Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syrian Arab Republic

OHCHR

Monsieur le Président du Conseil des Droits de l´Homme, Excellences,

Despite waning attention, there is a war raging in Syria. When I addressed you in March I reported “significant levels of violence” over the previous six months and told you that the Syrian “economy is in freefall”. Excellences, the situation is worse, and it is not helped by the impact of the war in Ukraine nor will it be helped by debates contemplating closing down the last remaining humanitarian aid border crossing next week. To add insult to injury, in May, humanitarian aid organisations sounded the alarm at the EU-hosted Brussels VI Conference on Syria that the funds pledged for humanitarian assistance “are simply not sufficient to address the needs.”

Simply put, humanitarian needs throughout Syria are at their highest ever, with the UN estimating that 14.6 million Syrians are now dependent on humanitarian assistance. Across Syria, 12 million people face acute food insecurity, and 90 percent live in poverty.

Given this disturbing reality, it is unconscionable that discussions at the Security Council are focused on whether to close the one remaining authorized border crossing for aid, rather than how to expand access to life-saving aid across the country and through every appropriate route.

Parties to the conflict have themselves consistently failed in their obligations to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need across Syria. These and all other obstacles to humanitarian aid must be removed – including those caused by unilateral sanctions, even when unintentional.

Monsieur le Président,

Excellences,

Millions of refugees who fled the country are now under increasing pressure to return. When UNHCR recently polled refugees, nearly 93% said they do not intend to return in the next year, with the dire safety and security situation inside Syria being as the most cited reason. While the war continues, compliance with international humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities continues to be ignored by all parties to the conflict. Yesterday, High Commissioner Bachelet published a highly significant and sobering report estimating that more than 300,000 civilians have been killed in this war. Also yesterday we released a policy paper, trying to identify a way forward towards preventing further civilian harm in Syria.

In Idlib governorate, where the UN-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham controls the bulk of the civilian population, shelling and aerial attacks by pro-government forces have caused numerous casualties. As living conditions in displacement camps deteriorated, many were forced to return to their homes located in frontline areas, exposed to frequent attacks, like the one in April where four boys were targeted and killed on their way to school. Other attacks damaged or destroyed makeshift camps for displaced persons, and struck objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including food and water resources.

To the east, hostilities between pro-government forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued, to the detriment of countless civilians, often from the same families, who lost lives or limbs, or whose homes were damaged. In one of the most deadly of such incidents this year, a rocket attack on a market in al-Bab town in February killed at least eight civilians, and injured 24 others, including women and children. The Commission is currently investigating several similar incidents.

Monsieur le Président,

Excellences,

In southern Syria, widespread insecurity remains in formerly besieged areas, seeing frequent killings by unknown perpetrators of community leaders, including those having participated in “reconciliation” processes.

In Government-controlled areas, people perceived as not supporting the government – including returning refugees – live in constant fear of speaking out, well aware of the risks of arbitrary detention, torture or enforced disappearance.

Across these areas, buying or renting houses or apartments requires “security clearance” from the intelligence services. This is often withheld from anyone perceived to be critical of the Government, and from their entire families. Soldiers or militia still occupy many homes, even in areas now far removed from current frontlines. Other families have seen their properties seized by the Government under vaguely defined articles of the anti-terrorism law. Attempting to claim their properties back through legal proceedings is far too costly, in particular for women, discouraging most from even trying.

For many, the lack of this clearance also impedes their freedom of movement as checkpoints remain ubiquitous, even far away from frontlines.

Excellences,

The Commission has documented cases of Syrians arbitrarily arrested, disappeared, or extorted upon their return to Government-controlled areas, forcing some back onto the road of exile. The fear of being forcibly conscripted is also a major obstacle to their return, as well as the uncertainties of the “security clearance” system.

Excellences,

On 30 April, President Assad issued legislative decree no. 7 granting a general amnesty for terrorism crimes, although parts of the counter-terrorism law had been amnestied in previous decrees. After the announcement, families gathered in the streets of Damascus and other Syrian towns and cities hoping for information about detained relatives, but in vain. It is yet to be seen how many of the tens of thousands of Syrians languishing in detention will benefit from this new amnesty, and the Commission calls on the government to ensure that the amnesty decree is implemented as broadly as possible and extended to security and political crimes.

Time and again, we have informed you that Syrians long for the truth about the fate and whereabouts of their missing loved ones. They have a right to know the truth. Yet their search has been fraught with the dangers of extortion and abuse, while the Government and other parties have been deliberately prolonging their suffering by withholding information on the fate of those missing.

This must not be a reason for resignation but a call to action. In a few days the UN Secretary-General will publish a study, requested in UN General Assembly resolution 76/228, on how to bolster efforts to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in Syria. We are confident it will lead to concrete action: families have already waited too long. Experience globally shows the longer one waits, the harder the task will be. We have long advocated for a body to consolidate claims filed with a wide variety of non-governmental and humanitarian organizations so as to efficiently and effectively track and identify those missing and disappeared and to assist their families in their efforts. As we set out in a policy paper released two weeks ago, such a mechanism could also coordinate overtures to parties to the conflict to offer technical assistance and advice.

Monsieur le Président, Excellences,

Before closing, we need to remind this body that 40,000 children are still held in appalling conditions in the Al Hol and Al Roj camps in northeast Syria, alongside 20,000 adults, mainly women. Insecurity in Al Hol remains rife, with at least 24 murders reported this year. Even humanitarian workers have been targeted: a Red Crescent nurse was killed and an ICRC doctor stabbed. We welcome several countries’ repatriation of their nationals from Al Hol and Al Roj camps over the past few months, and encourage others to follow suit, prioritizing bringing home children as far as possible with their mothers and those who are seriously ill.

Rights are routinely violated in these camps, as well as in the prisons where at least 10,000 men and boys allegedly affiliated with Da’esh are held in conditions amounting to ill-treatment. As such, they also constitute security threats. Maintaining the status quo is simply no longer an option.

Thank you

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