13 March 2018
The Human Rights Council today held an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, noted an upsurge in the Syrian conflict in the past two months. Men, women and children in Eastern Ghouta had been cut off from the world by a harsh siege for five years, subsisting in unimaginable circumstances. There was also an escalation of violence in Afrin, home to a population of over 320,000, including 125,000 internally displaced persons. Throughout Idlib, home to 2 million people, hospitals and medical facilities continued to be attacked. Challenges relating to the return of nearly 12 million displaced persons must be identified and laws regulating housing, land, and property rights must be altered to facilitate their return.
Speaking as the concerned country, Syria said the aim of these Human Rights Council meetings about the country was to undermine the Government. Syria stressed that there were structural deficiencies governing the Commission of Inquiry’s work, as evidenced in its report’s inaccurate portrayal of the situation in Syria. The report relied on unreliable evidence to accuse Syria of using cluster munitions and failed to corroborate allegations of chemical weapons use. The report manipulated events and ignored attacks by certain groups on civilians.
In the ensuing discussion, delegations shared their support for pursuing political solutions to the Syrian conflict. Noting the relevance of combatting impunity, a number of speakers called for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Concern was voiced over the Syrian regime’s refusal to grant access to the Commission of Inquiry and humanitarian assistance into the country. Speakers called for an end to the use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions, with additional concerns voiced over ongoing air strikes in Eastern Ghouta. Others stressed that the crisis was exacerbated by the political aims of certain Governments and their desire to force regime change in Syria.
Speaking in the interactive dialogue were: European Union; Lichtenstein; Germany; Kuwait; Finland; Russian Federation; Israel; Brazil; Egypt; Croatia; Estonia; Belgium; Canada; Spain; Switzerland; Saudi Arabia; Czechia; United States; Italy; Poland; Hungary; Australia; Chile; Cuba; France; Bahrain; China; Turkey; Greece; Venezuela; Iraq; Mexico; Japan; Iran; Lithuania; Netherlands; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; New Zealand; Romania; Algeria; Denmark; Qatar; United Arab Emirates; Ireland; Belarus; Jordan; Morocco; Maldives; Ecuador; and United Kingdom.
The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: World Council of Arameans (Syriacs); Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; United Nations Watch; Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Roads of Success; and Conseil International pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l'Homme.
The Council is holding a full day of meetings today. It will next hold an interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in South Sudan.
The Council has before it the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (A/HRC/37/72).
Presentation by the Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria
PAULO SÉRGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, presenting the report, noted an upsurge in the conflict in Syria in the past two months, resulting in the fact that a population of over 390,000 was struggling for its survival. Syrian men, women, and children of Eastern Ghouta had been cut off from the world by a harsh siege for five years, subsisting in unimaginable circumstances, without adequate food, water, or medicine. A whole generation of children had been born into war. Unlawful attacks were perpetrated by armed groups and terrorist organizations operating from Eastern Ghouta. Ten days ago, the Council undertook an urgent debate on the situation in Eastern Ghouta. Not only did the bombs still fall but humanitarian aid convoys faced extreme difficulties to deliver life-saving food and medicine.
Mr. Pinheiro said this was the twenty-third time that he was addressing the Council. Eastern Ghouta was currently dominating the headlines just as eastern Aleppo city, Ar Raqqah and Deir al Zur had done in the past year or so, and Madaya before that. There were more such districts that the Commission had identified that would predictably become headlines in the future. There was escalation of violence in Afrin, home to a population of over 320,000, including 125,000 internally displaced persons. Throughout Idlib governorate, home to 2 million people, hospitals and medical facilities continued to be attacked. Only a few months ago, some tangible political progress seemed possible. De-escalation zones in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, Dara’a and Northern Hama had reduced violence markedly and the meetings in Astana and Sochi opened the possibility of a reinvigorated Geneva process. Still, the recent resurgence of violence perpetuated the illusion that the solution would come through a military victory. This view was a result of the unwillingness of influential States to enforce discipline on the warring parties.
The real resolution would require all conflict parties, and those who supported them, to address seriously the root causes of the conflict. Remedies to address the most urgent needs of victims must be sought. Thousands had been arbitrarily detained, taken hostage, abducted or forcibly disappeared, in many cases never to be heard from again. At the same time, the granting of unconditional access to all places of detention to independent monitors had to be prioritized, as well as releasing the most vulnerable from detention. Challenges relating to the return of nearly 12 million displaced persons, 5.6 million refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced people, had to be identified and laws regulating housing, land, and property rights had to be altered to help facilitate the return of the displaced. Now was the time to work on such matters. Parties to the conflict had to prioritize the needs of the very people that they purported to represent. Political dialogues in Geneva, Sochi and Astana, which had recognized many of the foregoing needs, had to continue to identify those issues as an integral part of any political solution.
