POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 6, 2014
UNITED NATIONS » A commission of inquiry established by the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses in Syria singles out the government and its allied militias for "systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance," while pointing a sharp finger at the U.N. Security Council for allowing both sides in the three-year-long war to continue breaking international laws with impunity.
"The warring parties do not fear being held accountable for their acts," the three-member panel wrote in its seventh report, released Wednesday.
The report listed jails and government offices where people were detained and tortured, and accused the government of using sieges as part of its strategy, withholding water, food and medical care in violation of international law. While it did not blame anyone in particular for a chemical attack on Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, last August, the report said, "The perpetrators likely had access to the chemical weapons stockpile of the Syrian military, as well as the expertise and equipment necessary."
Bombardment and sieges of civilian areas are causing mass casualties and starvation, the report said, and hospitals, medical workers and humanitarian workers have been targeted. Until recently, the government's use of so-called barrel bombs, which are cheaper and can be dropped by transport helicopters, had increased markedly, according to the report, which said that the aerial bombardment of opposition-controlled Aleppo had been "prosecuted with shocking ferocity."
The chairman of the commission, Paulo Pinheiro, told reporters in Geneva that his team had been compiling a list of names of people suspected of being war criminals. He declined to identify them or to say how many are on the list, except that they are from the "higher echelons," rather than rank-and-file fighters.
The commission has repeatedly called on the Security Council to refer the warring parties in Syria to the International Criminal Court for possible criminal prosecution, an unlikely prospect at the moment. Russia and the United States, two permanent members of the council that seem to disagree on virtually every other aspect of the Syrian conflict, are both reluctant to take that action.
There has been no agreement on the Security Council as to whether the warring parties in Syria should be referred to the international court or prosecuted in some other forum. An early draft of a Security Council resolution ordering the warring parties to let in humanitarian aid contained specific language for referral to the International Criminal Court, but it was taken out of the final text and replaced with a vague accountability provision.
Nevertheless, Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, praised the report.
"We know there are horrendous crimes being committed every day in Syria," he said in an interview from Geneva. "What's important is that this report puts responsibility squarely on the Security Council to do something to end the violence."
The resolution that ordered a halt to the blockades of humanitarian aid stopped short of calling for the punishment of those who failed to comply, and it has not had any visible effect in curbing siege tactics or opening humanitarian access.
"The report is an urgent reminder of the need for follow-up action," Houry said. "The key is how to make the words of the resolution meaningful for Syrians on the ground."
In another development Wednesday, Syria's longtime ambassador to the U.N., Bashar al-Jaafari, was barred from traveling beyond a 25-mile radius of his Manhattan home without permission, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, declining to elaborate.
Diplomats from nations that are under sanction, like Iran, face similar restrictions. The Syrian mission in New York did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to listing crimes by forces backing the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, the report cites numerous violations by anti-government forces in the Sunni-led uprising.
Two 15-year-old boys were killed in August when a radical Islamist group's demands were not met and video of their killings was posted online. The panel names opposition groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Nusra Front, which it says committed public killings and crimes against humanity against prisoners in the town of Raqqah. Since May, the report said, armed groups operating in Sunni villages have "routinely abducted and killed" farmers belonging to Assad's minority Alawite sect.
Focusing on events from July to January, the panel found evidence that chemical weapons, mainly sarin, had been used on multiple occasions, citing the attack on Ghouta and two other attacks in early 2013. Pinheiro said that the panel had heard of 15 to 20 chemical weapons attacks, but most were still under investigation, and that given the lack of access to Syria, the panel did not have sufficient evidence to allow investigators to identify the perpetrators of any of them.
Denied entrance to Syria, the panel's investigators based their report on 563 interviews with Syrians who had fled to neighboring countries, and on telephone conversations with people inside the country. It cites specific instances of targeted killings, often naming specific Syrian army divisions and rebel groups. In mid-September, people being treated at a hospital for injuries that were not life-threatening were found dead after soldiers entered their operating rooms.
"One male relative who witnessed the soldiers was asked for identification and shot upon discovery of his family ties to the victims," the report said.
In July, internally displaced people in Homs were apprehended and killed. During Ramadan, the report said, government forces and militiamen went house to house, arresting people, later returning their bodies.
The commission is scheduled to brief the U.N. Human Rights Council this month on its findings.