Syria: UN human rights chief denounces hardship wrought on Aleppo’s residents

Boys queue to fill jerrycans and other containers with water, in Aleppo, Syria, which has been experiencing interruptions in its water supply. Photo: UNICEF/Romenzi

21 May 2014 – The United Nations human rights chief today condemned the “flagrant disregard” for international human rights and humanitarian law – both by the Syrian Government and by some armed groups – that has led to tremendous suffering for civilians in Aleppo.

“The people of Aleppo have been living in terrifying conditions, with intensified shelling and aerial attacks over the past six months, including through the rampant use of barrel bombs,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a news release.

“Adding to this tremendous hardship, the essential infrastructure of these communities, including their water systems, is being repeatedly damaged. Water shortages in certain areas of Aleppo City continue to pose serious health threats to tens of thousands of people, including in some neighbourhoods in the Old City, where they reportedly did not have access to potable water for five months.”

According to information received by the High Commissioner’s office (OHCHR), the water grid in Aleppo has had to be repaired dozens of times in the month of April alone, mostly to fix damage caused by aerial bombardment and shelling. Some damaged points on the water grid have not been repaired because of shortage of equipment or spare parts, ongoing attacks, and the inability to remove large chunks of rubble to access the damaged areas.

The news release pointed out that recent reports indicate that the water supplies in Aleppo city were deliberately cut by the Jabhat al-Nusra armed group for several days this month, depriving civilians of access to potable water and sanitation. While the water supply has been restored in some areas, other areas continue to suffer from shortages.

Ms. Pillay warned that international humanitarian law prohibits attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.

“International humanitarian law requires that parties to the conflict at all times distinguish between civilians, civilian objects and military objectives,” she said. “Sustained rocket and barrel-bomb attacks on populated areas of Aleppo are being carried out in grave violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. Barrel bombs, when used in populated areas where civilians are still present, clearly have an indiscriminate impact.

“I urge all parties to the conflict to immediately cease such indiscriminate attacks against civilians,” she added.

OHCHR also highlighted the devastating effect of the fighting on prisoners and detainees in Aleppo’s Central Prison, which has been besieged by several armed groups since mid-2013.

Prisoners and detainees, reportedly numbering about 2,500, face dire humanitarian conditions, disease, lack of medical treatment and adequate food, water and other essential supplies, with their suffering compounded by ongoing fighting around the prison grounds.

Hundreds of prisoners and detainees have died due to shortages of food and medical supplies, from untreated diseases, as well as due to the ongoing fighting in the vicinity. At least one detainee was reportedly killed this month by a prison guard firing into the cells. In addition, hundreds of individuals reportedly remain in the prison even though they have already served their sentences.

Ms. Pillay called for an immediate end to the siege on the prison and for unhindered access to humanitarian aid for all those held there, as well as for an immediate release of the prisoners who have already completed their sentence and for those who have been arbitrarily detained.

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Syria: Ban warns against targeting civilians after armed groups cut water supplies in Aleppo

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