Statement by the Concerned Country
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, said the Human Rights Council had held three meetings on Syria in the past week, imposing on the Council’s agenda. The aim of those proposing such meetings was to undermine the Government of Syria. Such behaviour, namely from the United States and its allies, raised questions on the credibility of the Council. The Commission of Inquiry’s reports were a main pillar in that political campaign and the interactive dialogue was pointless, lacking in logic. There was a structural deficiency governing the Commission of Inquiry’s work, as evidenced in its report’s inaccurate portrayal of the situation in Syria. The Commission used images from unknown sources to accuse Syria of using cluster munitions and could not corroborate allegations of chemical weapons use. The report manipulated events and ignored attacks by certain groups on civilians. The report also refrained from condemning the rogue American coalition and failed to acknowledge United States-led airstrikes that had killed civilians. Barbaric Turkish aggression in Afrin that led to the displacement of thousands went largely unreported by the Commission of Inquiry. Syria closed by assuring of its commitment to international law and its international obligations.
European Union commended the Commission of Inquiry for its meticulous work to investigate and document violations of international human rights law, and allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes. It welcomed the clarity of thinking in the report, including with respect to the eight proposed principles to guide efforts to bring an end to the conflict, and reiterated its call for the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Liechtenstein said accountability for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and for the continued perpetration of the most serious crimes under international law could and should – at no time – become a bargaining chip in any future peace talks. The inability of the Security Council to address the situation or even to agree on the most basic common denominators, such as the continuation of the Joint Investigative Mechanism for Chemical Weapons Attacks, was striking. Germany called upon States to cooperate with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism in order to end impunity and hold perpetrators accountable. Together with the Commission of Inquiry, the Mechanism played an important part in bringing a measure of recognition to the millions of victims and in ensuring accountability for the terrible crimes which had been committed and were still underway.
Kuwait said the Syrian situation continued to deteriorate as suffering continued to grow, and condemned the flagrant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against the people of Syria. It was gravely concerned about the deprivation of basic services and access to humanitarian assistance and renewed its call for humanitarian assistance to be made available. Finland called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, and stated that it fully supported the efforts of the Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in line with Security Council resolution 2254. Those responsible must be held accountable. It strongly supported the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and reiterated its call that it should be funded by the regular United Nations budget. Russia said this discussion was fuelled by forces which had a political objective and an interest to enforce a change in the regime in Syria. The Commission of Inquiry had obscured the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the international community, which had demolished Raqqa to the ground. While the United States-led coalition called for an end to all indiscriminate use of force, Russia wondered how it planned to implement that recommendation.
Israel said that the report was disturbing as it described how the Syrian Government continued to target its own civilians by indiscriminate bombing. How was the Commission planning to tackle the increasingly worrying trend of Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which took a heavy toll on the human rights of Syrians? Brazil underscored the Commission’s recommendation that all parties had to end siege tactics to ensure that there was immediate and timely access and the provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected. New reports on alleged use of weaponized chemicals deserved impartial investigation by the competent bodies. Egypt was appalled by the level of destruction of the civilian infrastructure, including sanitation, medical and educational facilities. The use of violence and targeting civilians by all parties, especially ISIS and Al Nusra, was condemned and the resolution 2401 was welcomed as well as the political process within the Geneva process.
Croatia was a strong supporter of the Commission of Inquiry and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism and Syrian authorities were urged to provide unhindered access to them. The Security Council was called on to refer the gross human rights violations and crimes to the International Criminal Court. Estonia found unacceptable the grave crimes perpetrated against civilians despite the resolution 2401 and urged all parties to find a lasting peace and political solution for Syria. The continued use of chemical weapons in the opposition-held areas was deeply concerning, especially as Syria was a party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons. Belgium was worried by the recent escalation of violence in Eastern Ghouta, and also in Idlib province and around Afrin. The Commission’s approach to look for practical remedies that sought solutions that could be implemented in the immediate future was appreciated.
