Human Rights Council
14 June 2017
The Human Rights Council in its midday meeting held an interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said that the de-escalation zones agreed upon by the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey during the Astana talks had resulted in a discernible reduction in levels of violence in the zones around Idlib and western Aleppo. Nevertheless, hostilities continued unabated in the zones around Homs, Damascus and southern Dara’a. The violence continued to be directed against civilians through the unrestrained use of airstrikes against residential neighbourhoods, attacks on doctors and hospitals, or the use of suicide bombers that deliberately targeted civilians. Ultimately, the only way to end civilian suffering was to end this war. The parties had to press on to ensure that any de-escalation in hostilities was accompanied by renewed efforts to access communities in need, to strengthen the human rights protections for all people across Syria, and to generate meaningful momentum for peace. The establishment of de-escalation zones was a step in the right direction and could help the more comprehensive political discussions within the Geneva framework led by Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura.
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, noted that the resumption of the Geneva talks put the Council in a position where it disrupted the reconciliation process. A fabricated picture of the war in Syria was being made up by the Commission of Inquiry. The Commission ignored the violations of the unlawful United States-led coalition, resulting in the death of thousands of civilians, and the adverse effect of the unilateral coercive measures against Syria, including the funding of terrorism and spread of the Wahhabi ideology. Syria expressed concerns about the real purpose of the Commission of Inquiry. It held unlawful meetings with political organizations that were used as a cover for extremist groups. This and other facts should compel the Council to end the odious support of some countries to terrorism under the pretext of human rights.
In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted that despite the reduction of violence in some parts of Syria, the parties to the conflict continued to wage war in ways that violated international humanitarian law with horrific consequences for civilians. They called on the Syrian authorities to fully cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry and to ensure the accountability of the identified perpetrators of crimes, including of those that constituted war crimes or crimes against humanity. The Astana process had proven the possibility of decreasing the violence and it had a potential for ensuring general unhindered access of humanitarian aid. Speakers supported the United Nations-led intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva to bring about a genuine political transition. Some speakers rejected attempts to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, noting that a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria should be found without foreign interference. They rejected Council procedures that did not enjoy the support of the concerned country.
In his concluding remarks, Mr. Pinheiro called on all States involved in the conflict to become parties to the Arms Trade Treaty of 2014. The Commission supported the calls for the same type of vigour to all parties to the conflict in Syria. It had no preferences towards any party in the conflict; it only sided with the victims.
Carla del Ponte, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, explained that the Commission of Inquiry was ready to fully cooperate with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic. It was important that the Mechanism formalize investigations of the war crimes committed in Syria in order to bring justice to the victims.
Speaking were Sweden on behalf of Nordic Countries, Bahrain on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, European Union, Qatar, United States, Russian Federation, Austria, Czechia, Estonia, Maldives, Greece, Canada, Italy, Cuba, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Australia, Mexico, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, Japan, Kuwait, Slovenia, Venezuela , Brazil, France, Croatia, China, Luxembourg, Egypt, Algeria, Chile, Albania, Bahrain, Netherlands, Portugal, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran, Israel, Liechtenstein, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Ecuador, Bolivia, Iraq, Ireland, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Botswana, Romania, New Zealand, Belarus, and Jordan.
Also taking the floor were the following civil society organizations: World Council of Arameans, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, European Centre for Law and Justice, Presse Embleme Campagne, Alliance Defending Freedom, International Bar Association, PEN International, and Human Rights Watch.
At 2 p.m., the Council will hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
Oral Update by the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
PAULO SÉRGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said his oral update to the Council covered the events from March 2017 to the present, noting that the de-escalation zones agreed upon by Russia, Iran and Turkey during the Astana talks had resulted in a discernible reduction in levels of violence in the zones around Idlib and western Aleppo, but hostilities continued unabated in the zones around Homs, Damascus and southern Dara’a. The violence continued to be directed against civilians through the unrestrained use of airstrikes against residential neighbourhoods, attacks on doctors and hospitals, or the use of suicide bombers that deliberately targeted civilians. The fighting remained brutal in purpose and reprehensible in method. The de-escalation zones were yet to bring any tangible improvement in the delivery of humanitarian aid – the United Nations has only been permitted one humanitarian delivery in 2017 to areas which needed it most. Outside of the de-escalation zones, the conflict continued to rage with disastrous consequences for civilians. Over the past few months, ISIL had lost territory at a rapid pace in northern and central Syria. Currently, an offensive to expel this terrorist group from its de facto capital, Raqqa, was underway by the Syrian Defence Force with the backing of the international coalition. If successful, it could liberate the civilian population from the oppressive clutches of ISIL, including Yazidi women and girls who had been kept sexually enslaved for almost three years as part of an ongoing and unaddressed genocide. Mr. Pinheiro stressed that the imperative to fight terrorism must not be undertaken at the expense of civilians living in areas where ISIL was present.
