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Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war, October 2012

Human rights violations during the Syrian civil war have been numerous and serious. In June 2012 Amnesty International claimed the majority had been committed by government forces,[1]:10 though the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has said that both sides appear to have committed war crimes, with UN investigations having claimed that the government's abuses are the greatest in both gravity and scale.[2][3]

Legal framework

Four of the international instruments ratified by Syria and which apply to events in the civil war are particularly relevant: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the UN Convention Against Torture. Syria is not a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, although it is bound by the provisions of the ICCPR that also prohibit enforced disappearances.[4]:5

Four key security agencies have overseen government repression in Syria: the General Security Directorate, the Political Security Branch, the Military Intelligence Branch, and the Air Force Intelligence Branch. All three corps of the Syrian army have been deployed in a supporting role to the security forces; the civilian police have been involved in crowd control. The shabiha, led by the security forces, also participated in abuses.[4]:8–10 Since Hafez al-Assad's rule, individuals from the Alawite minority have controlled (although they not always formally headed) these four agencies, as well as several elite military units,[5]:72–3 and comprise the bulk of them.[6]

Syrian armed and security forces

According to the UN, Syrian armed and security forces may be responsible for: unlawful killing, including of children (mostly boys), medical personnel and hospital patients ("In some particularly grave instances, entire families were executed in their homes"); torture, including of children (mostly boys, sometimes to death) and hospital patients, and including sexual and psychological torture; arbitrary arrest "on a massive scale"; deployment of tanks and helicopter gunships in densely populated areas; heavy and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas; collective punishment; enforced disappearances; widescale and systematic destruction and looting of property; the systematic denial, in some areas, of food and water; and the prevention of medical treatment, including to children - in the period since 15 March 2011.[4]:20–4[7]:4–6[8]:2–4[9]:10–20 Amnesty International reported that medical personnel had also been tortured,[10] while the UN said that medical personnel in state hospitals were sometimes complicit in the killing and torture of patients.[9]:11 The execution and torture of children was also documented by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.[1]:30[11]:31–2[12][13] Most of the serious human rights violations documented by the UN have been committed by the Syrian army and security services as part of military or search operations.[7]:4[8]:1 The pattern of the killing, coupled with interviews with defectors, led the UN to conclude a shoot-to-kill policy was operative.[4]:20[9]:10 The UN mentioned several reports of security forces killing injured victims by putting them into refrigerated cells in hospital morgues.[4]:22

Amnesty International decided to enter the country uninvited in spring 2012 and documented "gross violations of human rights on a massive scale" by the Syrian military and shabiha, "many of which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes". These were committed against the armed opposition, to punish and intimidate civilian individuals and strongholds perceived to be supporting the opposition, and indiscriminately against individuals who had nothing to do with the opposition. In addition to the crimes listed by the UN above, they noted cases of people being burnt alive; destruction of pharmacies and field hospitals (normal hospitals are out of bounds to those wounded by the military); and that the sometimes lethal torture ("broken bones, missing teeth, deep scars and open wounds from electric shocks, and from severe beatings and lashings with electric cables and other implements") was overwhelmingly directed at men and boys.[1]:7–10

The UN reported 10,000 persons arbitrarily detained between mid-March and the late June 2011;[7]:5 a year later that number had more than doubled, though the true number of detainees may have been far higher.[1]:11[11]:12 At the notorious Seidnaya jail, north of Damascus, 2,500 military officers and lesser ranks were being held after they disobeyed orders or attempted desertion.[14] Human Rights Watch documented more than 20 different methods of torture used against detainees, including: prolonged and severe beatings, often with objects such as batons and wires; painful stress positions; electrocution; burning with car battery acid; sexual assault; pulling out fingernails; mock execution; and sexual violence.[11]:18–19 Many were held in disgusting and cruelly overcrowded conditions; many who needed medical assistance were denied it, and some consequently died.[11]:14–17

Human Rights Watch accused the government and Shabiha of using civilians as human shields when they advanced on opposition-held areas.[15] A UN report confirmed this, saying soldiers had used children as young as eight, detaining and killing children afterwards. The UN added the Syrian Government as one of the worst offenders on its annual "list of shame".[16]

In response to these violations, the UN Human Rights Council passed a condemnatory resolution. It also demanded that Syria cooperate with a UN investigation into the abuses, release all political prisoners, and allow independent monitors to visit detention facilities.[17] __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Not all reports have proved accurate Zainab al-Hosni, who was purportedly beheaded by Syrian authorities, later turned out to be alive.

Relatives confirmed that the woman they saw on TV was indeed her, said Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch. "I am very much alive and I have opted to tell the truth because I am planning to get married in the future and have kids who I want to be registered," she told her interviewer.

