 II. Conflict dynamics 4 III. Government and pro-Government forces 6 A. Attacks against civilian infrastructure 6 B. Attacks directed against humanitarian relief personnel and objects 10 C. Prohibited weapons 11 IV. Armed groups 14 A. Indiscriminate attacks 14 B. Local governance and justice systems 15 C. Summary executions 15 D. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and enforced disappearance 16 V. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham 17 A. Summary executions 17 B. Recruitment and use of child soldiers 17 VI. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 17 A. Disproportionate attacks 17 B. Executions, corporal punishments and detention 18 C. Human shields 18 D. Destruction of cultural property 19 VII. Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) 19 A. Internal displacement 19 B. Violations and abuses 21 VIII. International coalition 21 IX. Obligations of States 22 X. Conclusions and recommendations 23 A. Conclusions 23 B. Recommendations 25 Annex Map of the Syrian Arab Republic 27 I. Introduction 1. In the present report, submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 31/17, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic presents its findings based on investigations conducted from 21 July 2016 to 28 February 2017. The present report should be read in conjunction with previous reports of the Commission. A. Challenges 2. The Commission’s investigations remain curtailed by the denial of access to the Syrian Arab Republic. B. Methodology 3. The methodology employed by the Commission was based on standard practices of commissions of inquiry and human rights investigations. The Commission relied primarily on first-hand accounts. 4. The information contained herein is based on 326 interviews conducted in the region and from Geneva. 5. Photographs, video recordings, satellite imagery and medical records were collected and analysed. Reports from Governments and non-governmental sources, academic analyses and United Nations reports were reviewed. 6. The standard of proof is met when the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that incidents occurred as described, and that violations were committed by the warring party identified. II. Conflict dynamics 7. The conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic will soon enter its seventh year. Despite a general reduction in violence achieved by the nation-wide ceasefire agreed by the Russian Federation and Turkey on 30 December, armed violence persists on a number of frontlines. The ceasefire agreement, which came on the heels of the capture of Aleppo city by pro-Government forces, was buttressed by the adoption of Security Council resolution 2336 (2016), which commended Turkish and Russian political efforts and called for an immediate resumption of the political process. 8. Turkey, Iran and Russia sponsored talks in Astana, ostensibly aimed at capitalising on the post-Aleppo battlefield developments by reinforcing the ceasefire. In the final joint communique, the sponsors called for the creation of a trilateral ceasefire monitoring mechanism and for the effective separation of armed groups from United Nations recognised terrorist entities Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It also emphasised the need to apply Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) as a road map for a political solution. By reinforcing the ceasefire agreement, the talks were meant to support the February Geneva talks. 9. The outcome of the Astana talks also had important consequences for the armed groups, particularly in Idlib and western Aleppo governorates. Terrorist group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham considered the final communique of the talks as a declaration of war against it, and proceeded to attack the depots and checkpoints of armed groups that participated in the Astana meeting. Fearing further attacks by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, many of the Astana associated armed groups joined the Ahrar al-Sham armed group, for protection and formed a new group under its umbrella. In response, the terrorist group united with a number of extremist factions under the name Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS). So far, infighting has led to hundreds of military casualties and is having serious repercussions on the general armed groups’ ability to mount offensive operations against government forces. 10. On 23 February parties to the conflict gathered in Geneva as part of the United Nations-sponsored talks mediated by Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura. The opposition was primarily represented by the High Negotiating Committee Bloc (HNC) and headed by Nasr al Hariri from the Syria National Coalition. Two opposition platforms from outside the HNC structure, the Moscow and Cairo groups, also joined. Differing perspectives on immediate priorities prevented direct talks between the Syrian government delegation and the HNC bloc from taking place. While the opposition emphasised an immediate political transition, the Syrian Government pushed for the need to fight terrorism. Talks were considered a relative success to the extent that consultations between the parties and the Special Envoy continued until the official conclusion of the talks on 3 March. A common framework agreement to pursue talks at the end of March was agreed on the basis of Security Council resolution 2254. 