The Commission was gravely concerned about the mounting number of civilians who perished during airstrikes in areas controlled by extremist factions. Since eastern Aleppo city had been evacuated in December 2016, similar agreements had been made in nine other besieged areas: Barzeh, Qaboun, Wadi Barada, al-Waer, Tishreen, Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya. As a result, thousands civilians had been displaced and moved to Idlib and to western and northern Aleppo. The evacuation agreements themselves also raised concerns and in some cases amounted to war crimes: instead of mitigating the impact of the conflict on civilians, they appeared primarily motivated by the strategic considerations of the warring parties that negotiated them. In despair, civilians saw no option but to leave. For the more than 600,000 people who remained trapped in besieged areas, prolonged and deliberate denial of humanitarian aid continued to cause severe shortages of food and basic necessities, while those trapped in sieges imposed by pro-Government forces, also suffered daily airstrikes.
Ultimately, the only way to end civilian suffering was to end this war. The parties must press on to ensure that any de-escalation in hostilities was accompanied by renewed efforts to access communities in need, to strengthen human rights protection for all people across Syria, and to generate meaningful momentum for peace. To bring about a sustainable peace, and to begin to heal the divides that had torn Syrian society apart, there must be meaningful accountability for the catalogue of horrors that the Commission of Inquiry had documented: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, blatant violations and abuses of human rights law, and continuous, wilful violations of international humanitarian law – this lack of respect for international norms, and basic notions of humanity, must not continue to go unaddressed. The Council stood as the voice of conscience in the face of atrocities and a reminder that only a durable political solution would bring an end to this conflict. The establishment of de-escalation zones was a step in the right direction and could help the more comprehensive political discussions within the Geneva framework led by Special Envoy De Mistura. An inclusive political settlement was the only long- term hope to end this conflict and the suffering of Syrian civilians, concluded Mr. Pinheiro.
Statement by the Concerned Country
Syria, speaking as the concerned country, noted that the resumption of the Geneva talks put the Council in a position where it disrupted the reconciliation process. A fabricated picture of the war in Syria was being made up by the Commission of Inquiry. The Commission ignored the violations of the unlawful United States-led coalition, resulting in the death of thousands of civilians, and the adverse effect of the unilateral coercive measures against Syria, including the funding of terrorism and spread of the Wahhabi ideology. One of the members of the Commission of Inquiry gave a television interview blaming the Syrian army for attacks on civilians without proof. She also welcomed the United States’ threats just before that country had carried out a strike against Syria. Those situations raised concerns about the real purpose of the Commission of Inquiry. It held unlawful meetings with political organizations that were used as a cover for extremist groups. Recently documents and tapes had been leaked by some States which had supported global terrorism, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Those facts should compel the Council to end the odious support of some countries to terrorism under the pretext of human rights.
Sweden, speaking on behalf of Nordic Countries, noted that despite the reduction of violence in some parts of Syria, the parties to the conflict continued to wage war in ways that violated international humanitarian law with horrific consequences for civilians. Bahrain, speaking on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, reminded that year after year the world recognized the tragedy and collective punishment experienced by the Syrian people under the pretext of the fight against terrorism. Access to humanitarian aid was essential to ease the suffering of civilians. European Union strongly supported the United Nations-led intra-Syrian negotiations in Geneva to bring about a genuine political transition. It condemned the airstrike on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017, as well as the use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure.
Qatar condemned in the strongest terms the crimes perpetuated against Syrian people while the whole world was watching and urged the international community to take real steps to save the people under siege. Horrendous acts amounting to torture and crimes against humanity were taking place in Syrian prisons, while the regime was using internationally prohibited weapons, including chemical weapons. United States said that the Commission of Inquiry had thoroughly documented the massive, methodical nature of deaths in State-controlled detention facilities: an estimated 215,000 civilians had been detained since the conflict had begun and nearly all were Government-held political prisoners. How pervasive was torture in Government prisons? Russia said that the mandate which guided the Commission of Inquiry did not provide for its independent and impartial work, and the monstrosities committed by jihadists, including against Christians and religious minorities, and their deliberate destruction of historical and cultural heritage, were not being adequately documented.
