28 November 2011
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria had concluded that Syria’s army and security forces committed crimes against humanity in their repression of a largely civilian population in the context of peaceful protests, members of the United Nations-backed panel said today.

“We have identified patterns of human rights violations by Syria’s army and security forces,” Chair Paulo Pinheiro said, as he and fellow Commission members, Yakin Ertürk and Karen Koning AbuZayd, presented the report’s findings by video conference from Geneva.

[Set up by the Human Rights Council in August, the Commission was mandated to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria since March 2011, to establish the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and, where possible, to identify those responsible.  It will submit a written update to the current report at the Council’s nineteenth session in March.]

Citing a solid body of evidence for the report’s conclusions – which were based on interviews with 223 victims and witnesses of alleged human rights violations — Mr. Pinheiro said Syrian authorities used murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity in different locations, including, but not limited to, Damascus, Dar’a, Duma, Hama, Homs, Idlib and along the border.

“The widespread and systematic violations of human rights in Syria could not have happened without the consent of the highest ranking State officials,” he continued, noting that under international law, “the State of Syria is responsible for these violations and bears the duty to ensure that the perpetrators are punished and that the victims received reparations.”

Mr. Pinheiro said excessive force — including by live fire and snipers — was used against peaceful demonstrators.  Further, the State had shown little or no recognition of the rights of children in quelling dissent, and reliable sources had indicated that some 256 children had been killed by State forces as of 9 November.  Torture, sexual violence and other forms of ill treatment were also inflicted against people sympathetic to the protests, regardless of their gender or age.

He said that, as described in the report, the gruesome and extreme nature of the torture used by Syrian security forces resulted, in numerous cases, in death.  The great majority of people detained either witnessed, or were subjected to, torture.  Sexual violence was also used against male adults and children detainees.  While some witnesses indicated that women were sexually assaulted, the Commission had received limited evidence to that effect.

He went on to note that arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention were being used to keep thousands of civilians jailed for indefinite periods and without due legal process or explanation.  While the Commission was aware of the release of more than 1,700 detainees following Syria’s acceptance, on 2 November, of the League of Arab States’ Plan of Action for ending the violence, it believed that thousands of civilians remained in detention.  Indeed, reports put the number of missing and unaccounted for in the thousands.

“The situation of human rights in Syria each day is aggravated and requires the international community to immediately implement emergency measures to address the suffering [and] to stop the violence,” he stressed, noting that the Commission recommended that the Syrian Government end the gross human rights violations documented in the report; immediately release all persons arbitrarily detained; provide international monitoring bodies, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, with access to all places of detention; and initiate independent and impartial investigations of those violations and bring all perpetrators to justice.

Separately, the Commission recommended that the Human Rights Council take “urgent steps”, including through the General Assembly, to implement the report’s recommendations.  He said that member States and regional organizations, particularly the League of Arab States, should support efforts to protect the Syrian population, to send human rights observers to Syria, to bring an end to gross human rights violations and to suspend the provision of arms and military materials to all parties.

He noted that those recommendations were as far as the commissioners wanted to go regarding the responsibility for human rights violations.  It was for the international bodies to take the initiative, he said, suggesting that it was not for them to determine how far such responsibility went.  While the Commission was concerned about emerging reports of armed clashes between defector groups and Syrian armed and security forces, it had been unable to verify whether an internal armed conflict now existed in Syria, particularly since, despite many requests, the Commission was not allowed to visit the country.

Fielding numerous questions about the Commission’s process for interviewing more than 200 witnesses and victims, Mr. Pinheiro highlighted the diversity of testimony coming from “common people”, as well as women, children, elderly persons and defectors from the Syrian army.  He declined, however, to reveal any details regarding the location and circumstances of the interviews.

Following up on this, Ms. AbuZayd stressed that a “conformity of information”, from a range of sources in different locations and from different places in Syria, had given the commissioners confidence to make their conclusions.  Ms. Ertürk added:  “Non-access to Syria does not mean non-access to information.”  The Commission had made use of every avenue of access to detail the patterns of human rights violations outlined in the report and it should be read in that context, she said. 

While 223 interviews might appear to some to be unrepresentative, the commissioners had been less concerned by being representative than with identifying consistent patterns, she continued.  Secondary information such as doctors’ reports, x-rays and video footage had been used.  “We feel quite confident that the information we collected has given us sufficient evidence to make the claims made in the report,” she said, adding that if the times and places for alleged crimes was not substantiated, those crimes were not included.