Canada said one of the most alarming trends in the conflict was the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs and called on all parties to cease these violations. Canada asked if cooperation mechanisms in place could help ensure success in addressing the crisis. Spain said the Commission’s work was seriously hindered by its inability to access the country. Crimes committed during the Syrian crisis must be referred to the International Criminal Court and combatting impunity must be a clear priority. Switzerland noted that civilians and civilian facilities continued to be deliberately targeted in Syria. Siege and famine were having intolerable consequences on civilians. Switzerland reaffirmed its call for the issue to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Saudi Arabia noted that civilians were frequently targeted by illegal military means, with attacks targeting vital civilian infrastructure. Despite urgent international appeals, the Syrian regime and its allies continued besieging Eastern Ghouta. Czechia called on the Syrian authorities to grant immediate access to the Commission of Inquiry. Blocking humanitarian access was a human rights violation. Czechia strongly supported all efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. United States said Russia had failed to follow through on relevant Security Council resolutions and continued to conduct air strikes in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian regime must cease hostilities and allow access to humanitarian assistance for civilians.
Italy said there were no longer any words to describe Syria’s horror, in particular in the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, which had been described by the Secretary-General as a “hell on earth.” Italy urged all parties, and in particular the Syrian Government, to comply with Security Council resolution 2401 and all other relevant resolutions, including an immediate cessation of hostilities to enable the safe and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid. Poland said as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, it was actively engaged in the efforts to secure conditions for humanitarian assistance in Syria, as well as the compliance of all parties to the conflict with international human rights and humanitarian law. In this context, it reiterated its support to the Commission of Inquiry as well as to other mechanisms that served to ensure accountability and bring justice, such as the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria. Hungary strongly condemned the deliberate and repeated attacks on medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructures, leading to civilian casualties. It called on the broader international community to unite and intensify efforts to hold accountable all those responsible for alleged crimes, including through the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and urged the Syrian Government to protect the Syrian population, and not to block the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Australia said reports of chemical weapons used had emerged in Ghouta and Idlib, and thanks to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism, they knew that it was the Syrian regime and ISIL that had used chemical weapons. The regime’s disregard for international law was shocking. All parties must comply with the ceasefire and allow immediate, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all areas. Chile reiterated its call to all parties to ensure the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2401 and Human Rights Council resolution 37/1. The participation of all actors, and in particular those active in the region, were essential. It asked the Commission of Inquiry whether it had information on the children that had been forcibly conscripted. Cuba said those who urged and supported a regime change from abroad were responsible for feeding the conflict, financing terrorist groups, and furnishing weapons. Any intervention without the legitimate approval of the authorities in Syria worsened the conflict and would only perpetrate the fighting. If there was no respect for the self-determination of the Syrian people, there would be no lasting peaceful solution.
France said that since the adoption of resolution 2401, the offensive on Eastern Ghouta had continued in a dramatic manner. The Commission of Inquiry was called on to closely cooperate with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism in jointly reviewing crimes, and documenting criminal acts of terrorist organizations and militias, to ensure the rule of law. Bahrain thanked the Commission of Inquiry for documenting crimes and regretted that the Commission was not able to reach Syrian territory. Without a general resolution putting an end to crimes against humanity, it was not possible to move forward, so the international community had to adopt a firm stance for the immediate cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access. China agreed that a political settlement was the only way for Syria to emerge out of the turmoil so the United Nations had to support all parties in Syria to reach a dialogue. Full implementation of resolution 2401 was needed, while fully taking into account the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
Turkey said that a Working Group had been setup in the Astana meetings on the release of detainees and handover of the bodies as well as the identification of mission persons, and the first meeting would be held within the margins of the next Astana Ministerial Meeting this Friday. Concerning Afrin, Turkey informed the Council that it was not a Turkish offensive but an anti-terror operation “Olive Branch” against terrorist elements in the Afrin region and in line with international law and the right to self-defence. Greece drew attention to the dramatically increasing number of refugees and internally displaced persons, a number of whom were currently stranded in Greece. The Geneva talks had to remain at the epicentre of the efforts for a political solution to alleviate the dire situation of the Syrian people. Venezuela condemned acts of terrorist groups against the legitimate Syrian Government which had caused thousands of victims and displaced persons, and also condemned media manipulation by international corporations. All initiatives which were in the spirit of dialogue and respecting territorial unity and integrity as well as a Syria-led process towards restoring peace would be supported.