Austria stressed that accountability for the horrendous human rights violations committed in Syria must be at the heart of the joint efforts. Expressing continued support for the work of the Commission, Austria said it was looking favourably into making a substantial financial contribution to the newly established Independent Mechanism. Czechia reiterated its full support for the mandate of the Commission and condemned in the strongest terms the barbarian attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 and said that the use of chemical weapons and deliberate targeting of medical facilities amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The situation in Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Estonia was deeply concerned by the reported use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017 and the killing of detainees in Syrian military intelligence facilities, as they constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity. Perpetrators of those crimes must be held accountable.
Maldives asserted that the war in Syria would leave scars on generations of Syrians, while the international community would bear the burden of working to heal those ever deepening wounds. The Council should take meaningful action to alleviate the suffering of civilians. Greece regretted the destruction of places of worship, historical monuments and archaeological sites, and killings by Da’esh. The Astana process had proven the possibility of decreasing the violence and it had a potential for general unhindered access of humanitarian aid. Canada welcomed the continued attention by the Council to Syria, expressing outrage that human rights abuses had continued unabated and with impunity. It was clear that there was a strategy in place to erode the resilience of the civilian population in Syria.
Italy regretted that Syria continued to refuse cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry. It called for the immediate implementation of the Astana Agreement to ensure the ceasefire in the de-escalation zones, and to ensure safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access. Cuba stated that no effort should be spared to contribute to the establishment of peace in Syria, adding that it rejected attempts to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. External interference should be ended. United Arab Emirates noted that international law had been misused in Syria for too long, citing the most recent chemical attack in the country. It called for the urgent establishment of constructive dialogue among parties to the conflict.
Saudi Arabia outlined that the people of Syria had suffered grave atrocities and crimes in the past six years, many of which could be considered as war crimes. Saudi Arabia called on the international community to take all measures to put an end to the atrocities of the regime and condemned all terrorist acts. Belgium recalled that it had suffered the first large-scale chemical attack in the history of humanity during the first World War. No lessons seemed to have been learned since then. Belgium strongly condemned the attack of 4 April in Khan Sheikhoun in the province of Idlib where dozens of civils have been killed. It was important to provide justice for the victims. Australia stated that the ongoing use of siege and starvation tactics and the denial of humanitarian access in Syria were appalling. Australia was concerned about extrajudicial executions, disappearances and torture in Syria. It was vital that prisoners’ rights were respected.
Mexico condemned Syrian grave abuses and violations of human rights and humanitarian international law. The civil population was the first victim of such violations. It was important to separate military targets from civilian targets to impede the death toll. Germany highlighted that countless people in Syria had been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, abduction and enforced disappearance. The war waged on the Syrian people continued unabated. Therefore, Germany welcomed the recent resumption of the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. Switzerland voiced concern at large-scale violations and abuses against human rights and commended the efforts made in Astana to conclude an agreement for the release of prisoners and disappeared persons. Switzerland called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Poland asked for the Commission of Inquiry’s view regarding the de-escalation zones that had been set up recently by some parties to the conflict, and whether they were an effective tool in addressing the humanitarian needs of the Syrian population. Spain said that given that the conflict had lasted six years already, the civilian population and the ethnic minorities continued to suffer indiscriminate attacks and devastation. Access to zones identified as priorities by the United Nations should be given quickly, securely and without restrictions. Japan asked if there was any improvement of the humanitarian situation in the de-escalation zones. As a nation which had suffered from a sarin gas attack on the subway, Japan strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Idlib. Kuwait called on the international community to implement international resolutions of relevance to put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people. Targeting of civilians had not come to an end, and a whole generation of Syrian children were in need of international humanitarian attention in the field of education.
Slovenia condemned the indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure, and called for ensuring accountability for breaches of international humanitarian law. The Commission of Inquiry’s cooperation with international mechanisms was welcomed. Venezuela expressed concern at the situation of Syria, where armed and trained terrorist groups aimed at overthrowing the legitimate government. An inclusive political process was necessary, and Venezuela supported all efforts to achieve that.
Brazil underlined that the conflict in Syria had certainly been marked by widespread disregard for international obligations to protect civilian lives and infrastructure. Brazil sought the Commission’s views regarding the responsibilities of actors other than the Government of Syria. France stressed that human rights and international humanitarian law were violated on a daily basis in Syria, first by the regime of Damascus and its supporters and second by Daesh. Acts of torture and summary executions carried out in the framework of a deliberate and systematic policy amounted to acts of extermination and crimes against humanity. Croatia voiced concerns about the lack of protection of all civilians, including vulnerable groups such as ethnic and religious minorities. Croatia strongly condemned continued systematic and gross violations and abuses of human rights and humanitarian law.
