UN report on Syria: Human rights violations and war crimes by all armed parties

Desperate crowd awaits relief aid at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. Photo: UNRWA

The United Nations’ commission investigating alleged war crimes in Syria released its final report today. The conflict began in March of 2011. Since then, an unknown number of Syrians have died — but the UN estimates the death toll at “well over 100,000.” More than 9 million people are in need of assistance inside the country, with more than half of them internally displaced. Another 2.5 million have fled the war torn nation.


Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro described the now three-year long conflict as “siege warfare,” in which civilians are systematically denied access to humanitarian aid, food and basic necessities like medical care, and are forced to choose between surrender and starvation.

According to the report, Syrian forces and pro-government militia continue to conduct widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance, and using children as armed actors. The report also describes war crimes committed by non-state armed groups.

“For the first time in this report we found that the widespread detention of civilians in Al-Raqqah and their systematic torture amount to crimes against humanity. said Pinheiro. “Among the violations are murder, summary executions, torture, hostage taking, rape and sexual violence, recruiting and using children in hostilities and other violations and other crimes. Non-state armed groups also besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighborhoods, in some instances spreading terror among civilians through the use of car bombings in civilian areas. Various parties – state and non-state – have perpetrated massacres which we have described in the annex of the report.”

He explained that the commission will no longer use the term “opposition forces,” but rather has adopted the term “non-state” armed groups.

“I must say a word about what we call now non-state armed groups. And I would like to emphasize that we have made this shift in our labels of opposition groups on order to better reflect the complex situation on the ground,” adding “We no longer use anti-government groups because a number of their violations are not connected to armed activities against government forces. Our method has been to name each group specifically in the report.”

Pinheiro said the failure of the Security Council, and of the international community at large, has provided the space for the proliferation of actors in Syria. Further, he says all parties to the conflict have their own agenda and contribute to the radicalization and escalation of violence. “The Security Council bears responsibility for not addressing accountability and allowing the warring parties to violate these rules with total impunity.”

The report also acknowledged the use of chemical weapons, but did not identify perpetrators. The commission found that sarin used in two large-scale likely came from the Syrian army’s stockpile, and that a military skill level was necessary to launch the attacks. Those same hallmarks were not present in other smaller scale incidents.

The commission based its findings on extensive interviews with hundreds of Syrian refugees. Despite several requests, the UN group has not been permitted to enter Syria.

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