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The human rights situation in Syria remains appalling. The Syria conflict will enter its sixth year in March 2016. It has killed more than 250,000 and displaced around 11 million, of which 6.5 million are internally displaced, while 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs figures). The Asad Regime continues to be the largest perpetrator of human rights violations, as well as disregarding international humanitarian law and UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. The terrorist groups Daesh and Al Nusra Front (al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) also continue to commit gross violations of international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Some other non-state armed groups also commit violations. As a result of the continued violence, the conflict has seen the biggest flow of refugees since World War II.
Civilians have been unlawfully killed by the regime as a result of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian residential areas, schools and medical facilities with artillery, mortars, barrel bombs and chemical agents. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Russia of indiscriminately bombing civilian areas, using cluster munitions, and targeting key civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and bakeries. The Asad regime uses airstrikes and barrel bombs as a tactic to try to weaken opposition areas and instil fear in civilians. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the percentage of women and children killed by the regime and Russian forces reached 32% of the total civilian death toll during December 2015.
Some other non-state armed groups also committed violations. Daesh continued to commit extensive violations, carrying out indiscriminate suicide attacks and other bombings in civilian areas, as well as perpetrating numerous unlawful executions, including of minors. Other groups also indiscriminately shelled areas containing civilians perceived to support the government, or conducted suicide attacks. We will continue to press for the protection of civilians in the UNSC, where we have secured vital resolutions to improve humanitarian access and seek accountability for chemical weapons attacks. These resolutions have also consistently called for an end to attacks on civilians. As a member of the International Syria Support Group, the UK has also been at the forefront of efforts to seek a Cessation of Hostilities in Syria and improve humanitarian access.
The use of chemical weapons remains a concern, despite the destruction of Syria’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons. The UK continues to believe that both the Asad regime and Daesh have used chemical weapons in Syria. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapon’s Fact Finding Mission confirmed the use of sulphur mustard in Marea, and the “likely use” of chemical weapons (chlorine) in Idlib on several occasions in 2015.
Lengthy sieges, mainly by regime forces, have deprived civilians of food, medical assistance and other basic necessities, leading to severe malnutrition and even starvation. In 2015 only 10% of all requests submitted by the UN to the regime to access besieged and hard-to-reach areas were approved and delivered (UN Refugee Agency). The UN believes that of the 4.6 million people living in what it terms “hard-to-reach” areas of Syria, nearly 486,700 are besieged. The UN Secretary-General’s report on Syria, (December 2015), notes that “parties to the conflict continued to entirely or heavily restrict access to besieged areas”.
Arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance by regime security forces is widespread and systematic, constituting a crime against humanity, according to Amnesty International. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that more than 80,000 Syrians have been imprisoned by the regime during this conflict. These include peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media representatives, medics and humanitarian workers, as well as children. Many face prolonged detention without trial, or unfair trials. Dependent female relatives are often left with no means of supporting themselves or their children. Without confirmation of death they are in legal limbo, unable to inherit or sell property, or remarry. Women and men have suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence by government personnel while held in detention facilities. Security forces systematically torture and otherwise ill treat detainees with impunity; thousands of detainees are reported to have died due to torture or the inhuman conditions. Testimonies from former prisoners reveal deaths from suffocation or starvation as well as torture, with overcrowded cells housing over 50 or more people instead of five. The UK supported UNSC Resolution 2139, which condemns and calls for the cessation of the practice of enforced disappearances.
The Asad regime released high-profile political prisoner and human rights activist, Mazen Darwish, on 10 August 2015. Darwish and two of his colleagues had been imprisoned since February 2012 on charges of inciting terrorism and acts against the state. The charges against all three were later dropped.
Increased violence against Syrian women affects not only those in active conflict zones but also refugees and the internally displaced. Syrian women are exposed to various forms of violence and abuse, including increased domestic violence, early and forced marriage, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances. Women and girls living under Daesh control are subject to intolerable conditions – work and freedom of movement, including access to education, are severely curtailed. Yezidi women and children continue to be kept as sexual slaves by Daesh. We have a long-standing commitment to accountability for human rights violations and abuses. As the political process on Syria has gathered pace, we have worked hard to ensure inclusion of women throughout. We sought strong language on women’s inclusion in UNSC Resolution 2254. We worked with the Syrian opposition to encourage the inclusion of women in both the High Negotiations Committee and in their negotiating team in Geneva. We have also been working with UN Special Envoy De Mistura to prioritise women’s inclusion.
The UK’s involvement in supporting women in conflict goes beyond the political process. In partnership with other donor countries, the UK is directly funding two projects as part of its Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to improve the Syrian capacity to gather evidence of human rights abuses and document crimes of sexual violence. The UK is also supporting media projects to empower women, and to promote advocacy for policy solutions to sexual violence. We are prominent advocates of the need for accountability, consistently calling for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
Syrian children continue to be particularly vulnerable: they have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, witnessed violence and brutality, and are susceptible to malnutrition and disease. Warring parties forcibly recruit children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles. According to UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund), over 2.5 million children in Syria are not attending school. UNICEF states that the war has reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children. Child labour has also increased as children have to work to support their families. They often labour in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay. Without adequate income to support their families and fearful of their daughters being abused, parents – especially single mothers – may opt to arrange marriage for girls, even when they are underage.
Some minorities in Syria remain under threat, and may be caught up in the crossfire or targeted by extremists. Thousands of Christians have been forced from their homes by the threat from extremist groups such as Daesh and Al Nusra Front. In areas seized by Daesh such as Al Qaryatayn, Christians have been ordered to convert to Islam, pay jizya (a religious levy), or face death. Hundreds of Assyrian Christians continue to be held by Daesh, while thousands more have fled from their homes in fear of Daesh. Senior Christian clerics have also been kidnapped by unknown gunmen – suspicion for the abductions has fallen on Al Nusra Front. Amnesty International alleged Kurdish fighters have forced the displacement of thousands of Arab and Turkmen civilians in Kurdish areas.
The UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) continues to investigate human rights abuses and violations despite the fact that their investigations are restricted by the denial of access to the Syrian Arab Republic. Their unique, independent role is extremely important in ensuring that abuses and violations are documented so that perpetrators can be held to account. The UK supports the renewal of the COI mandate.