Remarks by the Chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria
PAULO SERGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, recalled that the use of torture was extensive in Syria. One of the greatest challenges was to investigate the violations of the rights of children, including violations of the right to access education. Avoiding the traumatisation of children was highly important. The Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was investigating the situation of all ethnic groups and communities and rejected all insinuations on the politicization of its work. The Commission spoke with all parties and kept contacts with all involved States dealing with the crisis in Syria, including all five members of the Security Council. The Commission had documented violations of human rights by armed groups and terrorist groups. It was urgent that it would be authorized to access victims and collect data. Ensuring human rights and launching institutional reforms were key to reach sustainable peace. The Commission had been asking for access to detention places and had called for the release of political prisoners. Access to places of detention was a key point in establishing trust as a basis for negotiations. The Commission had tried to communicate with civil society in Syria, since it constituted an important component of change during the conflict and in future times of transition after the war.
Interactive Dialogue with the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria
China said the international community should support the United Nations as the main channel of mediation. China was of the view that in discussing the human rights situation in Syria, the country’s territorial integrity was key, and China stood ready to play a constructive role toward a comprehensive political solution to the conflict. Luxembourg expressed shock at violations of international humanitarian law, and condemned enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and the practice of starving out civilians in besieged areas. The future cooperation by the Commission of Inquiry with the Independent Mechanism would be a contribution to combatting impunity in Syria. Egypt regretted the situation in Syria, and expressed concern at developments, also condemning terrorist groups’ activities in Syria. All foreign support to armed groups needed to end, and a political solution was the only way to bring about stability.
Algeria said there needed to be a priority focus on terrorist groups working in urban areas. There was a need to move toward direct negotiations as soon as possible. Algeria drew attention to the harsh consequences of the sanctions which were primarily penalizing the civilian population. Chile said an essential role continued to be played by the Commission of Inquiry, and the International Mechanism was also providing valuable contributions, asking for further information on cooperation between the two. Albania reiterated its support to the dialogue aimed at reducing violence, including support for the initiative of the Astana guarantors, and called on all parties to refrain from targeting schools and medical facilities. Albania deplored the use of chemical weapons. Bahrain expressed grave concern at the deterioration of the situation in Syria and the heinous massacres committed. Bahrain supported the aspirations of the Syrian people, and stressed that the ongoing solution was to go back to negotiations and comply with the relevant Security Council resolution.
Netherlands remained gravely concerned about the horrific violations and abuses of human rights in Syria. The Netherlands voiced concerns about the forced displacement of populations by the Syrian regime and the attacks on medical personnel and facilities. Portugal condemned the attacks led against citizens and highlighted that many of the victims were children. The Commission of Inquiry had stated several times that the crimes committed in Syria may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet they continued to be perpetrated. Due accountability of crimes was key to reach a sustainable peace process. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said it opposed politicization, selectivity and double standards in the field of human rights. The repeated debate on the human rights situation in Syria was a typical example of the politically motivated and biased approach of human rights. Cooperation with the Government of Syria was key to resolve the crisis.
Iran voiced concern about the ongoing acts of terrorist armed groups that had devastating implications for civilians in Syria. Iran was committed to fight and eradicate terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. Israel called on the international community to exert increased pressure on the Assad regime, urging it to put an end to human rights abuses of its own population. Israel voiced concerns about the destabilizing interference of Iran in the Syrian crisis and the recruitment of mercenaries acting in Syria by Iran.
Liechtenstein thanked Mr. Pinheiro for his update, and welcomed the ongoing work of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria. He was asked how the Commission of Inquiry cooperated with civil society. Liechtenstein called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Hungary was deeply concerned about the chemical attack which had left numerous children dead. All warring parties and the international community should prioritize protecting the civilian population. Turkey rejected allegations made by the Syrian regime and thanked the members of the Commission of Inquiry for their contributions. Turkey deplored attacks by the regime on hospitals and medical personnel, and drew attention to human rights violations committed by YPG fighters, which deserved a separate investigation. Morocco regretted the suffering by civilians and vulnerable groups, and reiterated the urgent need to put an end to violence. Resolving the crisis required respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
Ecuador reiterated its ongoing condemnation of atrocities, and called on the Syrian authorities to investigate all complaints and bring to justice all perpetrators. Ecuador called for an end to the selective use of the Council’s mechanisms for geopolitical ends. Bolivia said lasting peace could only be achieved through dialogue, and the best way of moving forward to protect human rights could be achieved by abiding by principles of non-selectivity. Bolivia did not agree with mandates that did not have the support of the countries concerned.
