High Commissioner Zeid: Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Eastern Ghouta

For half a decade, the people of Eastern Ghouta have been under siege. They have suffered airstrikes, shelling and on several occasions, civilians have reportedly died gasping for breath after toxic agents were released. They have endured every kind of deprivation, with no aid getting through since November except for one single convoy of humanitarian aid on 14 February that managed to reach just 7,200 people, of the hundreds of thousands who are living in this area. As a direct result, thousands upon thousands of children in Eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished and profoundly traumatised. And now they are facing one of the most pitiless onslaughts in this long-running and brutal civil war.

We have received reports of relentless airstrikes hitting hospitals, schools and markets in recent weeks. The Special Envoy’s team has reported attacks on 14 hospitals, three health centres and two ambulances between 18 and 22 February. Reports suggest that on 25 February in Shifouniya, several civilians, including six children had serious respiratory problems due to toxic agents that may have been released following airstrikes. Two of these children are now reportedly dead. The recent death toll in Eastern Ghouta has reportedly been among the highest registered in the past seven years of conflict. People living in what was once an ordinary suburb – human beings who share the rights and hopes of all of us here – are trapped and battered by bombs, and deprived of every human right – above all, the right to life.

The Security Council at last adopted Resolution 2401 (2018) six days ago. It required all parties to the Syrian conflict to immediately cease hostilities for at least 30 consecutive days, to enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance and evacuation of the critically sick and wounded. Despite this rare example of unanimity, civilians in Eastern Ghouta have reported that airstrikes and shelling continue. We have spoken to people in Eastern Ghouta who say they do not dare attempt to leave their shelters, given the persistent ground and air strikes and the sheer uncertainty about what will happen even if they survive their flight. Satellite imagery showing the shocking scale of the destruction of towns across Eastern Ghouta starkly reveals how dangerous any attempt to flee could be.

Despite the five-hour pause announced by the Russian Government to allow medical and humanitarian aid, airstrikes and ground-based strikes continue – as well as shelling of Government controlled areas of Damascus; my Office received reports that a civilian was killed there, and five others injured, by ground-based strikes on 27 February. Moreover, the humanitarian agencies have made it very clear that it is impossible to deliver aid during a five-hour window as it can take up to one day to simply pass checkpoints.

The cessation of hostilities laid out by Resolution 2401 was not intended to apply to operations against ISIL, Al Qaeda, Jabhat Al Nusra and others. But as Under Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council two days ago, “The scale of the Government’s indiscriminate military attacks against Eastern Ghouta, an area with a civilian population of 400,000, cannot be justified on the basis of targeting Jabhat al Nusra fighters”. And as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said, if there is no humanitarian access there will be: “More bombing. More fighting. More death. More destruction. More maiming of women and children. More hunger. More misery. More, in other words, of the same.”

Mr President,

Once again, I must emphasise that what we are seeing, in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria, are likely war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity. Civilians are being pounded into submission or death. The perpetrators of these crimes must know they are being identified; that dossiers are being built up with a view to their prosecution; and that they will be held accountable for what they have done.

Let it not be thought that the perpetrators will get away with this. Others once thought that too, and saw themselves as patriots – before they were arrested. Over the past four months, the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed a quarter of a century ago. Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano has been extradited to Spain to face charges related to the killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador in 1989. Two Argentinian former Navy Captains, Alfredo Astiz and Jorge Eduardo Acosta, were convicted for crimes against humanity committed between 1976 and 1983. The wheels of justice may be slow, but they do grind. This Council can have a real impact in ensuring that there will be justice – determined, inescapable and effective – for the suffering that has been inflicted on the Syrian people.

Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Attempts to thwart justice, and shield these criminals, are disgraceful. I also urge all States to greatly increase their support for the International, Impartial and Independent mechanism set up last year. The IIIM’s mandate focuses on ensuring that information about serious crimes is collected, analysed and preserved, with a view to furnishing dossiers for future prosecutions. This work is indispensable, and it is complementary to the remarkable work produced by the Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. I also strongly encourage the Council to renew the mandate of the Syria CoI in the course of this session. For our part, my Office is determined to continue our own monitoring, reporting, and early warning work. These three processes, while separate, are mutually reinforcing, aimed at preventing further horrific human suffering and increasing the certainty that justice will one day be done.

(Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein made during  “Urgent Debate on situation in Eastern Ghouta ” held on 2 March 2018 during the 37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council.)

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