11. A number of fronts continue to be intermittently active since January. These are focused on Douma (eastern Damascus countryside), Homs and southern Dara’a governorate. On 25 February, a series of suicide attacks claimed by the HTS reportedly killed 32 people in Homs city including high-ranking government security officials. Thereafter, Syrian Air Force airstrikes hit the besieged town of al-Waer (Homs) and Douma leading to scores of civilian casualties. In the same context, government forces continue active military operations around the besieged areas of Qaboun, Barzeh and Harasta (eastern Damascus). In February, fighting erupted in Dara’a city as parts of the Manshieh neighbourhood were overtaken by armed groups. 12. On 24 August 2016, Turkey initiated a military operation in northern Syria against ISIL. Since then, Turkish troops and affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups pushed through areas of northern Aleppo governorate as part of the cross-border operation “Euphrates Shield”. On 23 February, these forces gained control of the strategic town of al-Bab from ISIL. In eastern Aleppo governorate, Syrian government forces continued to make swift advances at the expense of ISIL successfully connecting to territory controlled by the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around the town of Minbij to the west of the Euphrates River. A reported military agreement with the SDF has allowed the entry of Syrian government forces to the vicinity of Minbij thus overtaking a number of villages to the west of the town and effectively facing the Turkish forces to the south. On a different front, SDF forces continue their rapid advance through the northern ar-Raqqa governorate towards the self-proclaimed “capital” of ISIL reaching the outer limits of the city at the time of this writing. 13. Facing multiple actors on a number of fronts, ISIL continued to lose territory particularly in the governorates of Aleppo, Homs and ar-Raqqah. Subsequently to the reporting period, on 3 March, government forces regained control of Palmyra (Homs) for the second time in less than a year. The terrorist group’s defences also appear to have significantly weakened in eastern Aleppo governorate and to the north of ar-Raqqah. In a major development, SDF forces with the support of international coalition airstrikes, established control of parts of the road connecting ar-Raqqah city to Dayr az-Zawr thus severing one of the last vital supply lines for the terrorist group. 14. During the reporting period, external actors continued to provide material and financial support to the parties inside the Syrian Arab Republic contributing to the protraction of the conflict and with it the suffering of civilians. Involvement of external actors in the war has led to further fragmentation of the political and military landscapes and has contributed to an increase in levels of violence and extremism. While the war on ISIL has achieved tangible results, civilians continue to the bear the brunt of the conflict throughout areas investigated by the Commission. The multiplication of active military actors on the ground or groups supported by proxy continues and could become a formidable obstacle to achieving a coherent political settlement. III. Government and pro-Government forces A. Attacks against civilian infrastructure (i) Hospitals 15. After six years of violence, airstrikes targeting medical facilities, health-care workers and ambulances show no sign of abating in the Syrian Arab Republic. Repeated bombardments of hospitals and clinics in areas controlled by armed groups destroy vital infrastructure and kill medical personnel. The number of remaining doctors, nurses, and first responders is now so grossly inadequate to meet the needs of the population that many injured civilians die due to lack of access to adequate medical care. In besieged areas, the lack of access to medical supplies, including anaesthetics, surgical equipment, and medication, makes it impossible for hospitals and clinics to provide even the bare minimum care to patients. As previously noted by the Commission, the pattern of attacks strongly suggests that pro-Government forces intentionally and systematically target medical facilities, repeatedly committing the war crime of deliberately attacking protected objects. Intentionally directing attacks against health-care workers and ambulances amounts to the war crimes of intentionally attacking medical personnel and transport. 