Remarks by Members of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria
KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, responding to questions about access to justice, said there should be a mechanism for getting people out of detention. There should be access to all places of detention, and recommendations on due process and justice. There should be unhindered access to humanitarian aid, especially to medical care for all persons, regardless of their status. Armed groups should not interfere in civilians’ freedom of movement. Ms. AbuZayd stressed that children were disproportionately vulnerable to violence and abuse. They had no medical treatment, no clothes and no education. The recruitment of children by armed groups had to end. Any mechanisms on missing persons would involve all the parties suffering because of the conflict, she added.
HANNY MEGALLY, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, speaking of the relationship with the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, said the Commission of Inquiry was ready to provide them immediately with required information. What was taking a bit longer in the cooperation between the Mechanism and the Commission was the ability to look at all the databases in a way that would also protect sources of information. The cooperation should be a two-way street and the Commission hoped to benefit from the information gained from the Mechanism, said Mr. Megally, adding that the Commission and the Mechanism would soon sign a memorandum of understanding. Turning to the question of the rights of persons with disabilities in detention, he said the Commission tried to be very practical and it pushed very hard for access to places of detention by independent monitors, such as the Red Cross. All parties to the conflict should give access to all places of detention, Mr. Megally stressed. With respect to the accumulated knowledge of seven years that the Commission had been building up, the Commission would like to explore work on disappearances, and reparations for victims and survivors.
Iraq said that a peaceful solution was the only way to end the bloodshed and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria. Military solutions were impossible and the Syrian people must be able to exercise their right to self-determination. Mexico expressed concern over attacks on civilians and human rights violations emanating from illicit arms trafficking. Mexico urged Member States to avoid transferring weapons to parties to the conflict and asked what the biggest obstacles to ending the conflict were. Japan condemned in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons and urged the immediate cessation of their use. Japan requested that the people of Eastern Ghouta be allowed to evacuate for the purpose of receiving medical treatment.
Iran said terrorist organizations in Syria were committing crimes against humanity. Iran stressed that there was no military solution to the conflict and any solution must respect the national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Syria. Lithuania said the Commission of Inquiry was a vital tool to support future justice mechanisms in Syria. Lithuania said the report provided detailed evidence of the use of indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas by Russia. Netherlands said all parties to the conflict must abide by their international obligations, including immediate cessation of attacks on civilians. It called on all parties to the conflict to help ensure full access to the Commission of Inquiry in Syria.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maintained the consistent position to oppose politicization, selectivity and double standards in the field of human rights and therefore rejected attempts to use human rights issues as a tool for interference in internal affairs. Solidarity was extended to the Syrian Government and its people in their just struggle to eliminate terrorism and safeguard their sovereignty. New Zealand said that the horror that was unfolding for more than 400,000 people trapped in Eastern Ghouta was unacceptable and the use of siege warfare and instrumentalisation of aid as a tool of war was strongly condemned. All parties to the conflict were called on to cease violence and work harder to find a sustainable political solution. Romania stated that almost half a million people had lost their lives and over half of the country’s population had been displaced. It was high time for this conflict, probably the most brutal and bloodiest in the twenty-first century, to come to an end.
Algeria condemned all human rights violations in Syria, emphasizing that special attention should be given to the acts of terrorist groups which used civilian populations as shields. Algeria called on all parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian access, adding that it was imperative to find a political solution to the conflict. Denmark noted that the independent and impartial documenting of serious violations of human rights and international law in Syria were vital in the attempts to ensure accountability. Denmark strongly condemned the Syrian regime’s unrelenting use of sieges and blocking of humanitarian aid. Qatar said that the report had confirmed well known facts, namely that the Syrian regime deliberately targeted civilians. The Syrian judiciary system and the international community had failed in achieving justice for victims. The continuation of impunity encouraged the Syrian regime to continue its violations.
United Arab Emirates shared concerns of the Commission of Inquiry regarding the deterioration of the situation in Syria and the impact on civilians, noting that a political solution was the only way to restore peace and security in the country. It called on the international community to bring about mechanisms conducive to the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry. Ireland strongly condemned the deliberate targeting of Syrian civilians and civilian infrastructure. It called for an immediate and unhindered humanitarian access to the besieged areas in Syria. Belarus stressed that the Commission’s report barely touched on violence by terrorist groups against civilians. It was thus biased in favour of one side in the conflict. To facilitate the peace process, the Council should refrain from making politicized unilateral accusations against the Syrian Government.
