Statement at Human Rights Council, 39th session


17 September 2018

Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro

Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

Geneva, 17 September 2018

M. le Président

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a comprehensive study presented at the request of member states to  the Commission on Human Rights. For the first time a pragmatic framework to protect internally displaced persons was detailed. It addressed grey areas and gaps to increase  protection for those civilians often rendered most vulnerable, including during armed conflict.

It is therefore astounding that these principles are totally ignored when it comes to the conflict in Syria. Today, more than six million Syrians are internally displaced, including one million in the first half of this year.

This has happened as the direct result of unlawful conduct – perpetrated by most parties to the conflict – seeking to assert and maintain control over territory at the expense of the civilians for whom they were ostensibly fighting.

During the course of six battles, pro-Government forces recaptured major parts of territory from armed groups and terrorist organisations this year – in Aleppo, northern Homs, Damascus, Rif Damascus, Dara’a and Idlib governorates - with a high cost to the civilian population. Most campaigns were marked by war crimes perpetrated by all sides, including launching indiscriminate attacks, deliberately attacking protected objects, using prohibited weapons anforced displacement. 

Whether fleeing clashes in Dara’a, exiting through humanitarian corridors in eastern Ghouta, or transferring out in buses under so-called “evacuation agreements” from northern Homs, Damascus, and elsewhere – civilians  uprooted from their homes were offered little to no respite: parties responsible for the displacement failed to protect those they collectively displaced. 

In addition, approval for much needed international humanitarian aid, was often withheld, or used as a bargaining chip. 
It is against this unfortunate backdrop that I address you today. 

M. le Président

Each of the millions of episodes of displacement represents the story of a Syrian uprooted from her or his home – many times without a moment’s notice. Left to fend for themselves, with nothing more than a bag filled with the remnants of their past lives, they have faced a trauma so multifaceted that one struggles to quantify the harms they endure.
Displaced civilians suffer from the loss of their homes, jobs, and social connections. In Syria’s unstable northwest, comprising Idlib and western  Aleppo governorates – both currently under the control of a complex array of armed groups or terrorist organisations – internal displacement renders victims further vulnerable at risk of  violence, abuse, and discrimination.

Children displaced in the northwest lack balanced diets, adequate standards of living, and meaningful access to education.

Women and girls living in makeshift camps, tent communities and abandoned buildings are vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse. Throughout areas in Idlib controlled by extremist groups, their rights to employment, education, medical care  are severely curtailed. 

Syrian men, traditionally serving as heads of households, lack opportunities for employment and risk succumbing to joining armed groups or terrorist organisations . Should they attempt to return to their homes they may face forcible conscription by Government forces.

Compounding the hardship that comes with displacement, families are confronted with many obstacles preventing return to their homes. Barriers to return include large-scale destruction of houses and infrastructure, including of hospitals, schools, and other protected objects, as in Yarmouk camp. In recaptured areas, such as parts of eastern Ghouta, electricity and water lines remain cut, and unexploded  ordnance  contamination litters residential areas. The absence of basic services poses significant obstacles, and the pace of reconstruction remains meagre.

Displaced civilians have no guarantees concerning their housing, land, and property rights, and limited access to basic information. The massive scale of destruction, displacement, and death wrought by seven years of conflict has created more hurdles for all individuals seeking to protect these rights, in particular for those internally displaced, including female-headed households which are disproportionately affected.

M. le Président

The war is not over. It is estimated that up to three million civilians are currently residing in Idlib, the last bastion of anti-government armed groups and terrorist organisations in Syria. Many of them have been displaced since the onset of the conflict, often multiple times. This year alone, over 500,000 civilians were displaced to and within Idlib. Living conditions in severely overcrowded areas are strained beyond capacity, with those displaced often left without the bare necessities required for survival. 

In August, pro-Government forces began dropping leaflets in Idlib, urging armed groups and terrorist organisations to surrender. Unlike in Dara’a or eastern Ghouta, however, the millions of civilians in Idlib have nowhere left to flee. Given its particularly vulnerable population and geographic presence, an all-out offensive to recapture Idlib would generate an unimaginable human rights and humanitarian catastrophe – one in which the patterns of violations documented by us would very likely be amplified on a massive scale. 

We call on all parties to urge restraint, to prioritise meaningful political dialogue, and to refrain from embarking on such a tragic repetition. To spare the civilian population in Idlib, parties must to come to the table and engage in genuine and constructive political dialogue. 

As the political process continues, it is essential that human rights and accountability issues remain key priorities. Recently, hundreds of Syrian families began to receive word from civil registries that the status of relatives they believed to have been arrested, detained or disappeared had been changed to reflect their custodial deaths. In a few cases, families received death notices which indicated that their loved ones had died several years ago and their cause of death was listed as heart attack or stroke. Families are entitled to the truth as to why, how, when and where their relatives died at the very least. Additionally, they must be allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones to allow them to grieve and come to terms with the abhorrent reality they face. This is a minimal first step in a process that is essential to future accountability and justice for victims. 

Finally, in areas where fighting has abated, the return in safety and dignity of the internally displaced and the refugees should be voluntary, without unnecessary obstructions, and if vetting of returnees is needed, it must be kept to a minimum and be conducted with full transparency on a case-by-case basis. 

Thank you.