Statement at Human Rights Council. 40th session


12 March 2019

United Nations Human Rights Council

Statement by Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry
on the Syrian Arab Republic

M. le Président

We are pleased to inform the Council that comments on our latest report, prepared by His Excellency the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic, have been shared with us.  We are reviewing these comments and would welcome the opportunity to meet with the Permanent Representative to discuss the issues raised.


Last September we expected the situation in Idlib to exacerbate further, and a massacre to ensue. Fortunately an agreement between Turkey and the Russian Federation to establish a demilitarized zone in the north-west of Syria averted this looming all-out military assault, and led to a significant reduction in violence during the latter half of the year. 

However, a majority of some three million desperate civilians continue to live under the oppressive rule of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham terrorists, who are now largely in control of Idlib.

Over recent months, discussions on the feasibility of safe and sustainable return for Syrian women, men, and children have gained momentum. Calls for their return have come from the Syrian Government as well as from countries in which those displaced have sought and found refuge. The numbers of those displaced remain staggering: 6.2 million persons internally displaced, and 5.6 million refugees.

The crucial questions surrounding those displaced also fundamentally remain: namely, if after eight years of unbridled chaos, conditions on the ground are conducive for the displaced to return home in safety and dignity, and whether they will be able to participate meaningfully in shaping a peaceful future. Our Commission has documented numerous obstacles which undermine the feasibility of safe and sustainable returns.

A reduction in fighting as a consequence of the Government’s recapturing vast swathes of territory last year, does not mean that the conflict is over. Bombs are still falling, and civilians continue to pay with their lives for the objectives of the parties to the conflict. On-going hostilities similarly threaten the lives and livelihoods of those daring to return. We recognise the right of governments to combat terrorism. However, attacks by pro-Government forces in Idlib and western Aleppo, and those being carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces and the international coalition in Dayr al-Zawr, continue to cause scores of civilian casualties. Violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides remain rampant, creating multiple security vacuums, and thus fertile soil for future escalations.

Armed conflict, however, is only one aspect of the multifaceted predicament facing Syria’s displaced population. 

Persecution, discrimination, and other forms of ill-treatment continue in Idlib, Douma, Dara’a, and northern Homs, evincing egregious disrespect for the most basic human rights. Arbitrary arrests and detentions continue in Government controlled areas, including eastern Ghouta, Dara’a, and northern Homs. Notably, executions and deaths in detention also continue, with the ad hoc and anti-terror courts of the Syrian Government, meting out corporal punishments and death sentences. 

Makeshift justice mechanisms of armed groups and terrorist organisations, also unlawfully detain or kidnap civilians in Idlib and Afrin for expressing political dissent or for ransom.

In a new development last year, the Syrian State provided information in bulk on the deaths of thousands of detained and missing persons. We issued a policy paper last November (Death Notifications in the Syrian Arab Republic) focusing on this matter, and on the rights of families to know the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones who have languished for years in detention or have perished in custody, many of whom died between 2011 and 2014. These “death notifications” were not accompanied with details on the locations of remains, leaving many of the bereaved in agonising doubt and despair.
Military objectives are placed above civilian governance by all parties to this conflict creating a vacuum of the rule of law in parts of the country.

While blatant human rights violations continue, other elements aggravate the daily survival of Syrian civilians which will invariably impact the feasibility of potential returns. Even those who may no longer fear for their physical security are frequently confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges which preclude a life in dignity. Civilians subsisting in areas recently retaken by Government forces struggled to survive, as essential services in these areas, including potable water, food, and healthcare are not available.

All too often, humanitarian access to those most vulnerable has been unduly restricted. We emphasise the continuing dire situation in Rukban camp in the southern desert. After almost five years, 41,000 encamped inhabitants, predominantly women and children, remain confined in a wasteland amid desperate conditions. UN facilitated convoys were able to reach the camp eventually, most recently last month. However a lasting solution remains elusive. Recent aid deliveries will address the most pressing needs, yet the situation of the women, men, and children who continue in this dire situation require sustained assistance and a lasting solution.

Another factor impeding the prospect for civilian return is the lack of official civil documentation in areas controlled by armed groups, including documentation associated with vital events, such as births, deaths, and property transactions. 

This has the potential to result in widespread discrimination and the exclusion of women and girls who have faced barriers traditionally, to secure tenure and inheritance rights.  

Syria’s recovery faces huge challenges given the large-scale destruction of residential buildings and infrastructure countrywide, including hospitals, schools, and other protected objects. Contamination of mines and unexploded ordinance continue to litter residential areas, most prominently in Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr. 

Also, 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 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 disproportionally affected. We continue to document a number of incidents in which properties are being seized by the State pursuant to its counter-terrorism law. In the past two years alone, some tens of thousands of Syrians have reportedly faced asset freeze decisions under the counter-terrorism framework, notably by presidential decree “Law” No. 19.

The parties to the conflict often do not respect international law and civilian protection. This coincides with a disregard for basic notions of justice and perpetrators roam free. Those who bear responsibility for gross violations must be held to account.  In all cases victims must be released from confinement and families should learn the fates of those missing and disappeared. In this regard, we recall the thousands of Yazidi women and girls who are still missing and whose fates remain unknown.

M. le Président

Lack of security, of rule of law, of access to basic services, of reconstruction, and of overall prospects all undermine the feasibility of safe and sustainable return. While these are individual decisions, plans for the return of those displaced both within and outside of Syria, must be made in accordance with a rights-based approach.

The new Special Envoy, Mr. Geir Pedersen, deserves all possible support to pursue vigorously a political and therefore sustainable solution to this war, so the conflict can come to an end. 

M. le President, Excellences,

The hideous reality of this conflict is the responsibility of the parties involved. It is at the negotiating table that intractable problems plaguing civilians can be discussed and common solutions found.  

Thank you.