A panel of experts from the UN Human Rights Council dispatched to investigate human rights abuses in Syria issued a very disturbing report yesterday. Mass atrocities, sexual violence, crimes against children and extra-judicial killings are described in chilling detail.
Among the most high profile points of inquiry was the May 25 massacre of civilians in the Syrian town of Houla. The commission concluded that a massacre did infact occur and that the Syrian government, its affiliated armed groups, and the rebels were responsible for crimes against humanity.
While unable to determine the exact perpetrators of the deliberate killing of civilians in Houla, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria found “that forces loyal to the Government were likely to have been responsible for many of the deaths”.
The Commission was never able to access Syria. But it conducted over 1,000 interviews with those who have fled Syria. Among those, forty interviewees asked specifically about Houla gave testimony with similar details, describing government and militia attacks.
The only dissent regarding the identity of those responsible for Houla came from the two witnesses given in a report on the incident issued by the Syrian government. The Commission was denied permission to interview those two witnesses.
The findings of the Houla investigation are only a small part though of a wrenching description of the horrors civilians face daily in Syria. The Commission examines in detail the various other abuses committed against civilians across the country. Particularly jarring are the annexes describing widespread violence and mistreatment against women and children.
Statistics leap out like the 125 children killed, mostly boys, since February in the ongoing fighting. Children also described “having been beaten, whipped with electrical cables, burned with cigarettes and subjected to electrical shocks to the genitals”:
12. One 15 year old boy said he was arrested in March by security and plain clothes officers after protesting, and taken to a Political Security office in Dara’a in March. He stated, “There were lots of young men, children and adolescents and also older people. I was standing and the officer stood in front of me and hit me across the face. They put electricity on my temples and my stomach … They asked us, ‘Where are the weapons!’ … They used lots of electricity. It felt like five hours and went on until morning, I think. There were kids as young as 10 with me in the cell …” He was released five days later only after signing a confession “… stating that we were terrible boys and had done many things wrong…I also had to sign a blank paper.”
Sexual violence against women and men alike are captured by the findings. The result is a disturbing picture of pervasive fear among civilians of being the next victim, a prime motivator for many interviewed women to have fled Syria in the first place, and an encouragement among the armed forces to use rape as a weapon of intimidation:
16. Two defectors stated that soldiers perpetrated rape during house searches in Zabadani in February 2012. One stated he was part of a contingent of soldiers that entered a house in order to loot it. When inside the house, the soldiers reportedly tied up the men and began to assault a 15-year-old girl. The interviewee, having been beaten by his colleagues, remained outside the house while the rape took place. Another defector stated that he heard his senior officers boasting about raping women during the February raid on Zabadani.
No reports came to the Commission reporting sexual violence being used by the opposition, but the lack of access to those still within Syria may be preventing stories from reaching the Commissioners.
The armed opposition does not come out with its hands clean. In particular, the Commission reported a widespread practice of extrajudicial killing of those aligned with the government by rebel fighters, counter to international norms:
49. The commission interviewed 10 FSA soldiers who had never heard of IHL or IHRL. One FSA fighter told the commission:
“We do not leave them alone until we kill them. Either they finish us or we finish them. We do not let them go and continue to kill people. We do not take prisoners, no one comes out alive. If he manages to escape he will come back to kill me.”
50. Another FSA fighter interviewed stated that when senior military officers are captured they are exchanged for detained members of anti-Government armed groups. However, if the FSA captures an ordinary officer or soldier, “they are interrogated and submitted to trial where Sharia law is applied”. The interviewee provided information on the composition and functioning of such a court in Tal Rifat. Its members are apparently educated and from diverse backgrounds. For example, some are lawyers, religious leaders and others known for their integrity. The soldier had never heard of IHL and related his view that, “[IHL] is not better than Sharia law where everyone is punished for what he has done by the same means, an eye for an eye”.
All told, the situation on the ground in Syria is ugly, and won’t be getting prettier anytime soon. The withdrawal of the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) will remove a key set of eyes and ears within Syria’s borders, with the insertion of a new political office unlikely to make up the difference.
With the Syrian government continuing to obstruct the Commission from conducting interviews with full freedom of movement, there will likely continue to be crimes against humanity that go unreported. The full extent of the terror in Syria may not be known until after the shooting has stopped, whenever that may be.