TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Feb18/08)
19 February 2018
Third World Network

Zeid alarmed over soaring hostilities in Syria, Yemen
Published in SUNS #8621 dated 14 February 2018

Geneva, 13 Feb (Kanaga Raja) - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mr Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein has voiced concern over the soaring violence and bloodshed, mostly caused by airstrikes, in the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta and Idlib regions of Syria, as well as over the continuing civilian casualties in Yemen as the hostilities there increase and spread.

On Syria, Zeid called for urgent international action, saying that after seven years of paralysis in the Security Council the situation in the country is crying out to be referred to the International Criminal Court, as well as for a much more concerted effort by States to bring peace.

In a UN news release on 10 February 2018, the High Commissioner said: "The past week has been one of the bloodiest periods of the entire conflict, with wave after wave of deadly airstrikes leading to civilian casualties in areas of Eastern Ghouta and Idlib."

"The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in Eastern Ghouta, were hit by airstrikes. Even by Syria's atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments -- and a cruel irony given that both have been declared "de-escalation areas"," he said.

Meanwhile, a separate statement released on 10 February 2018 by the Spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the Secretary-General is following closely the alarming military escalation throughout Syria and the dangerous spillover across its borders.

According to the statement attributable to the Spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, the latest events come as the Syrian people suffer through one of the most violent periods in nearly seven years of conflict.

Over 1,000 civilian casualties from airstrikes were reported in the first week of February alone.

The Secretary-General stressed once again that all concerned in Syria and the region have a responsibility and must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions.

He called on all to work for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation of violence and exercise restraint.

The Secretary-General further called on the parties to move swiftly toward a political solution, in line with Security Council Resolution 2254, which is the only way to end the violence and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Last week, the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria also expressed deep concern over the further escalation of violence in Idlib governorate and in eastern Ghouta.

In a press release of 6 February 2018, it said that since the beginning of the year, the increase in violence in Idlib has resulted in another upsurge of internal displacement with over a quarter of a million civilians reportedly fleeing the fighting, according to reports received by the Commission.

"These reports are extremely troubling, and make a mockery of the so-called "de-escalation zones" intended to protect civilians from such bombardment," said Mr Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the Chair of the Commission.

"The parties to this conflict are failing in their obligations under international humanitarian law, including their absolute obligation to refrain from attacks against medical facilities and personnel," he added.

The Commission said that most alarmingly, it has received multiple reports - which it is now investigating - that bombs allegedly containing weaponised chlorine have been used in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib and in Douma in eastern Ghouta.

Mounting attacks in Idlib come at a time when the escalation of violence in eastern Ghouta has also magnified the longstanding humanitarian crisis in that besieged pocket on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus, it noted.

Airstrikes and shelling of areas held by anti-government armed groups has compounded a three year siege in which nearly 400,000 civilians - including children - have had little access to basic assistance, including food, medicines and life-saving health assistance.

"What is happening in eastern Ghouta is not simply a humanitarian crisis because aid is denied, these sieges involve the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population," said the Chair of the Commission.

"It is time for all warring parties to make the lives of civilians their paramount concern," Mr Pinheiro said. "This requires unimpeded humanitarian access to the civilian population and an end to indiscriminate bombardment."

The Commission called on all parties to abide by the basic principles of international humanitarian law and to take every necessary precaution to protect civilians.

The Commission of Inquiry on Syria is expected to present an oral update to the upcoming thirty-seventh session of the UN Human Rights Council beginning later this month.

According to the UN news release of 10 February 2018, the UN Human Rights Office, in all, has received reports indicating that at least 277 civilians have been killed between 4 and 9 February - 230 of them by airstrikes by the Syrian Government and its allies - with a further 812 civilians injured, taking the total number of civilian casualties during the first week of February to around 1,074.

"My staff in the region have catalogued dozens of specific incidents that have reportedly led to deaths, injuries and destruction of vital infrastructure over the past week," Zeid said.

