Syrian crackdown on protesters may amount to crimes against humanity – UN report

Protesters in Damascus, Syria on 8 April 2011

18 August 2011 – The Syrian Government's “widespread and systematic” attacks against its own people may amount to crimes against humanity and warrant an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the United Nations human rights office said in a report released today.

The Report of the Fact-finding Mission on Syria was produced by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in response to a request by the UN Human Rights Council.

The mission found “a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity,” states the report, which covers events from 15 March to 15 July. The violations include murder, enforced disappearances, torture, deprivation of liberty, and persecution.

As many as 2,000 Syrians have been killed in the past five months since the start of the pro-democracy protests, which are part of a broader uprising across North Africa and the Middle East that has led to the toppling of long-standing regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and conflict in Libya.

“The daily toll of killing and human rights abuses must halt immediately, and the perpetrators of serious human rights violations must be held accountable,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the Security Council when she presented the findings of the report.

“Every indication is that the pattern of widespread or systematic violations of human rights uncovered by the fact-finding mission is continuing today,” she added. “Indeed, witnesses on the ground have told my office that the scale of military and security operations has in fact escalated in the past two weeks.”

As Syria did not provide OHCHR access to the country, the findings in the report are based primarily on the mission's analysis of first-hand information obtained through interviews conducted with victims and witnesses.

The 13-member mission, headed by Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang, gathered corroborative eyewitness statements with respect to numerous summary executions, including 353 named victims, and describes the disproportionate use of force by Syrian military and security forces.

The report states that, while demonstrations have been largely peaceful, the military and security forces have resorted to excessive force. Accounts from defecting security officers, corroborated by the location of bullet wounds on the dead, indicate an apparent “shoot-to-kill” policy, noted Ms. Pillay.

The report adds that “children have not only been targeted by security forces, but they have been repeatedly subject to the same human rights and criminal violations as adults, including torture, with no consideration for their vulnerable status.

“The fact that Syrian forces have tortured or killed children on several occasions, in what are clearly not isolated incidents, causes grave concern,” it states.

Ms. Pillay recalled the principle agreed in 2005 by all UN Member States, by which each State has the responsibility to protect its populations from crimes against humanity and other international crimes.

“By failing to heed calls by the international community to cease all military and paramilitary operations against population centres, the Government of Syria is manifestly failing to fulfil its responsibility to protect the Syrian population from such crimes,” she stated.

Under such circumstances, she said, the Security Council may wish to consider referring the situation in Syria to the ICC.

“It is vital that the Security Council conveys to the people of Syria the message that their protection is of utmost concern for the international community and that the United Nations supports their struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms,” she added.

In an interview with UN TV, Ms. Pillay said that “what is most outrageous is that the people targeted are civilians who are exercising their legitimate rights, which are taken for granted in most democracies. It is shocking then that the President and his security forces could fire and kill those people.”

“We are all hoping that the [Syrian] President [Bashar al-Assad] will carry out his intentions of stopping killings immediately, carrying out urgently needed reforms, and my office is there to assist in enabling the country to conduct serious reforms,” she said.

She said the report had identified 50 individuals who bear the most responsibility for the atrocities. Their names will be kept in confidence until OHCR received a request by either a national or an international investigations body, such as the ICC, to share the list.

“When asked we will share this information. The 50 individuals named are all high level. People in positions of authority,” said Ms. Pillay.

In the report, Ms. Pillay also recommends that Syria immediately put an end to the gross human rights violations, as well as allow immediate access for humanitarian workers to assist those in need and for OHCHR to conduct investigations into all abuses.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made the same appeal in a telephone conversation yesterday with Mr. Assad, during which the UN chief expressed appreciation that the Government had agreed to receive a UN humanitarian assessment mission and was assured that it would have access to different sites in the country.

Also briefing the Council today was Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, who told reporters afterwards that there will be an initial humanitarian assessment mission to Syria at the weekend. “We have been guaranteed that we will have full access to anywhere that we wish to go,” she said.

The assessment team will be led by Rashid Khalikov, the director of the Geneva office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The Human Rights Council will hold a second special session on the situation of human rights in Syria on Monday in Geneva.


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