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Human Rights

Fresh evidence of war crimes committed by all sides in Syrian conflict, probe finds

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In its latest report, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria highlighted the military campaign launched late last year in Idlib Governorate by pro-Government forces, to retake the last remaining areas under armed groups’ control.

‘Spreading terror’

The Commissioners also maintained that UN-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) indiscriminately shelled densely populated civilian areas, “spreading terror” in Government-held areas.

“It is completely abhorrent that, after more than nine years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives”, said Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro.

Bombarded while fleeing

“Children were shelled at school, parents were shelled at the market, patients were shelled at the hospital…entire families were bombarded even while fleeing”, he continued. “What is clear from the military campaign is that pro-government forces and UN-designated terrorists flagrantly violated the laws of war and the rights of Syrian civilians.”

Alongside the Russian air force, Syrian Government troops “carried out air and ground attacks which decimated civilian infrastructure, depopulated towns and villages”, killing hundreds of women, men and children, said the commissioners, who report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

International law flouted

Numerous locations protected by international law in the country’s northwest were destroyed in aerial and ground attacks, some involving cluster munitions, according to their report.

It details how from November 2019 to June this year, 52 attacks by all parties included 17 on hospitals and medical facilities; 14 on schools, 12 on homes and nine on markets.

If proven in court, such acts would amount to the war crimes of launching indiscriminate attacks, and deliberate attacks on protected objects, the investigators maintained.

Mass displacement

Beginning in the second half of December and mid-February, “widespread and indiscriminate” bombardment carried out by pro-government forces on Ma’arrat al-Nu’man and Ariha in Idlib governorate, as well as Atarib and Darat Azza in western Aleppo, led to mass displacement, according to the report.

Civilians had no choice but to flee, the Commissioners said, adding that this may amount to the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer, murder and other inhumane acts. 

Detained, tortured, executed

When people fled, HTS terrorists pillaged their homes, the investigators continued, and “as battles waged, they detained, tortured, and executed civilians expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists”.

Female media workers were doubly victimized, as the terrorist group continued to discriminate against women and girls, including by denying their freedom of movement.

“Women, men and children that we interviewed faced the ghastly choice of being bombarded or fleeing deeper into HTS-controlled areas where there are rampant abuses of human rights and extremely limited humanitarian assistance”, said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “The acts by HTS members amount to war crimes.”   

In an appeal for the nearly one million highly vulnerable civilians displaced by the conflict in Idlib governorate who now face added threat of COVID-19, Commissioner Hanny Megally urged all parties to the conflict to cease attacks on civilians and civilian objects.

“Now more than ever, civilians need sustained and unfettered access to humanitarian assistance which must neither be politicised by Member States nor instrumentalised by parties to the conflict. Pandemics know no borders, neither should life-saving aid,” Mr. Megally said, while also urging Member States to pursue accountability for crimes outlined in the report.

The Commission’s report is scheduled to be presented on 14 July to the Human Rights Council during its current 44th session.

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Human Rights

Violence in Sudan’s Western Darfur forces 2,500 into Chad

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Sudanese refugees flee across the border to escape Darfur violence. Twenty-three-year-old Sudanese refugee fled with her children to Kartafa in Chad in July 2020. © UNHCR/Aristophane Ngargoune

Recent clashes in Sudan’s Western Darfur region has driven more than 2,500 people across the border into neighbouring Chad, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported.

According to UNHCR, more than 80 per cent of those arriving in the Chadian border town of Adré are women, children and elderly – many of whom have witnessed extreme violence.

Attacks, said to have been carried out by armed nomads in the town of Masteri in Western Darfur, killed 61 people from the Masalit ethnic community and injured at least 88 on 25 July. Houses were also reported to have been burned to the ground in the town and the surrounding villages.

“A 25-year-old woman told UNHCR staff that her husband was stabbed to death in front of her eyes and she had to run for her life with her three children, making the journey to Chad riding a donkey for one full day”, Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the agency said at Tuesday’s regular media briefing, in Geneva.

About 20,000 affected within Sudan

In addition to those who fled into Chad, an estimated 20,000 people within Western Darfur in Sudan have been affected by the unrest – the majority of whom are women and children.

Mr. Baloch said that the situation has stabilized since the attacks but “remains unpredictable” and those displaced are still hesitant to return home and are demanding better security.

Federal authorities in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, have reportedly deployed additional forces to control and calm the situation. A delegation from the Masalit community and Arab tribal leaders arrived in El Geneina, the capital of Western Darfur, from Khartoum on 4 August and is conducting peace talks between both sides, added the UNHCR spokesperson.

