Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Syria

The human rights situation in Syria continued to deteriorate as a result of the regime’s military offensive. There were reports of serious violations of human rights law and humanitarian law by the Syrian regime including the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs, “double tap” strikes and disappearances within the last 6 months. Other parties in Syria such as Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and parts of the armed opposition were also reported to be responsible for human rights abuses and breaches of international humanitarian law.

Due to the severity of the conflict, the UN stopped recording the number of deaths. In April, UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, estimated more than 400,000 people had been killed since the start of the conflict in 2011. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population had been displaced, and 13.5 million Syrians remained in need of humanitarian assistance.

Aleppo and rural Damascus bore the majority of the worst violence. In September 2016, the regime - supported by Russia and Iran – intensified it offensive against opposition-held eastern Aleppo. Hundreds of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced. The UN received credible reports of summary executions by pro-regime forces as they entered eastern Aleppo in December, including one incident in which at least 82 civilians including 11 women and 13 children were executed. The spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said hundreds of men disappeared after entering regime-held areas as they left eastern Aleppo. According to the UN scores of civilians in regime-held areas of Aleppo city were killed by indiscriminate ground shelling by armed opposition groups.

In September, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that regime forces and their backers had committed “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks” against civilian areas across Syria. Bombardments have included the use of incendiary devices, missiles, shells, barrel and newly deployed bunker-busting bombs. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) estimated that in 2016 the regime dropped 12,958 barrel bombs. Human Rights Watch documented 18 incendiary weapon attacks on civilian areas in the opposition-held areas of Aleppo and Idlib between June and August, as well as additional attacks since. Bunker-busting bombs were used repeatedly in eastern Aleppo to reduce the city rubble. Save the Children’s schools stopped operating because the use of bunker-busting bombs meant children could no longer escape attacks by taking shelter in basements.

In its September report, the COI identified a surge in attacks against people and places providing medical care, particularly in eastern Aleppo. In October, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, declared the city’s health care system “all but obliterated”. There were no functioning hospitals left to demolish by mid-November, leaving more than 275,000 people without access to health care. In November, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported 382 attacks on 269 separate medical facilities in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, as well as the deaths of 757 medical personnel across the country. In August, Stephen O’Brien commented that the risk to humanitarian workers was immense in part because of the use of “double tap” tactics where an aerial attack was followed by a second attack once rescue workers had reached the scene of the initial incident.

Children and schools suffered severely as a result of the conflict. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), over 15,000 children have been killed since the start of the conflict. On 1 November, the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria documented 466 children in battle-related deaths between September and October 2016. UNICEF reported that 22 children were killed when a school complex in Idlib governorate was struck on 26 October whilst children were in class. HRW reported 38 attacks on schools since the beginning of 2016. Save the Children reported in September that approximately half of the casualties pulled from the rubble or treated in hospitals in eastern Aleppo were children.

An attack against a UN aid convoy to Oram Al-Kubra, west of Aleppo, took place on 19 September. At least 10 humanitarian workers were killed and vital aid to vulnerable people was destroyed. The UK supported fully the UN Secretary General’s decision to establish an internal and independent United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry to investigate the incident. The Board of Inquiry found that the aid convoy was attacked from the air, making clear the strike was carried out by either Syrian regime or Russia air forces.

The UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) on chemical weapons use reported on 20 August that the Syrian regime had used toxic chemicals as weapons in 3 cases: Talmenes (21 April 2014), Qmenas (16 March 2015) and Sarmin (16 March 2015). The JIM also found that Daesh used sulfur mustard in Marea on 21 August 2015.

The Syrian regime continued to use “siege and starvation” as a tactic of war. By December, approximately 4.9 million people were in hard-to-reach areas, including approximately 700,000 in besieged areas. Humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas was close to non-existent during this period. Most had besieged areas received no aid convoys since June or July. The 275,000 people besieged in eastern Aleppo received no aid between July and the fall of the city in December. Primary responsibility for the lack of humanitarian access lay with the regime, which refused to approve the UN’s humanitarian plan for the city. While other parties have created sieges, including Daesh which is besieging 93,000 people in Deir ez-Zor, the vast majority of those besieged in Syria were in areas cut off by the regime and its backers.

The regime’s deliberate use of sieges to pursue its military objectives resulted in the forced surrender and displacement of people from several areas. The residents of Daraya, in the suburbs of Damascus, surrendered in August after being under siege by pro-regime forces for 4 years. Fighters and civilians were forced to evacuate to other parts of the country with no clear right of return. This was replicated in other rebel-held areas, such as eastern Aleppo, Moadimiyet-al-Sham, Khan el-Sheh and the Al Waer neighbourhood in Homs.

The regime continues to use torture and arbitrary detention against its political opponents. Amnesty International’s report “It breaks the human: Torture, disease and death in Syria’s prisons” retraced the harrowing experiences of 65 survivors of torture by the regime. Most said they witnessed prisoners dying in custody while some described being held in cells alongside dead bodies. The reported highlighted that both male and female detainees were subjected to sexual violence. Amnesty International estimated that 17,723 people died in custody in Syria since the crisis began in March 2011; an average of more than 300 deaths a month; 10 a day. SNHR reported at least 55 women were tortured to death (39 by regime forces, and 13 by Da‘esh). SNHR also reported 10,047 cases of arbitrary arrest in 2016 including 431 children and 539 women. According to their report the regime arrested 7543 individuals, Da’esh detained 1419, Jabhat Fateh Al Sham 234, armed opposition factions arrested 17, and Kurdish forces arrested 673.

The Syrian authorities allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross limited access to some official prisons. In general the regime sought to hide activities inside their detention facilities by denying access to human rights monitors including the independent UN Commission of Inquiry. The regime continues to deny that violations take place, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There have also been reports of human rights abuses by opposition armed groups. Amnesty International reported in July on abductions, torture and summary killings by five armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idleb and surrounding areas in the north of Syria. Victims included women, children, activists and minorities. Amnesty documented 24 cases of abduction between 2012 and 2016, 5 cases of torture from 2014 and 2015, as well as summary executions of civilians accused of being gay or of committing adultery. In July, the Nurredin Zinki group reportedly beheaded a 13-year-old boy. In all contacts with representatives of the opposition, the British government underlines the crucial importance of compliance with International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law.