September 11, 2013
GENEVA — As the United States and Russia searched for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons, United Nations investigators on Wednesday presented detailed evidence of what they said were war crimes and crimes against humanity still being committed by both sides in the 30-month-old conflict.
Bolstered by arms and money from regional and global powers waging a proxy war, Syria’s government and rebel forces have committed murder, torture, rape and indiscriminate attacks on civilians on a huge scale, believing they can win a military victory and without fear of future punishment, the four-person Commission of Inquiry said in a report they will present to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.
|Briefing on brutality: Delegates raise placards requesting the floor after a report by the United Nations’ independent commission of inquiry on Syria on Tuesday in Geneva. | AFP-JIJI|
“Relentless shelling has killed thousands of civilians and displaced the populations of entire towns. Massacres and other unlawful killings are perpetrated with impunity,” the panel said. “An untold number of men, children and women have disappeared. Many have died in detention.” The perpetrators on both sides “do not fear accountability. Referral to justice is imperative,” they added.
Their report tracks developments in Syria for three months to mid-July, before the chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21 that prompted threats of punitive military strikes by the United States and France. But its findings of continuing and even escalating atrocities underscored what is at stake as Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia prepared to meet in Geneva on Thursday to try to flesh out Russia’s proposal for putting Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.
A successful outcome to their talks would avert American military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and help to break the diplomatic deadlock that has stymied discussions between Washington and Moscow on convening a second Geneva conference to broker an end to the conflict.
The alternative risks the continuation or widening of a conflict that the U.N. panel says has intensified in recent months, reigniting tensions in neighboring countries and posing a wider threat to the stability of the region.
Pro-government forces had gained momentum over the summer, maintaining control of cities and major communications routes and recapturing some areas previously taken by rebel groups, the panel reported. Opposition forces, through plagued by internal strife and increasingly radicalized, had become more organized and reinforced their hold on large areas of Syria’s north and east.
The panel confirmed and gave details of a series of massacres carried out by pro-government forces and noted they unleashed indiscriminate bombardment by tanks, artillery and aircraft against areas they were unwilling or unable to control. The forces inflicted heavy civilian casualties “as a matter of policy,” on some occasions as retribution for the presence of armed groups and on others with the perception of “a strong undercurrent of sectarianism,” according to the panel.
The number of people killed in government custody “rose markedly,” the panel reports, drawing on 258 interviews to give details of widespread torture, particularly by military intelligence and other security agencies. Adult detainees “regularly reported the detention and torture of children as young as 13,” the panel reported. It said that “the involvement and active participation of government institutions indicated that torture was institutionalized and employed as a matter of policy.”
Opposition forces were also implicated in the mass killing of Shiite residents in the Hatla district of Deir az-Zour in June, according to the panel, which reported summary executions of captured government soldiers and said rebel forces had recruited children for combat. Rebel groups had also conducted torture and although these occurred only in isolated instances, “there were strong indications that such practices are on the rise.”
The panel called on the international community to halt arms transfers to Syria and to take “tangible steps to curb the increasing influence of extremists,” insisting there is no possibility of a military solution.
Emphasizing the warring parties’ sense of impunity, the panel urged the Human Rights Council “to commit to ensure the accountability of those responsible for violations, including possible referral to international justice.” It pointed out that it has continued to update its list of individuals and institutions identified as responsible for the crimes and atrocities the panel has reported. In comments to reporters earlier in the week, one panel member, Carla del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor of two United Nations international criminal law tribunals, said, “It’s a long list.”