Response hit by heavy rains

In Chad, UNHCR, in collaboration with the Government and humanitarian partners, is relocating the refugees from the border areas to the Kouchaguine-Moura refugee camp further inland, where they will be provided with food, shelter, water and emergency relief items.

The camp will also provide access to hygiene and health, including isolation units, as part of the response to COVID-19, said Mr. Baloch.

The relocation, however, has been slow due to heavy rains and poor road conditions, with about 443 refugees arriving at the camp last week. The Kouchaguine-Moura camp is already hosting more than 6,000 Sudanese refugees who had arrived in February 2020.

Rains have also hampered efforts to assess the situation and organize a response to assist those affected in Sudan.

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Pandemic highlights importance of indigenous self-determination

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In Belize, indigenous communities are considered key allies for conservation and sustainable development efforts. UNDP/Ya'axche

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to ensure the world’s indigenous people have control over their own communities, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has affirmed.

Michelle Bachelet described the pandemic as “a critical threat” to indigenous communities everywhere, at a time when many are also struggling against man-made environmental damage and economic depredation.

“Overall, the pandemic hammers home the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples can exercise their rights to self-government and self-determination”, she said in a message for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, observed this Sunday.

“This is about saving lives and protecting a precious web of cultures, languages and traditional knowledge, that connect us to the deep roots of humanity.”

Among the world’s poorest

There are roughly 476 million indigenous people worldwide, according to UN estimates.

Although less than five per cent of the global population, they account for 15 per cent of the poorest people on the planet.

Ms. Bachelet noted that many indigenous communities have “deeply inadequate” access to health care, clean water and sanitation, while their communal way of life can increase the probability of rapid contagion.

Ancestral knowledge lost

COVID-19 cases have surpassed 18 million globally, and the Americas remain the epicenter of the crisis, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced earlier this this week.

The UN rights chief said more than 70,000 indigenous people across the region have been infected to date, including almost 23,000 members of 190 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin.

“Over 1,000 deaths have been recorded, including several elders with deep knowledge of ancestral traditions”, she added. “They include the tragic death in Brazil this week of chief Aritana, of the Yawalapiti people.”

Lives under threat

The Amazon spans nine countries and Ms. Bachelet noted that indigenous communities in the vast region live on lands that are increasingly damaged and polluted due to illegal mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture.

Despite measures to contain COVID-19 spread, such as movement restrictions, many of these activities have continued, alongside movements by religious missionaries which also expose the indigenous to the risk of infection.

Meanwhile, those indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation from the modern world may have particularly low immunity to viral infection.

Ms. Bachelet said indigenous communities must have a role in pandemic response, stressing that “they must also be consulted, and should be able to participate in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting them, through their representative entities, leaders and traditional authorities”.

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Rights experts call on India to remedy ‘alarming’ situation in Jammu and Kashmir

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Friday prayers in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. © John Isaac

UN-appointed independent human rights experts have called for urgent action in India’s Jammu and Kashmir, amid concerns of ongoing abuses against civilians there.

The appeal comes a year after the Indian Parliament revoked the special status of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which provided partial autonomy and specific protections to its mainly-Muslim citizens.

In a statement, the group of 17 experts said that the human rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been in “free fall”.

International community urged to ‘step up’

“Urgent action is needed”, they said. “If India will not take any genuine and immediate steps to resolve the situation, meet their obligations to investigate historic and recent cases of human rights violations and prevent future violations, then the international community should step up.”

Twelve months ago, they wrote to the Indian authorities to end what they called “the crackdown” on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests over the decision to end the state’s special status.

The experts also expressed concern about alleged arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, to which the Government recently replied, as well as the criminalization of journalists covering the situation and the detention and deteriorating health, of a high-profile human rights lawyer.

“We have yet to receive any reply to three of the four letters,” the experts said.

COVID compounding detentions, restrictions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts also said it was concerning that “many” protesters are still in detention, and that internet restrictions remain.

They added that the closure of the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission last October, was equally disturbing, as it removed one of the few ways that victims of rights violations could seek remedy.

No information had been provided about what would happen to the ongoing cases the commission had been investigating.

These include hundreds of suspected enforced disappearances dating from as far back as 1989, they said, while allegations regarding thousands of unmarked and some mass graves sites, have also not been properly investigated.

Pending visits

In 2011, India also extended an open invitation to Special Rapporteurs to visit, but has several requests pending. “We call on India to schedule pending visits as a matter of urgency, particularly of the experts dealing with torture and disappearances,” they said.

The Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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