A U.N. sanctioned investigative body, the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, has produced its first report.
According to Reuters, the war crimes investigators have collected an “overwhelming volume” of testimony, images and videos that implicate all parties to the conflict in human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
The report stated, “the volume of videos and other images – as well as the role played by social media – is unprecedented in any other accountability process with respect to international crimes to date.”
The Independent Mechanism, led by a former French judge Catherine Marchi-Urel, has expressed its desire to obtain information from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to monitor the use of chemical weapons in the Syria conflict since 2011.
The UN-sanctioned investigative body expects to collaborate with the Commission of Inquiry (COI) in Syria and receive evidence collected by a team of U.N. experts that has been investigating abuses in Syria for the past six years.
Headed by Paulo Pinheiro, the COI has previously accused Syrian government forces of carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity. A COI report, published on 15 March 2018, implicated Syrian government forces and government-allied militias in the sexual assault of women, girls and men from opposition areas. These acts constitute crimes against humanity.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, over 500,000 civilians have died, and more than 11 million people have been displaced. 5.4 million people have fled Syria to seek safety in neighbouring countries and beyond.
According to the BBC, Syrian civilians have suffered at the hands of chemical attacks, including the use of the deadly nerve agent sarin, phosphorus and napalm. The actors in the conflict have also used cluster munitions, barrel bombs and guided missiles. The use of these weapons indiscriminately has resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, in violation of international humanitarian law.
So far in 2018, the areas of Eastern Ghouta and Afrin have been where ground fighting and aerial bombardments are most heavily concentrated, indiscriminately maiming non-combatants.
In February 2018, President Assad’s forces stepped up its efforts to reclaim the rebel-held enclave in Eastern Ghouta, which has aggravated an already fragile humanitarian situation.
In the past few weeks of fighting, close to 1,400 civilians have been killed. 50,000 civilians have fled the siege in the past week, of which 70% are women and children according to UNICEF. The majority of those fleeing are suffering from malnutrition, diarrhoea and respiratory infections, among other worrying health conditions.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, addressed the UN Security Council on the human rights situation in Eastern Ghouta on 19 March 2018.
“The siege of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government forces, half a decade long, has involved pervasive war crimes, the use of chemical weaponry, enforced starvation as a weapon of warfare, and the denial of essential and life-saving aid – culminating in the current relentless, month-long bombardment of hundreds of thousands of terrified, trapped civilians”, he said.
Civilian evacuations started on 27 March 2018 from Eastern Ghouta, except in the city of Douma, where rebels continue to fight government forces.
The most recent disregard of international humanitarian law was instanced on 23 March 2018, when a bomb carrying napalm gas struck an underground bunker in Eastern Ghouta, killing 37 civilians. The use of napalm in warfare is prohibited under international weapons treaties.
Since 19 January 2018, a Turkish military operation into Afrin, a city in northern Syria, has maimed and killed non-combatants. The UN Secretary-General expressed concern over the exodus of at least 150,000 people from Afrin when Turkish forces overran the city centre on 18 March 2018. Activists claim that 280 civilians were killed during the 2-month operation, and the UN reported dozens of children had died in the same period. Throughout the siege on Afrin, hospitals were shut, and water supplies were cut off. Fighting in Afrin has left 350,000 people dead since 2011, and millions displaced internally.
Actors in the Syrian civil war have side-lined human rights in order to pursue political objectives. As emphasised in international humanitarian law, the protected status of non-combatants must be respected. According to the UN, an impartial, independent investigation is needed to prosecute the war crimes that have been reported. The UN has stated the sheer number of human rights abuses means it is not possible to effectively address all the war crimes that have been committed.