16. On 6 August, at around 1pm, an airstrike directly hit the al-Almal hospital in Milis (Idlib) killing a total of 13 people including three hospital support staff, an ambulance driver, three children and two women. Another three persons were injured including a midwife and a nurse. This facility, which provided medical services for up to 40,000 people, was destroyed. One interviewee said that occasionally some armed groups fighters met in an area in the vicinity of the attack but that the only location directly hit by the airstrike on 6 August was the hospital. 17. In the early hours of 19 August, one week before the evacuation agreement of Darayya (Damascus), Syrian government helicopters bombarded the centre of town, directly striking the only hospital in Darayya. Twenty-five people were evacuated from the hospital and there were no casualties. An eyewitness recalled that the hospital was hit with barrel bombs containing “a gelatine-like material” he believed to be napalm. This substance was highly flammable and the next day parts of the building were still on fire. Interviewees denied the presence of armed groups in the area claiming that fighters were based in the outskirts of the city defending it. 18. The hospital of Atarib (Aleppo countryside) was repeatedly hit by airstrikes during the reporting period. On 24 July, at around 8pm, shortly after the announcement of the results of local council elections, a series of airstrikes hit the area where the local council and the market are located. As Civil Defence went to the scene, the area was again hit by airstrikes. In total, 22 people were killed, including a first responder. Ambulances took the injured to the hospital, located about 1km from the local council, driving with their lights off to avoid attacks. On the same evening, strafing from an unidentified aircraft injured 25 people, including three women, at the emergency room of the hospital which was closed down temporarily as a result. 19. On 14 November, at 11am, a number of airstrikes hit the hospital of Atarib, the Civil Defence centre, and a celebrations hall. The hospital was hit four times and the building severely damaged forcing the hospital to close down permanently. The attack also destroyed an ambulance, and injured three children. (ii) Schools 20. One of the most vicious patterns of the Syrian conflict is the targeting of schools, with attacks in the Syrian Arab Republic estimated to account for half of all worldwide attacks on schools from 2011 to 2015. These attacks have resulted in staggering numbers of children being killed and maimed in brutal circumstances. They have also led to the death of countless teachers and the destruction of school buildings which combined deprive hundreds of thousands of children from accessing education. Whilst schools can lawfully be targeted when used for military purposes, such attacks nevertheless require that prior warning is given when located in densely populated civilian areas. The Commission found no evidence any schools lost their protection during the period reviewed and were therefore not lawful targets. 21. The year 2016 saw one of the deadliest attacks on schools in the Syrian Arab Republic. On Wednesday 26 October, a series of airstrikes hit a complex of schools and its surroundings in Haas (Idlib countryside) killing a total of 36 civilians; 21 were children between the ages of 7 and 17 and six were women. Another 114 persons were injured in the attack including 61 children and 10 women. Some of the injured children had limbs amputated; others lost sight of one or both eyes. Together the schools had over 2,000 students but after the events of 26 October they stopped functioning out of fear of future attacks. 22. The Haas school complex was composed of five educational institutions: one kindergarten, one high-school, two preparatory schools (one for boys and one for girls), and the Kamal al-Qal’ajy co-educational elementary school. Although Haas is in opposition-held territory, the teachers of the schools are Government employees and are paid by Damascus. This complex is situated within Haas town in an area described by all interviewees as residential, without checkpoints or armed groups’ presence. One interviewee said that Haas is considered to be safer than most localities precisely because armed groups are not present. For that reason, 10,000 internally displaced people, approximately one third of the Haas population, have settled there. 23. Eyewitnesses recall that in the morning of 26 October, around 9am, there was a drone hovering in the skies over Haas. Residents had seen the drone on other occasions – children were used to it and called it “the buzzer” – but were not worried because nothing had happened on the other occasions they saw the drone. At 10am the early warning system reported that a jet fighter was in the area and minutes afterwards a jet fighter dropped two bombs. The first bomb landed 200 meters away from the schools, and the second 50 meters away. Both bombs killed and injured residents in the area. A third bomb hit the entrance of the preparatory school for girls killing at least eight students and three teachers. 24. After the third bomb hit the girls’ school, parents and first responders rushed to t