"These range from a rolling series of airstrikes on residential areas of Duma on 6 February which reportedly killed at least 31 civilians, including 12 women and four children, and injured more than 100 others, including 37 children, to a strike the previous day on a blood bank in Saraqab city in Idlib, which had already been rendered inoperable by an earlier airstrike in January."

In all, the High Commissioner said, his staff had received reports of airstrikes damaging no fewer than nine separate medical facilities ranging from a key hospital that was still functioning in Idlib, to a mental health care facility and a medical clinic in Kafr Batna in Eastern Ghouta.

So-called "first responders" - paramedical staff and volunteers - were also killed and injured in a number of locations after second, third or fourth rounds of airstrikes apparently deliberately targeted places that had already been hit earlier in the day.

In Idlib, where at least two million civilians reside, the air and ground offensive by Syrian Government forces and their allies, as well as leading to civilian casualties and extensive destruction, has also reportedly resulted in the displacement - for many of them repeated - of thousands of civilians, said the news release.

UN Human Rights Office staff have received reports - including video footage - suggesting that in one instance, on 4 February, toxic agents may have been released following airstrikes on a residential area of eastern Saraqab city, although there were no reported deaths during this attack.

According to the news release, the dramatically increased number of airstrikes and ground-based strikes on the besieged Rural Damascus area of Eastern Ghouta, where some 350,000 people are believed to remain trapped, have killed at least 210 civilians - over a quarter of them children and 42 of them women - mostly between 5 and 8 February.

A total of at least 671 civilians have also allegedly been injured in the Eastern Ghouta attacks, with a school and a kindergarten damaged alongside the three medical facilities.

The news release said that numerous rockets and mortars continue to be fired from opposition-held areas into populated areas of Government-held capital Damascus and surrounding suburbs, with at least seven civilians reported killed and 18 others injured in various locations between 6 and 9 February.

Other parts of Syria continue to be affected by past or current fighting. In the Afrin district in the north-west controlled by Kurdish forces, a Turkish-led offensive launched on 20 January is placing large numbers of civilians at risk.

There have been reports of civilians including children being killed and injured as a result of airstrikes and ground-based strikes. Some inhabitants wishing to flee are apparently being prevented from doing so by Kurdish forces.

In the east of the country, airstrikes and ground-based strikes continue in areas still under ISIL control - primarily in Deir-ez-Zor Governorate - with reports of civilian casualties, although the greatest threat now faced by civilians in such areas are improvised explosive devices and other explosive remnants of war.

According to the UN news release, civilians in, or returning to, Ar-Raqqa Governorate continue to face major hardships after the expulsion of ISIL forces late last year.

Their ability to enjoy basic human rights remains severely restricted given the large-scale destruction of homes and key infrastructure during the fighting, and the large quantities of explosive objects scattered among the ruins.

"Numerous parties have been involved in the conflict in Syria over the past seven years," said Zeid.

"The various Governments involved profess to adhere to international humanitarian and human rights law, and some armed opposition groups similarly profess to adhere to international humanitarian law - and yet violations of international law continue on a daily basis, despite the creation of so-called "de-escalation areas" in 2017," he added.

According to the news release, deaths and inhuman treatment resulting from the failure to allow for the care and collection of the sick and wounded in Eastern Ghouta; the destruction of protected structures and other objects essential for the survival of the civilian population in both Idlib and Eastern Ghouta; and the bombardment of civilian areas in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, and the city of Damascus may, depending on the circumstances, all constitute war crimes.

"The term "de-escalation area" is becoming all too reminiscent of the so-called "safe areas" in Bosnia, which proved anything but safe, as we were starkly reminded during the recent trials of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic," Zeid pointed out.

"But the conflict in Bosnia was brought to a halt by the international community after four years. The Syrian conflict has continued, with active involvement by other states, for seven blood-soaked years with no end in sight. The prevailing climate of impunity has to be addressed and civilians must be protected".

"After seven years of paralysis in the Security Council, the situation in Syria is crying out to be referred to the International Criminal Court, as well as for a much more concerted effort by States to bring peace. The conduct and management of this war has been utterly shameful from the outset, and the failure to end it marks an epic failure of global diplomacy," the High Commissioner concluded.


