Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: January to June 2016 - Syria

Updated 21 July 2016

After over 5 years of conflict, the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate between January and June 2016, with the Syrian people enduring immeasurable pain and suffering. The cessation of hostilities brokered in February led to a temporary respite from violence in some parts of Syria. However, persistent aerial attacks and ground assaults by the regime forces and their allies and backers led to an escalation of violence which put significant pressure on the cessation. The UN Special Envoy for Syria estimated that over 400,000 people have been killed over the past 6 years, with over 4.8 million Syrian refugees in the region, and over 6.6 million internally displaced. Civilians continued to be denied their basic human rights. Systematic and widespread abuses of human rights law and persistent violations of international criminal and humanitarian law continued unabated. Russia and China have repeatedly blocked action designed to hold the Syrian regime accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including through use of their veto in the UN Security Council. This has emboldened the regime to deploy more armed force and has limited the international community’s response, thereby exacerbating impunity and encouraging further criminality.

The independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the “Caesar” images have all indicated the widespread use of torture, sexual violence, executions and death in regime prisons. In February, the COI issued a report “Out of Sight: Out of Mind”, citing the detention of tens of thousands of individuals by the regime at any one time, while thousands more have disappeared. The Commission concluded that “government officials intentionally maintained poor conditions and were aware that mass deaths of detainees would result. These actions, in the pursuance of a State policy, amount to extermination as a crime against humanity.” In their April report, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) revealed that the regime and its security apparatus are continuing to detain opponents systematically. On 26 June, SNHR published a report to mark International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, in which they allege that 12,679 people have died due to torture since 2011, attributing 99% of those deaths to the regime. The release of illegally held detainees is a priority for the UK. We are working in partnership with other donor countries to fund the collection of documentary evidence on such abuses for use in possible legal processes in the future.

The toll on Syrian women continued to be particularly brutal. The raging war has resulted in fundamental shifts in gender roles. Many women are now the sole providers for their families. They face substantial barriers as they try to establish new livelihoods that fall outside of societal expectations. They are increasingly exposed to widespread and indiscriminate violence, and are at risk of being arrested, harassed or subject to sexual violence at checkpoints or during house searches. The Syrian regime have also perpetrated horrendous violations against women in prisons and security branches by the use of threats, rape, degrading body searches and sexual harassment. Fear of stigmatisation and rejection imposes a culture of silence on survivors, preventing women reporting crimes of sexual violence and seeking medical attention and support. As a result of dire economic conditions, adolescent girls have had their education curtailed and have been forced to work or to get married early.

In June, the COI published a report focusing on Daesh’s treatment of the Yezidi community. The Commission assessed that Daesh had committed several cases of crimes against humanity and human rights abuses, and concluded that Daesh had committed the crime of genocide against the Yezidis. Daesh have inflicted sexual slavery, torture and forcible transfer on the Yezidis. It is estimated that 3,200 women and children are still held by Daesh. Most are in Syria where Yezidi women continue to be sexually enslaved and Yezidi boys indoctrinated and trained to be fighters.

We have a long-standing commitment to accountability in respect of human rights violations and abuses. The UK provides financial support to a specialist organisation to conduct investigations in Syria and build criminal case files for prosecution of the perpetrators, in accordance with international standards. These cases are brought together in the interests of pursuing international prosecution, should a referral to the International Criminal Court be forthcoming or should individuals be subject to litigation by hybrid, specialised and or national courts.

We play a leading role in the tri-annual Syria resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). As we have done in previous sessions, the UK led HRC resolutions in March and June to draw attention to the ongoing violations and abuses of human rights in Syria, the vast majority of which are the responsibility of the Asad regime. At the March HRC, the resolution renewed the mandate of the COI so that this body can continue to carry out its important work to monitor and document human rights violations and abuses. We will continue to use our leadership role in the HRC to shine a spotlight on the dire human rights situation, and make clear our strong condemnation of the Asad regime. We will also continue to call for an end to enforced disappearances and the immediate release of those arbitrarily detained by the Syrian regime and other parties to the conflict. We call for the COI to be given full and unhindered access to Syria.