Amnesty said in a statement: "If the body was not that of Zainab al-Hosni, then clearly the Syrian authorities need to disclose whose it was. We are trying to determine the exact circumstances of the case and will release comprehensive information as soon as we can." [18] __________________________________________________________________________________________________________

In May 2012, Al Arabiya aired leaked footage of a man being tortured in a government detention centre in Kafranbel.[19]

An increasing number of reports indicated that the Syrian government is attacking civilians at bread bakeries with artillery rounds and rockets in opposition-controlled cities and districts in Aleppo province and Aleppo city, with the reports indicating that the bakeries were shelled indiscriminately.[20][21] HRW said these are war crimes, as the only military targets in the areas were rebels manning the bakeries and that dozens of civilians were killed.[22]

Upon retaking the capital Damascus after the Battle of Damascus (2012), the Syrian government began a campaign of collective punishment against Sunni suburbs in-and-around the capital which had supported FSA presence in their neighborhoods.[23][24]

The charity Save the Children conducted interviews in refugee camps with Syrian civilians who had fled the fighting, and released a report in September 2012 containing many accounts of detention, torture and summary execution, as well as other incidents such as the use of civilians as human shields, allegedly including tying children onto advancing tanks so that rebel forces would not fire upon them.[25]

In a 23 October 2012 statement, Human Rights Watch said that Syrian military denials notwithstanding, HRW had "evidence of ongoing cluster bomb attacks" by Syria’s air force. HRW has confirmed reports "through interviews with victims, other residents and activists who filmed the cluster munitions", as well as "analysis of 64 videos and also photos showing weapon remnants" of cluster bomb strikes.[26] The use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions is prohibited by the 2008 international Convention on Cluster Munitions treaty. Use of cluster bombs have been considered a grave threat to civilian populations because of the bombs' ability to randomly scatter thousands of submunitions or "bomblets" over a vast area, many of which remain waiting to explode, taking civilian lives and limbs long after the conflict is over.[27]

David Nott, a British surgeon who volunteered for five weeks in mid-2013 on the ground in Syria at hospitals in conflict zone, reported that victims of government snipers would all display wounds in a particular area on particular days, indicating that they may have intentionally chosen to target a specific area each day as a sort of "game". On some days, pregnant women were found shot through the uterus, killing their unborn children.[28]

According to three eminent international lawyers.[29] Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution. Experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis. [30][31]

The Syrian government has come to view doctors as dangerous, their ability to heal rebel fighters and civilians in rebel-held areas seen as a weapon against the government. Over the 2.5 years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide medical care to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed; the pharmaceutical industry devastated. In 2011, there were more than 30,000 doctors in Syria. Now, more than 16,000 doctors have fled, and many of those left are in hiding. More than ninety have been assassinated for doing their jobs and at least 36 paramedics, in uniform on authorized missions, have been killed by Syrian military snipers or shot dead at checkpoints.[32]

Referral to the International Criminal Court

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and others have called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court; however, it would be difficult for this to take place with within the foreseeable future because Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, meaning the ICC has no jurisdiction there (referral could alternatively happen via the Security Council, but Russia and China would block).[33] Marc Lynch, who is in favour of a referral, noted a couple of other routes to the ICC were possible, and that overcoming Chinese and Russian opposition was not impossible.[34] Richard Haass has argued that one way to encourage top-level defections is to "threaten war-crimes indictments by a certain date, say, August 15, for any senior official who remains a part of the government and is associated with its campaign against the Syrian people. Naming these individuals would concentrate minds in Damascus."[35] Nevertheless, it remains unlikely in the short term, and some would argue this is a blessing in disguise, since this precludes the ICC's involvement while the conflict is still raging, a development that would arguably only increase the Assad government's violent obstinacy. The "United States cannot halt or reverse the militarization of the Syrian uprising, and should not try. What the United States can usefully do is manage this militarization by working with other governments, especially Syria’s neighbors in the region, to try to shape the activities of armed elements on the ground in a manner that will most effectively increase pressure on the regime". [36]

Armed opposition fighters and other terror gangs

With regard to armed opposition groups, the UN accused them of: unlawful killing; torture and ill-treatment; kidnapping and hostage taking; and the use of children in dangerous non-combat roles—since December 2011.[8]:4–5 Amnesty confirmed that they were guilty of having tortured and executed captured soldiers and militiamen, as well as known or perceived civilian collaborators,[1]:10 and later condemned the opposition fighters responsible for an attack on a pro-Assad TV station in June 2012 in which media workers were killed.[37] According to the Institute for the Study of War, "[m]onthly instances of assassinations,executions, and kidnappings by rebels skyrocketed in February 2012 and doubled again between March and April. . . . The Assad regime's sectarian shabiha paramilitaries have been responsible for a vast numbers of killings, which has made it more difficult for insurgents to resist the urge to act in reprisal."[38] Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, said in March 2012 that she had received claims that the Free Syrian Army was using children as fighters.[13] A UN report in April 2012 also mentioned "credible allegations" that rebels, including the FSA, were using child fighters, despite stated FSA policy of not recruiting any child under the age of 17,[39]:23 but a later one in June 2012 made no mention of this, only reporting that opposition fighters were using children in non-combat roles.[8]:5 Still, in an interview to AP, one rebel commander stated that his 16-year-old son had died in clashes with government troops as a rebel fighter. He also confirmed that his group had been releasing prisoners in bomb-rigged cars turning drivers into unwitting suicide bombers.[40]