Iraq stated that it had taken a strong position on the need to end the conflict in Syria and to find a peaceful solution free from any foreign interference. The international community had to urgently help the Syrian people and contribute to the identification of a lasting solution to the conflict. Ireland condemned in the strongest terms the atrocities committed against Syrian civilians, supported the establishment of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, and looked forward to the start of its work. Lithuania called on the Syrian authorities to fully cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry and to ensure the accountability of the identified perpetrators of crimes, including those that constituted war crimes or crimes against humanity.
United Kingdom condemned all human rights violations in Syria, in particular those at the hands of the Syrian authorities and Da’esh. It strongly supported the impartial, expert investigations by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism. Botswana noted that the update of the Commission of Inquiry provided clear proof that the enjoyment of human rights and security could not prevail in a climate of political instability and conflict. It welcomed continued international efforts to bring peace in Syria. Romania urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to fulfil their international obligations towards civilians. It strongly supported the process of finding a lasting political solution to the conflict under the existing United Nations-agreed framework. New Zealand said that the Syrian Government continued to commit systematic human rights violations against its own people. New Zealand condemned ongoing abuses committed by non-State armed groups, which included targeting of civilians, kidnappings and executions.
Belarus recognized the more balanced nature of the Commission of Inquiry’s report this year compared to the one that was released last year. Belarus called for a more profound analysis of the data on which the Commission drew its conclusions. Insufficient attention was paid to mass barbarities committed by extremist groups against civilians. Jordan said that putting an end to the war and hostilities in Syria was a priority in order to end the suffering of the Syrian people. Jordan condemned the recent use of chemical arms in the province of Idlib and fully supported the Astana negotiations to reinforce the ceasefire in the country.
World Council of Arameans outlined that the largest Aramean cities in Syria had suffered horrific attacks and mass murders by Jabhat al Nusra and were besieged by ISIS. World Council of Arameans urged the members of the Human Rights Council to support the Arameans to rebuild recovered Aramean areas and help them restore their livelihoods. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom underscored that the conflict in Syria had witnessed an intense use of explosive weapons in highly populated areas. Women affected by explosive violence often had fewer opportunities to access health care services and reconstruction processes. They also became more susceptible to further physical attacks.
European Centre for Law and Justice said that the actions of ISIS against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria clearly embodied the definition of genocide. As long as the United Nations did not recognize them as such, these vulnerable groups remained unprotected. Presse Embleme Campagne deeply regretted that the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court or a special court had not been implemented. Ensuring accountability, establishing the truth and providing reparations to victims was a must.
Alliance Defending Freedom said Christians and other religious minorities were subject to mass atrocities in Syria. The Government of Syria should fulfil its obligations to uphold freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to aggressively pursue ISIS and other terrorist organizations operating within its territory. International Bar Association condemned the targeting of civilians, including starving civilians, and destroying schools and homes. All parties to the conflict needed to find a political and Syrian-owned solution to the conflict. International PEN urged the Council, its member and observer States, to call on the Syrian authorities to end the prosecution of journalists and writers simply on the basis of the content of their writings or alleged affiliations. Human Rights Watch highlighted its concern that Syrian Government forces had used nerve agents on at least four occasions in recent months. The United States-led coalition and other local armed groups should make protecting civilians and respect for human rights a priority in the offensive to re-take Raqqa from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
PAULO SERGIO PINHEIRO, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, clarified that since September 2011 the Commission had called for an arms embargo on weapons going to Syria. It called on all States involved in the conflict to become parties to the Arms Trade Treaty of 2014. The Commission supported the calls for the same type of vigour to all parties to the conflict in Syria. It had no preferences towards any party in the conflict; it only sided with the victims.
CARLA DEL PONTE, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, explained that the Commission of Inquiry was ready to fully cooperate with the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic, and that it was looking forward to immediate discussions. It was important that the Mechanism formalize investigations of the war crimes committed in Syria. The Commission had all the materials at the disposal of the Mechanism and would elaborate on the modalities of the cooperation in order to provide justice for the victims.
For use of the information media; not an official record