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Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic at the 25th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council

21 October 2016

M. le Président
Excellencies,

Every day, hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Aleppo – huddled in basements, working in hospitals – contemplate their chances of surviving the next hour. And each day, the world watches and waits to hear the news of more deaths, of horrors that have become, all at once, unbearable and routine.

This special session has been called, ostensibly on behalf of those civilians who have died and those who have survived. Victims, one and all, have had no protection from the overwhelming show of force that has been directed against them.

The dramatic escalation of violence that followed the collapse of the 10 September cessation of hostilities agreement has featured the use of heavy weapons, including bunker-buster bombs, which have levelled much of Eastern Aleppo city with intolerable consequences for ordinary civilians. Over three days in late September, a reported 300 people died and the death toll now includes more than 100 children.

Over a quarter of a million people have been besieged and subjected to withering daily airstrikes for more than one month. Some flee while others are reportedly prevented from doing so by warring parties. Trapped, they live without enough food and often without enough water. It is now two months since they last received humanitarian aid. Temporary humanitarian pauses are not enough to provide adequate relief. A sustained, long-term effort without conditionalities is necessary if aid is to reach those civilians in need.

Hospitals, markets, bakeries and water stations have all been targeted by airplanes flying overhead; many have been destroyed, amplifying the effect of the siege. The ambulances that are left cannot transport all the wounded to the remaining hospitals, which are in any event vastly insufficient to cope with the needs of the population. Countless numbers of people, including children and pregnant women, have died from lack of medical care. As hospitals are targeted and the number of doctors continues to dwindle, others will face the same fate.

A number of non-state armed groups currently comprise the insurgency in Aleppo city, including Ahrar al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and Faylaq al-Sham. These and other groups ally with the terrorist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to form the umbrella coalition Jaish al-Fatah when operational necessity requires it. Some of these groups have killed civilians in western Aleppo city with their indiscriminate barrage of mortars, oftentimes homemade. Just last week one such mortar killed two children and wounded five others in a school in the Suleimaneih neighbourhood. Some of these weapons are inaccurate by nature. But even with - or perhaps despite - this knowledge, armed groups continue to fire these mortars into civilian-inhabited areas.

No one is safe from attack by the warring parties. In one of the most striking events of this last round of violence, last month an attack on a humanitarian convoy killed twenty civilians, including humanitarian workers, in western Aleppo governorate. Eighteen trucks carrying much needed food, medicine and winter-clothing were destroyed. All relevant parties present in the area had been notified in advance of the convoy’s route and destination.

International legal standards concerning the laws of war reflect some of the most sacred wisdom passed down from previous generations. They form the basis for international scrutiny and collective action, to prevent these sorts of situations and the senseless killing of innocents. These principles which protect civilians have been deliberately ignored by all parties to this conflict in favour of clawing any possible military advantage. All warring parties have refused to adopt measures to protect innocent lives. And they refuse to take responsibility for their actions—a responsibility that belongs not only to the parties on the ground but also to those external actors who support them. Aleppo governorate has become a microcosm of the broader Syrian conflict, with a multitude of actors with competing interests settling scores rather than negotiating a peaceful political settlement.

 It is imperative that the member states of this Council refuse to countenance callous disregard for the lives of the innocent and the laws that have preserved not only international peace and security, but the very essence of humanity. Accountability of all parties to the conflict is critical. Perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will only cease to violate the laws of war when it is clear they will be held to account. This is why referral of the conflict in Syria to the ICC or an ad hoc international justice mechanism is critical to resolving this conflict.

Immediate steps towards reaching an end to the war necessarily lies in earnest political negotiations, leaving behind unfounded beliefs that a military victory is still possible. In a war where winning matters more than the lives of countrymen, a return to the political process is needed more than ever. Absent this, many thousands more will die. I cannot stress enough the message of Special Envoy for Syria De Mistura that without action “Aleppo will not be there anymore” by the end of the year.

The Commission has consistently been conducting investigations into violations committed in Aleppo for years and we will continue our work along these lines in an apolitical, independent and impartial manner that focuses on the concerns of victims, rather than parties to the conflict. Irregardless of the outcome of this specific session we will continue our work to document the crimes occurring in Aleppo.

For us to do this to the best of our abilities, I reiterate our appeal to the government of the Syrian Arab Republic to share any relevant information on alleged violations in its possession with the Commission and to allow us to conduct investigations in situ. In parallel, we stress once more that it is also vital that European and regional states hosting Syrian refugees grant us access to their countries.  Our reports are only as good as our sources, which is why we have always prioritised information from victims and witnesses. Now that millions of those are outside Syria, we need host countries to turn their words of support to the Commission’s work into deeds by giving us access to the victims and witnesses in their territory.

Thank you.