We have been concerned by reports from a range of sources of human rights abuses by armed groups fighting in support of, but also against the Asad regime. This includes forced conscription, arbitrary detentions and the displacement of civilians, as well as evidence of torture and summary executions. In April, images circulated of fighters from the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) parading truckloads of corpses around the town of Afrin. In this incident the YPG Unit in question appear to have acted in line with regime objectives. Such behaviour weakens the effort of those taking on Daesh elsewhere. However armed groups fighting against Asad have also engaged in indiscriminate shelling, alleged use of Chemical Weapons and other forms of brutality. “Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has regularly matched regime and Daesh levels of depravity in their attacks against the Syrian people and their enemies on the battlefield. Where we have the ability to influence armed opposition groups, either directly or through international partners, we continuously take the opportunity to urge combatants to comply with international standards of human rights and to confirm their commitment to international humanitarian law.

The Asad regime’s use of indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardments is the primary cause of civilian casualties and mass displacement within Syria. The regime and its backers have carried out indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilian residential areas, including schools, markets, hospitals and medical facilities. Deliberate and direct attacks on schools inside Syria have, according to the COI, forced more than 3 million children to cease attending classes on a regular basis. These attacks killed teachers and students and destroyed or damaged schools. Parents keep children at home as they fear for their safety. The regime and its backers appear to be using incendiary weapons unlawfully to target civilians.

Amnesty International alleged that “Syrian and Russian forces have deliberately attack[ed] health facilities (as) part of their military strategy”. Médecins Sans Frontières believes giving GPS coordinates of its facilities to Asad and Russian forces increases the likelihood of direct targeting. In May, SNHR documented 26 attacks on medical facilities, of which 10 can be attributed to the regime, eight to Russian forces, two to Daesh, and four to armed opposition groups. In May, the UK called for an emergency open briefing at the UNSC on the situation in Aleppo following the destruction of medical facilities and death of healthcare professionals. The COI “calls on all parties to cease the unlawful attacks on civilian areas, especially humanitarian locations and specially protected sites under international humanitarian law”. The UK also played a lead role in the negotiations of UNSC resolution 2286 (2016), which demanded an end to impunity, respect for international law and the protection of medical and humanitarian personnel engaged in medical duties, as well as of medical facilities. We will continue to make clear that any breach of International Humanitarian Law must be investigated vigorously and perpetrators held accountable.

Humanitarian access continues to be extremely challenging, putting hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk. Asad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a daily basis. Since the ceasefire, some besieged areas have received emergency food aid; however, access continues to be unacceptably restricted by the Asad regime. The continued removal of medical supplies from convoys by government forces and the lack of access to besieged areas have hampered peace efforts.

The Asad regime and Daesh continue to use starvation as a weapon of war and are systematically starving hundreds of thousands of civilians. Over half a million people are trapped in sieges, as food, medical supplies, water, fuel and other vital supplies are blocked, primarily by regime and Daesh forces. They are forced to scavenge for their basic needs and often encounter further threats including barrel bombs, shelling and chemical weapons. Tragic and preventable deaths have become a regular occurrence in besieged areas where medical facilities are under attack, life-saving medicine is blocked from entering, and sick patients are prevented from leaving. On 10 June, regime forces ruthlessly bombarded the besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya (dubbed “Syria’s capital of barrel bombs”), hours after the arrival of its first food aid since 2012. Save the Children assess that approximately 250,000 children are trapped in besieged areas. Children are less likely to attend school as they suffer from malnutrition, or are far too ill due to the lack of medical supplies or exposure to disease.

The UK is a member of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which has agreed that humanitarian access must be opened to priority areas to accelerate full and sustained access across Syria, in line with relevant UNSC resolutions. We are pressing for an end to the removal of medical equipment from convoys, the evacuation of critical medical cases, and regular access to healthcare for besieged populations. The UK will continue to work closely with the UN and other international partners to push the regime to immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria by the most direct routes. We strongly support the ISSG’s call for airdrops to besieged areas if land access is not granted.

The UK is at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the crisis. We co-hosted the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference in London on 4 February, at which we announced that the UK will more than double our total pledge to the Syria crisis from £1.12 billion to over £2.3 billion - our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. From the start of the conflict, this funding has included support to the UN and international NGOs to deliver aid to besieged and hard to reach areas.

The UK is working hard to encourage all parties to re-commit immediately and fully to the cessation of hostilities and to ensure humanitarian access across the country. The ISSG has agreed that protecting the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination is fundamental. We will continue to use our position in international bodies to draw attention to the atrocities being carried out in Syria, while maintaining the pressure for an inclusive political settlement to bring the suffering of the Syrian people to an end.