In a separate UN news release of 12 February, the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the continuing civilian casualties in Yemen.

"The upsurge in fighting in the south-western Governorate of Taizz is of particular concern. Civilians are under fire on all sides, as Houthi and affiliated forces carry out sniper attacks and indiscriminate shelling, and the Saudi-led Coalition continues to conduct airstrikes. For the civilians in the city of Taizz, the conflict is not just escalating but inescapable," said Zeid.

Among the incidents verified by the UN Human Rights Office, three children were killed when Houthi forces shelled Usayfrah in Al Qahirah district in Northern Taizz on 6 February.

On 8 February, a woman working as a field monitor for the Yemen National Commission of Inquiry, Reeham Badr Al Dhubhani, was killed in shelling by Houthi forces on Al-Lasb area in Salh district.

"Reeham Badr Al Dhubhani had received training from my Office in carrying out human rights monitoring, and we send our profound condolences to her family and friends. We grieve [for] her, as we grieve for all the thousands of Yemenis whose lives have been destroyed by this bitter conflict," said the Rights chief.

According to the news release, increased armed clashes in Taizz between Houthi-affiliated forces and those loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in recent weeks have also fuelled fears that the violence will spread from suburban areas of Taizz City to other neighbourhoods, including the densely populated area of Alhuban.

Between 1 and 8 February, the UN Human Rights Office verified that 27 people were killed and 76 injured in Yemen - more than double the number of civilian casualties confirmed during the previous week.

The actual figures are likely to be higher. Most of the casualties were attributed almost equally to the warring parties - 48 to the Coalition, and 51 to the Houthi forces. Two were killed by drones, one by Al Qaeda and in one case the perpetrator is unknown.

During this period, the UN Human Rights Office also documented sniping and indiscriminate shelling by Houthi forces in frontline areas in Hudaydah and Hajja Governorates, and airstrikes by the Coalition on areas under the control of the Houthi forces, including in Sana'a, Sa'ada, Hudaydah and Amran Governorates.

Eight civilians, including a woman and a child, were killed and 32 injured on 4 February when three airstrikes hit a Ministry of the Interior building in Thahban area, Bani Al Harith district, in Amanat Al Asimah Governorate.

According to the UN news release, UN Human Rights Office monitors who visited the scene said there did not appear to be any military objects near the building, which had previously been hit in January 2016.

"The parties to this conflict are obliged to take constant care to spare the civilian population, respecting the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. I remind them that any intentional, direct attack against civilians or civilian objects is considered a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and that they should take all feasible precautions to avoid, and in any event, minimise, the impact of violence on civilians," Zeid said.

Since March 2015 and as of 8 February 2018, the UN Human Rights office had documented 15,467 civilian casualties, with 5,974 killed and 9,493 injured.

Meanwhile, in a statement on Yemen issued on 12 February, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr Mark Lowcock, reiterated UN Secretary-General Guterres' statement welcoming the US$1 billion pledge by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to support humanitarian action in Yemen, as well as their commitment to raise an additional $500 million from other donors in the region.

According to the statement of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Saudi Arabia and the UAE agreed with the UN on 12 February on modalities to transfer, by 31 March, $930 million in support of the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP).

An additional $70 million will be provided bilaterally by the two countries to support port rehabilitation and infrastructure in Yemen.

If fully funded, the UN and its partners will provide, among other assistance, emergency food to more than 8.5 million Yemenis, nutritional services to 5.6 million children, pregnant women and mothers, and safe water to 5.4 million people.

The UN and its partners will also rehabilitate more than 1,400 schools and 650 health facilities destroyed by the ongoing conflict, said the statement.

It noted that the humanitarian situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate because of the ongoing conflict, collapsing basic services and economic decline. A record 22.2 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance - 3.4 million more than last year.

Mr Lowcock called on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law by protecting civilians and civilian infrastructure and facilitating rapid, safe and unfettered humanitarian access to Yemen and within the country.