U.N. panel in the UK: Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure: what does international humanitarian law say?
Ambassador Pierce, thank you for hosting this vital discussion on the state of international humanitarian law in Northwest Syria. The situation in Syria has long been a poster child for what I call the Age of Impunity, a time when norms and laws of war, carefully built up over decades, and being ignored by combatants, state as well as non-state actors, and when accountability for the breach of these norms is declining at precisely the time when we need it to increase.
I represent the IRC and our staff of 320 – all Syrian – working in the Northwest. They risk their lives to deliver desperately needed cash, protection, and health programming. I have seen Syrian government claims that hospitals do not serve their civilian purpose and that there are no ambulance networks left in Idlib. However I know that we alone support 24 partner health facilities and 19 ambulances across the Northwest. And I also know that many of these health facilities have come under attack.
We know that nearly one year since the “Sochi agreement” that held at bay a full firefight in NW Syria, the punishment meted out to the population has grown week by week. The breakdown of the recent ceasefire makes us fear that the worst may be yet to come. And we know that it is vulnerable civilians – 75% of whom are women and children – who are most at risk.
The brutal escalation of the danger since April has plumbed new depths. The most recent violence has unleashed the largest wave of displacement since the war began – with 400,000 people forced to flee since May, including over 130,000 in August alone. An IRC assessment in Idlib found that people had on average already been displaced five, if not 10, times.
More than 1,000 civilian lives have been lost, including at least 450 women and children (OHCHR) since the start of May.
Health facilities have been at the center not just of civilian loss of life, but also abuse of international humanitarian law (IHL) and defiance of the UN Security Council:
The conflict tallies 578 attacks on 350 health facilities and at least 912 medical staff killed.
We should remember there were more attacks by the Syrian government and its allies in the year after the passage of Resolution 2286 – which condemned attacks on medical personnel and patients and demanded that all parties comply with IHL on the issue – than in the year before it.
Just since April, 51 health facilities have been damaged or destroyed by fighting, including seven hit by airstrikes over just two days at the end of August. 35 have been put completely out of service or are partially functioning. (WHO & UNICEF)
Eight IRC-supported health facilities were amongst these – causing the deaths of staff and their patients. At least three of our facilities remain offline, reducing our services for those in need. The remaining IRC facilities report increases of up to 200% of those seeking medical assistance.
On 16 August, airstrikes destroyed an IRC-supported SAMS ambulance in Ma’aret Humeh (pronounced: Marette Hurmay). Six strikes targeted the ambulance that day. It was the 5th and 6th airstrikes that proved deadly. They killed Mohamad Hussni Mishnen, a 29-year-old paramedic who had just joined SAMS two weeks prior and was the sole source of income for his family. The strike also killed the ambulance’s driver, 34-year-old Fadi Alomar, who had worked with SAMS since 2016 and was the father of three young children. This meeting should be dedicated to them.
In response, many humanitarian agencies, including the IRC, have invested in mobile clinics—not just to assist populations on the move, but to avoid the airstrikes. Some have built basement and underground hospitals.
But this is no solution. These desperate workarounds should be a source of shame to us all.
This state of affairs represents a crisis of Impunity. Syrians have been the victims of a full range of outlawed tactics of war: chemical weapons, starvation as a weapon, aid manipulation, targeting of critical civilian infrastructure. A UN deconfliction mechanism has been ineffective, with airstrikes reportedly hitting at least nine of the deconflicted facilities.
A crisis of impunity is not just a crisis of law. It is also a crisis of diplomacy. That is what needs to be addressed.
To reverse the downward requires a renewed international commitment to accountability and diplomatic duty. This must include:
The urgent launch of a strong, independent UN Board of Inquiry into the atrocities committed in northwest Syria that delivers swift and public results. We heard the announcement today of the members of the Board. The Secretary General has the critical opportunity to steward this process. The process needs teeth, with full publication of proceedings, evidence and conclusions.
Detailed monitoring and reporting of every violation because there can be no accountability without meaningful accounting. The UN should invest in this recordkeeping and make it public.
Every further attack against civilians and civilian infrastructure condemned and investigated. Let those who will block action come into the open.
Support for national courts and the charitable sector to make progress where multilateral institutions do not tread. Efforts like those of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Germany’s Federal Prosecutor to issue an international arrest warrant for Syrian war criminals are a warning to those violators and a powerful deterrent.
Energizing an independent multilateral political process, not one dominated by one side. We understand a resolution has been put forward by Germany, Belgium, and Kuwait and this is an important step. A resolution should call for an immediate ceasefire, condemn and demand an end to violence against civilians and civilian infrastructure, and establish meaningful accountability measures including an independent Board of Inquiry.
Maintaining cross-border access to Northern Syria – an indispensable lifeline for those who would otherwise have no access to life-saving and sustaining aid and services. The Security Council resolution that supports cross-border delivery should be renewed.
We cannot look away. The UN has warned that if this assault continues, it will be the “worst humanitarian disaster the world has seen so far this century.” And the aftershocks will be felt throughout the region and beyond.