Syria: Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights*
This afternoon (19 March), the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is expected to brief the Council on the human rights situation in Syria. The meeting was requested by France, with the support of the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Sweden, the UK and the US. It seems that Bolivia, China and Russia have opposed convening this session, but it does not appear that there would be the requisite votes needed to prevent the meeting from happening. If holding the meeting were to be contested, the ensuing vote would be a procedural one, requiring nine affirmative votes to pass (i.e. to hold the meeting) and it would not be subject to the veto.
In the midst of marked military escalation in recent weeks, Al Hussein has been an outspoken critic of the situation in Syria. As Council members negotiated resolution 2401 demanding a cessation of hostilities, while deadly airstrikes leading to civilian casualties continued in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib in early February, Al Hussein said that “[t]he term ‘de-escalation area’ is becoming all too reminiscent of the so-called ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia, which proved anything but safe”. In a 21 February statement, he asked: “[h]ow much cruelty will it take before the international community can speak with one voice to say enough dead children, enough wrecked families, enough violence, and take resolute, concerted action to bring this monstrous campaign of annihilation to an end?”. At today’s briefing, he is expected to reiterate his concerns at the ongoing military offensive by the government in Eastern Ghouta, which continues to result in civilian casualties and led to the evacuation of thousands of civilians in the last week alone.
The situation in Afrin is also expected to feature in the briefing, particularly after the town of Afrin was taken over by the Turkish military yesterday. Throughout the offensive, Al Hussein has been expressing alarm at the impact of the violence on civilians, threatened by airstrikes and ground-based attacks and prevented from escaping by Kurdish forces.
Al Hussein is also expected to brief the Council on the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria established by the Human Rights Council. In particular, he will likely brief Council members on the Commission’s 15 March report on sexual and gender-based violence in Syria. The report concludes that rapes and other acts of sexual violence carried out by government forces and associated militias formed part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, and amount to crimes against humanity. The report also concluded that members of armed groups have on occasion used their position to rape and commit other forms of sexual violence against women and girls, which amount to war crimes. According to the Commission of Inquiry, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (the latest iteration of Al Nusra Front) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) caused severe physical and psychological harm to women, girls, and men. The report states that ISIL’s deprivation of the fundamental rights of sexual minorities amounts to persecution, which is a crime against humanity.
Al Hussein is expected to reiterate the need for accountability in Syria. The 1 February report of the Commission of Inquiry described how civilians have not only been the unintentional victims of violence, but have often been deliberately targeted through unlawful means and methods of warfare and have been denied any modicum of justice. At an urgent 2 March debate of the Human Rights Council, Al Hussein mentioned that the perpetrators of crimes in Syria “must know they are being identified; that dossiers are being built up with a view to their prosecution; and that they will be held accountable for what they have done”. In this context, he mentioned the need to support the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, which was established in December 2016 by the General Assembly to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for international crimes committed in Syria since March 2011. He reiterated his view that the situation in Syria should be referred to the ICC.
Since the adoption of resolution 2401 on 24 February, the Council has remained heavily engaged on Syria with three open briefings (S/PV.8195, S/PV.8201 and S/PV.8206) and one briefing in consultations. An Arria-formula meeting was also convened on 12 March.
Since the civil war started in Syria in March 2011, a number of briefings on the human rights aspects of the conflict have been provided to the Council and its members. However, the briefing today will be only the second public briefing focused specifically on the human rights situation in Syria since the beginning of the conflict. The one previous occasion such a briefing was held was on 16 July 2013, when the Council was briefed on the situation in Syria by then Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović (S/PV.7000). At the same time, it should be noted that Al Hussein made Syria an important focus of his briefing during a March 2015 open debate on the situation of persecuted ethnic or religious minorities in the Middle East (S/PV.7419), while Al Hussein’s predecessor in the post of the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, briefed on Syria in consultations on five occasions between 2011 and April 2014.
*Post-Script: The meeting did not take place, following the failure of a procedural motion to convene the meeting. Bolivia, China, Kazakhstan and Russia voted against the motion, while Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia abstained on it. In lieu of a formal meeting, Hussein briefed members in an Arria-formula format.