Syria: Fresh evidence of armed forces’ ongoing crimes against humanity

The shocking escalation in unlawful killings, torture, arbitrary detention and the wanton destruction of homes in Syria demonstrates just how urgent the need for decisive international action to stem the tide of increasingly widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and militias which act with utter impunity, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

The 70-page report Deadly Reprisals, provides fresh evidence of widespread as well as systematic violations, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, being perpetrated as part of state policy to exact revenge against communities suspected of supporting the opposition and to intimidate people into submission.

“This disturbing new evidence of an organized pattern of grave abuses highlights the pressing need for decisive international action to stem the tide of increasingly widespread attacks against the civilian population, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed by government forces and militias with utter impunity,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Adviser, who recently spent several weeks investigating human rights violations in northern Syria.  

“For more than a year the UN Security Council has dithered, while a human rights crisis unfolded in Syria.  It must now break the impasse and take concrete action to end to these violations and to hold to account those responsible.”

Although not granted official permission by the Syrian authorities to enter the country, Amnesty International was able to investigate the situation on the ground in northern Syria, and has concluded that Syrian government forces and militias are responsible for grave human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Amnesty International visited 23 towns and villages in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates, including areas where Syrian government forces launched large scale attacks including during negotiations over the implementation of the UN-Arab League-sponsored six-point ceasefire agreement in March/April.

In every town and village visited grieving families described to Amnesty International how their relatives – young and old and including children – were dragged away and shot dead by soldiers – who in some cases then set the victims’ bodies on fire.

Soldiers and shabiha militias burned down homes and properties and fired indiscriminately into residential areas, killing and injuring civilian bystanders.  Those who were arrested, including the sick and elderly, were routinely tortured, sometimes to death.  Many have been subjected to enforced disappearance; their fate remains unknown. 

“Everywhere I went, I met distraught residents who asked why the world is standing by and doing nothing,” said Donatella Rovera.“Such inaction by the international community ultimately encourages further abuses.  As the situation continues to deteriorate and the civilian death toll rises daily, the international community must act to stop the spiraling violence”.

The government crackdown has been targeting towns and villages seen as opposition strongholds, whether the site of clashes with Free Syria Army (FSA) forces or where the opposition remains peaceful. 

In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, on several occasions in the last week of May, Amnesty International watched uniformed security forces and plain clothes shabiha militia members firing live rounds against peaceful demonstrators, killing and injuring protesters and passers-by, including children. 

The patterns of abuses committed in these areas are not isolated, and have been widely reported elsewhere in the country, including in the attack by Syrian forces on Houla on 25 May. According to the United Nations, 108 individuals, including 49 children and 34 women, were killed there.

Since the outbreak of pro-reform protests in February 2011, Amnesty International has received the names of more than 10,000 people who have been killed during the unrest, although the actual figure may be considerably higher.

The report underpins findings from other investigations into the situation in Syria including the UN Secretary General’s report on children and armed conflict, which highlighted that, over the last year, government forces were responsible for “killing and maiming, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment” of children as young as nine years old.

In the report, Amnesty International again calls on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and to impose an arms embargo on Syria with the aim of stopping the flow of weapons to the Syrian government.

It urges the governments of the Russian Federation and China in particular to halt immediately transfers to the Syrian government of all weapons, munitions, military, security, and policing equipment, training and personnel.

It also calls on the Security Council to implement an asset freeze against President Bashar al-Assad and others who may be involved in ordering or perpetrating crimes under international law.

Amnesty International has made numerous recommendations to the Syrian authorities, which, if implemented, would help to curtail the widespread violations – amounting to crimes against humanity or war crimes – currently taking place.

But it appears the Syrian government has no intention of ending, let alone investigating, these crimes.

“The Syrian government’s attempts to block access to Amnesty International, other human rights monitors and the international media, have failed to shield it from scrutiny. This report provides further detailed evidence that the Syrian authorities are engaged in a sustained, widespread and brutal attack against the civilian population,” said Donatella Rovera.

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