Jordan affirmed that the only solution to the conflict was a political one that ensured the territorial integrity of Syria and the aspirations of the Syrian people. Jordan called for the immediate implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2401. Morocco noted the need to ensure that the victims’ access to justice was at the heart of any lasting, political solution to the crisis. The report unfortunately noted an ongoing deterioration of the humanitarian situation as widespread violations against civilians persisted. Maldives said the denial of the rights to food, education, and health care were now the norm for Syrian civilians. Concerns remained over the reported use of prohibited weapons. Maldives called for the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2401.
Ecuador said over half of the population of Syria had been forced to leave their homes. Ecuador strongly condemned all forms of violations against the rights of children, including those that resulted from attacks on vital civilian infrastructure. Ecuador called for a political solution to the crisis. United Kingdom said the report demonstrated that the Syrian regime and its backers bore overwhelming responsibility for the suffering in Syria. The United Kingdom asked if the Commission had estimates of the number of people detained and disappeared.
World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) requested the Commission of Inquiry to explore the following four underreported cases: the sowing of death and destruction by terrorist organizations like ISIS in places like Homs, attacks on Christian quarters in Eastern Ghouta, violence perpetrated by the Kurdish forces, and the abduction of the Syriac and Greek Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILF) advocated that the Commission of Inquiry adopt a more comprehensive and consistent gender analysis. That methodology would illustrate more how the violations perpetuated differences in roles, and degrees of power by Syrian women and men. United Nations Watch regretted that the debate had been used by the perpetrators of crimes in Syria. The 30-day ceasefire had been supported by the Russian Federation; yet, it continued to bomb and drop chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta. Iran continued to arm and finance the Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
Human Rights Watch highlighted the Syrian-Russian military alliance’s dangerous disregard for civilian lives. The Council should demand that the parties comply with the United Nations Security Council resolution 2401, and request that the United Nations send monitors to oversee the aid delivery and evacuation of civilians who wanted to leave Eastern Ghouta. Amnesty International drew attention to the crimes committed by the Syrian Government and by the armed opposition groups, which amounted to crimes against humanity. In light of the scale of ongoing violations, how could the Commission of Inquiry contribute to and make meaningful steps towards accountability in Syria? Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies noted that peace efforts would almost certainly yield no tangible or sustainable results while the parties sitting at the table enjoyed impunity for their unrelenting targeting of innocent lives. It called on the Council to create a specialized resolution on accountability in Syria that would provide recommendations for States to increase and improve the use of national justice systems for investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes.
Roads of Success said terror groups in Syria were committing crimes against Christian populations based solely on their beliefs. To stop the purging of Christian communities in Syria, the United Nations must recognize the ongoing genocide of that population. Conseil International pour le soutien à des procès équitables et aux Droits de l'Homme said the war in Syria was continuing under false pretexts. The United States and Israel wanted to destroy Syria and the conflict had been launched with the assistance of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Syria’s President was progressive and had the support of his population.
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, totally rejected the intervention of the Commission of Inquiry as it had overstepped its mandate. Turning to accountability, Syria said developments in the country were addressed selectively by certain States and impunity was being afforded to those supporting terrorist organizations. The Government had sent a formal letter to the Security Council regarding resolution 2401 and had taken measures to assist the people of Eastern Ghouta. Terrorist groups had been given political coverage as they continued to shell humanitarian corridors and attack civilian populations.
HANNY MEGALLY, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said the Commission had consistently called upon all parties not to provide weapons and knew that even more sophisticated weapons had been provided. Regarding the question on progress on the political side, the Commission was satisfied that there was an effort on all sides to bring an end to the conflict, including the Government and the opposition, as well as the tireless efforts of the Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. On the ground it was difficult to talk about progress because people were still starving, sexual and gender based violence and arbitrary detentions were on the increase, and in general the situation was still deplorable. All parties were responsible, but the State bore the primary responsibility in this respect. Regarding accountability, and how to obtain it, the report called for it through the eyes of the victims. This meant justice for the victims in terms of finding out the fate of missing relatives, access to detention centres, and ensuring the rights of displaced persons and refugees, including making sure they had a home to return to in dignity and safety.
KAREN KONING ABUZAYD, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said it had recommended in its paper on detention that all agree upon a timetable to release all detainees. Regarding what was worst and best, the worst was the time this had gone on and the involvement in the violations. The best was that more and more were calling for referrals to the International Criminal Court, to Staffan de Mistura and to the enforcement of resolutions 2401 and 2254 of the Security Council. What the Commission had tried to do from the beginning was cover the violations by all parties. It had been impartial in every possible way and this impartiality had been recognized by many.
For use of the information media; not an official record