Bearing witness: human rights and accountability in Syria
Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner
for Human Rights
Statement to the Side-event at the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council on
"Bearing witness: human rights and accountability in Syria"
Palais des Nations Room XVIII
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank you for your invitation to address you on the situation in Syria, where the situation is increasingly dire, with a terrible disregard, that amounts almost to contempt, for the protections of civilians, as the country plunges ever deeper into conflict. Human rights abuses are rampant, and have reached the point where mass killings, summary executions and torture are the norm. In addition, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly with tens of thousands of civilians now suffering shortages of food, water, electricity, employment and other basic necessities.
Gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue to take place every day. Thousands have been killed, thousands more injured. As we speak, civilians, including children, are continuing to be injured and killed in Syria virtually every hour of every day.
No end to the conflict is in sight, and I would like to say at the outset that I fully support the Secretary-General’s initiative for dialogue and his appointment of the new Joint Special Representative, whose job – as he himself has said – appears at this point to be close to impossible.
I urge all parties, in the strongest possible terms, to protect civilians from the on-going violence and to immediately cease acts of violence against civilians in violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. I am also calling for desisting the supply of ammunition to both sides.
My office, along with the independent international commission of inquiry on Syria, has documented numerous gross human rights violations in the country since the beginning of the uprising.
Government forces continue to use heavy weaponry in residential and populated areas, and are increasingly using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in indiscriminate attacks on urban areas where there are civilians as well as armed opposition fighters. In a further alarming development, last week it was reported that houses in parts of Damascus were being bulldozed – an act that may well amount to collective punishment and constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.
This deplorable situation is compounded by opposition forces operating from within residential areas, and also heavily armed, thereby increasing the risk of civilians being killed and injured by Government forces.
I am deeply shocked by the recent reports of the killings in Daraya and I urge an immediate investigation into this incident. Meanwhile, as outlined in the most recent report of the Commission of Inquiry, the evidence clearly points to the responsibility of Government forces and their allies for the appalling massacre in El Houleh. Information is also being gathered about other reported mass killings and summary executions, including some carried out by opposition forces.
Both Government and opposition forces deploy snipers who target civilians. Government forces also continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain civilians, including children. Detainees are systematically tortured and ill-treated. There are multiple reports of rape and sexual violence against men, women and children, either in detention or during house raids. As time has passed, opposition forces have also been increasingly implicated in kidnappings and abductions, including of foreigners perceived as being government supporters. The undoubted climb in the number of human rights violations attributed to the opposition forces, in addition to the ever-increasing brutality by the authorities and their Shabiha allies, is part of the rapid downward spiral that is gripping Syria and, on the international level, increasing the sense of deep foreboding, frustration and impotence about where this conflict is heading. As the Secretary-General has recently stated forthrightly, “those who provide arms to either side in Syria are contributing to the misery”.
The recent report of the International Independent Commission of Inquiry, submitted to the Human Rights Council in August 2012, concluded that armed opposition forces have committed war crimes. Furthermore, the latest report of the Secretary General to the Human Rights Council notes that both Government forces and armed opposition forces have committed serious human rights violations that might amount to crimes against humanity and, possibly, war crimes.
Opposition forces should be under no illusion that they will be immune from prosecution. I urge them to make a strenuous effort to halt the deterioration in their conduct, and adhere to fundamental norms of international law.
In addition to the alarming deterioration in the humanitarian situation in many parts of the country, and especially in areas of cities under continuous or sporadic siege, civilians are frequently denied access to medical treatment. Medical facilities and personnel have been targeted, and there are reports of medical facilities and schools being occupied for military purposes.
More than 2.5 million people in Syria are directly affected by the violence and urgently need humanitarian assistance. However, despite assurances given to my humanitarian colleagues, the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria is hampered by the worsening security situation. In addition to the huge number of people displaced inside Syria, rapidly increasing numbers of Syrians are being compelled to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
Corroborated accounts have demonstrated time and time again that Government forces commit violations as part of a widespread or systematic attack against the Syrian civilian population. Furthermore, the breadth and patterns of attacks by military and security forces on civilians and the widespread destruction of property indicate that the Government had authorized or at least had knowledge of these attacks. Such attacks may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity under international law.
Bearing in mind the consistently deplorable and steadily deteriorating situation on the ground, I would like to remind States that they unanimously agreed, at the 2005 World Summit, that each State is obliged to protect its population from crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means.
When a State fails to protect its population from serious international crimes, the international community is responsible to step in by taking protective action in a collective, timely and decisive manner. The international community must assume its responsibilities and act in unison to prevent further violations. Actions that directly contribute to escalating the violence, such as providing arms, will most likely only result in more civilians being killed and injured.
In cases of gross violations constituting crimes under international law, States are under an obligation to investigate. If there is sufficient evidence, States also have the duty to prosecute those responsible for the violations.
Syrian authorities have failed to heed the repeated calls to conduct impartial and transparent investigations into all human rights violations, including their own.
We cannot afford to continue waiting for a change of policy on the part of the Government, that it shows no sign of ever making. Hence, I reiterate my call for the Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court. A referral will make it abundantly clear to all actors in Syria that they will not escape justice and will be held accountable for alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
It is also equally important that to the maximum extent possible now, and in the future, the many victims of this deplorable situation are treated with humanity and respect for their dignity and human rights. Appropriate measures should be taken to ensure their safety, physical and psychological well-being and privacy, as well as those of their families.
Pressure on the Government to give the Commission of Inquiry immediate and unhindered access to Syria should be maintained. The Government of Syria continues to deny the Commission access to the country. Pressure should also be kept up on the authorities to allow international organizations to monitor conditions in places of detention. Pressure should also be increased on both sides to observe all the international laws that they are breaking on a daily basis.
Those responsible for human rights violations must eventually be brought to justice. This is a key and non-negotiable principle that should be maintained throughout all our continuing efforts to bring peace. Those efforts will one day succeed, hopefully sooner than we anticipate, but they must not sacrifice the long-term benefits of justice, and its impact on sustainability, for the sake of some short-term political goals. Our descendants will not forgive us if we bargain away the significant and hard-won advances we have made in the field of international justice over the past two decades.
All wars come to an end at some point, but a sustainable peace will only be possible if accountability and justice prevail.