In that context, she noted that the Commission had been unable to substantiate rumours that the use of rape against women had been used by Syrian forces.  Thus, the report had not been built on those claims.

Responding to a question on the nature of its cooperation with the Arab League, Mr. Pinheiro said the Commission had had contact with the League and other regional groups in Geneva.  He further stressed that for the second phase of its investigation, which would take place between now and the March release of its follow-up report, the Commission would like to have access to the Syrian authorities, including commanders of the army and security forces.  It would also like to interview members of the security forces that had been wounded and to meet the families of the 1,100 members of the security forces that Syrian officials report were killed.

Responding to scepticism that those cases of human rights violations would ever be punished, he agreed that impunity currently prevailed inside Syria, which had not shared any findings of its own investigations.  At this point, the commissioners were convinced that they had done their best to fulfil their mandate and it was time for the General Assembly and the Member States to act.  He could not predict the course of effective accountability.  All the elements could be used to ensure accountability.

Pressed for further assessment of the nature of the conflict, particularly in light of the recommendation that the international community stop the flow of arms to all parties, he said the commissioners followed the news on a daily basis and were aware of clashes between Syrian security forces and defectors from the army.  But, he reiterated, they could not define the conflict.  The recommendation regarding the sale of arms was “good sense” in a complex and delicate situation since any flow of arms would aggravate the suffering of the population.

Asked about its conclusions regarding violations by the Syrian opposition – including YouTube videos some correspondents said showed opposition members “butchering” civilians, Mr. Pinheiro underlined that the Commission’s approach had been to consider civilian society without distinction between supporters or opposition members.  He reiterated that if the commissioners were allowed to enter Syria, they intended to meet with the families of members of the Syrian army who had been killed.

Asked why, despite the calls of some civil society activists, the report stopped short of explicit recommendations to the Security Council to act, he said the commissioners respected the opinion of civil society organizations.  However, the Commission was not a judicial or prosecutorial body and its mandate was to send the report to the Human Rights Council, which would transmit it to the General Assembly.  At this point, it was up to Member States to decide the next course of action.

Responding to other questions, Mr. Pinheiro said the Commission had had no contact with the International Criminal Court.  Nor was it in a position to comment on the proposal of French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé that humanitarian corridors be established in Syria.  Its main recommendation to the Syrian Government was, he stressed, to end human rights violations and to protect civilians.

He went on to say that the Commission had been unable to evaluate reports of disappearances of Syrian citizens in Lebanon.  Denying that the commissioners had been pressured, he suggested that “nobody dared to pressure us”.  Moreover, the report stated exactly what the three commissioners thought was appropriate to say.

In response to further questions regarding its investigation of the Syrian opposition, Ms. Ertürk said some of the Commission’s recommendations were precautionary in nature.  The report did say the Commission was aware of some demonstrators using force or violence.  It talked about the defectors of the so-called Free Syrian Army having carried out operations.

However, she continued, the commissioners had no first-hand information to make any judgment regarding the level of organization or intensity of such operations – which were the two main criteria international humanitarian law made regarding the presence of civil war - those actors were engaged in.  Consequently, it had been unable to apply appropriate international humanitarian law in its analysis.  Still, the Commission was calling for all parties involved to refrain from using force, because force could escalate and change the level of violence in the country.

Asked to recall one particular story that affected the commissioners, Ms. Ertürk said she had personally met with the father of a deceased child and his vivid desperation, anger and sorrow had affected her tremendously.  In addition, the report took a lead on reporting sexual violence against men that was often discussed in times of conflict, but rarely documented.  The commissioners had been able to document it in this case, and the despair expressed by the young male victims was not something they would soon forget – although they had put their emotions aside in order not to be carried away in writing their report.

Asked about the Commission’s investigations of human rights violations against children, including the death of more than 200, Ms. Ertürk said these children were either bystanders or participating with their elders in demonstrations and were picked up and tortured in places of detention.  In the two specific cases included in the report, neither child returned alive to their families.  Many of those incidents had been widely reported in the media, but “we probably have a more conservative assessment than what the media reported,” but it had been treated in the context of international law regarding violence against children.

Responding to a question on how they would proceed during the second part of their investigation, particularly if they were not allowed to enter Syria, Mr. Pinheiro stressed that the commissioners hoped the Government would cooperate, noting the Arab League’s appeals to that end.  Ms. AbuZayd added that a further review of the 223 cases documented thus far was needed to explore the patterns and trends more deeply. Moreover, she expected there may be some occasion to get some observers in.

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For information media • not an official record