In May 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing rebel commander Abu Sakkar cutting organs from the dead body of a Syrian soldier and putting one of them in his mouth, "as if he is taking a bite out of it". He says to the camera: "soldiers of Bashar [...] we will eat your heart and livers! [...] Oh my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!" Human Rights Watch confirmed the authenticity of the footage, and said that Abu Sakkar appears to be a commander of the "Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade". Human Rights Watch said "It is not known whether the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade operates within the command structure of the Free Syrian Army". The incident was condemned by the FSA's Chief of Staff and the Syrian National Coalition said that the commander would be put on trial.[41][42] The rebel Supreme Military Council called for Abu Sakkar's arrest, saying it wants him "dead or alive". Abu Sakkar said that his action was revenge, explaining that he had found a video on the soldier's cellphone in which the soldier sexually abuses a woman and her two daughters.[43] In earlier days before the escalation of violence he had taken part in marches and at that time voiced the need for a united front to cause the reforms that were denied by the regime. His brigade was not among those calling for a medieval caliphate or allegiance to al-Qa'ida, and he had taken a stand against Islamist extremists in rebel ranks. $3 journalist Kim Sengupta, having observed that the brutality with which the regime responded to peaceful protests in Baba Amr and elsewhere in Syria was the catalyst for the armed uprising which followed, looked for further explanation for the viciousness that is expressed. Mr Nassr, another brigade member told him; "He (Abu Sakkar) should not have done what he did, doing that was haram (wrong in religion) and unwise. But it was a message to the Shabiha. They film young men and women being tortured to try and frighten the people and this was meant as a warning to them.” [44]

Sexual violence

Men and women have been subjected to sexual violence by government forces. Amnesty International has received reports of men being raped.[45] According to the UN, sexual violence in detention is directed principally against men and boys,[9]:17 rather than women and girls:

Several testimonies reported the practice of sexual torture used on male detainees. Men were routinely made to undress and remain naked. Several former detainees testified reported beatings of genitals, forced oral sex, electroshocks and cigarette burns to the anus in detention facilities . . . Several of the detainees were repeatedly threatened that they would be raped in front of their family and that their wives and daughters would also be raped. Testimonies were received from several men who stated they had been anally raped with batons and that they had witnessed the rape of boys. One man stated that he witnessed a 15-year-old boy being raped in front of his father. A 40-year-old man saw the rape of an 11-year-old boy by three security services officers.[9]:14

Human Rights Watch has also reported these sexual crimes being committed by Syrian government forces.[11]:26–8, 32–4

Syrian activists claim women were abducted and raped in rebellious parts of the country, possibly using sexual violence as a means of quelling dissent. An opposition campaigner supplied The Globe and Mail with details about six previously unknown cases of violence against women, saying that more such incidents remain hidden as Damascus struggles to contain the uprising.[46] Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey reported mass rape by Syrian soldiers, more than 400 women were raped and sexually abused.[47] On 13 August 2012 a sergeant in the special forces who had defected claimed that Alawite officers ordered the rape of teenage girls in Homs, who would be shot afterwards. The defected sergeant further said that soldiers who refused were shot by the army[48] Also in 2012, Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide angrily declared that rape during the Bosnian War “is repeating itself in Syria—tens of thousands of rapes.”[49]

A report released 14 January 2013 by the International Rescue Committee stated that a primary reason Syrian refugees flee is because of fear of rape.[50]

By late November 2013, according to the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) report entitled “Violence against Women, Bleeding Wound in the Syrian Conflict”, approximately 6,000 women have been raped (including gang-rape) since the start of the conflict - with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported. According to the EMHRN report, most were victims of government forces mostly “during governmental raids, at checkpoints and within detention facilities” and many of the rapes resulted in pregnancies.[51][52][53]

Attacks on journalists

Except for those hand-picked by the government, journalists have been banned from reporting in Syria. Those who have entered the country regardless have been targeted. Within a month of the protests taking off, at least seven local and international journalists were detained, and at least one of these was beaten.[54] Citizen journalist Mohammed Hairiri was arrested in April 2012, tortured in prison, and sentenced to death in May 2012 for giving an interview for Al Jazeera.[55] Jordanian Salameh Kaileh was tortured and detained in deplorable conditions before being deported.[56]

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 13 journalists were killed in work-related incidents during the first eighteen months of the uprising.[57] During the same period, Reporters Without Borders said a total of 33 journalists were killed.[58] Many, such as Marie Colvin, were killed by government forces,[59] but at least one, French journalist Gilles Jacquier, was killed by rebel fire.[60]

Attacks on local Christians

Local Christian minorities are also facing many human rights violations. Two bishops had been kidnapped on April 22, 2013 and have not been heard from since. Aleppo's Greek Orthodox Bishop Boulos Yazij and Syriac Orthodox Bishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped at gun point by unknown combatants when returning from a humanitarian mission to Turkey. During the kidnapping, the deacon driving them was shot and killed.

"One month after two Orthodox Christian bishops were kidnapped by gunmen in Syria, officials say they still have no idea what has happened to the missing prelates". All of which indicating that is was an action by local terror gangs.[61]


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