What's In Blue

Arria-Formula Meeting with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Tomorrow afternoon (12 November), Security Council members are set to meet with the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in a closed Arria-formula session. This will be the sixth Arria-formula meeting with the Commission of Inquiry.

In relation to this briefing, it seems the Commission was eager for the Security Council to take up one of its regular recommendations—to brief the Council formally on a regular basis—but there was not sufficient support among Council members. Instead, the UK organised the closed Arria-formula meeting to allow for a frank exchange of views between Council members and commissioners Paulo Pinheiro and Karen Koning AbuZayd.

Pinheiro, the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, will brief on the Commission’s findings in its September report (which covered the period January through July 2015). These findings have reinforced that the main causes of civilian casualties are deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, attacks on protected objects—such as schools, hospitals and mosques—and the punitive imposition of sieges and blockades. Government violations include widespread indiscriminate and disproportionate aerial bombardment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and torture in government detention centres, extra-judicial killings, beatings and enforced disappearances. Armed opposition groups carry out indiscriminate attacks with mortars and rockets. They have also tortured and killed those they suspect of being government agents, taken hostages for ransom and besieged villages. ISIS has carried out public executions and amputations to instill fear and submission on the civilian population in districts it controls, and is responsible for forced displacement, child recruitment and the subjugation of women and girls to sexual enslavement and forced marriage.

Tomorrow there will likely be particular emphasis on the events that have unfolded since the release of the Commission’s last report, like the recent intensification of armed activities on the civilian population, especially vulnerable populations such as internally displaced persons. Many Council members will be interested to hear the commissioners’ assessment of the impact on the human rights situation in Syria of recent events, in particular the Russian military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad that began on 30 September.

Some Council members expect the commissioners to report that Syrian airspace is increasingly crowded, without directly implicating either Russia or the US-led airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The commissioners are likely to convey to Council members that an unprecedented military escalation on multiple fronts in Syria over the last two to three months has wrought severe consequences for civilians. Syrian government forces, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and Iranian and Iraqi Shi’a militia forces, with close air support from Russia, launched an offensive on 15 October against rebel-held areas of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. Regime forces, reportedly backed by Russian airstrikes, have also carried out attacks in Homs, Idlib, Hama, Dera’a and the Damascus countryside.

Council members expect the commissioners to describe the further shrinking of safe spaces for displaced civilians as fighting spreads and as neighboring states, reeling from the burden of hosting such large refugee communities, have placed restrictions on their borders. In this context, they are likely to cite the alarming UN estimates that half of the refugees trying to reach Europe by sea are Syrian, that 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced this year alone (some for the second or third time), and that 120,000 people have been displaced since early October as a direct result of the recent surge in fighting.

As with previous Arria-formula meetings with the Commission of Inquiry, tomorrow’s session is intended to keep the issue of accountability alive in Council members’ consideration of Syria. Despite the 22 May 2014 veto by China and Russia blocking referral to the ICC, the commissioners are likely to reiterate the importance of an ICC referral or of the establishment of an ad hoc international tribunal to address the ongoing and widespread impunity for atrocities committed in Syria. Several Council members are expected to emphasise the importance of the Commission’s work in collecting a body of evidence that can be used in the future, even though there is no immediate path to a judicial mechanism.

Council members will be interested in more details about the Commission of Inquiry’s work on Syria that has, since September 2011, collated more than 3,840 testimonies, enabling the Commission to identify alleged perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. (In December 2013, then High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that the Commission had produced massive evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, she indicated responsibility for these crimes was with the highest level of government, including the head of state.)

The commissioners are expected to ask Council members, especially those with influence over the parties, to ensure and commit to a comprehensive peace process. While it seems the commissioners view the Vienna talks as a positive step, they will want to underscore that any political track should respond to the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Looking ahead, Stephen O’Brien, the head of OCHA, will brief on the humanitarian situation in Syria next Monday (16 November). It is possible that the Special Representatives on Children and Armed Conflict and on Sexual Violence in Conflict may also brief the Council at that meeting.

Meanwhile, the draft resolution on indiscriminate attacks in Syria—drafted by France, Spain and the UK—is unlikely to be circulated until the drafters reassess the climate in the Council after the next round of political talks in Vienna on 14 November.

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