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The Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, shows no sign of abating. Human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law have continued over the past six months, with the regime committing indiscriminate attacks on civilians, through shelling and airstrikes, including barrel bombs and the use of cluster munitions and elephant rockets. These attacks occurred particularly in Dera’a, Aleppo and Idlib provinces and in the suburbs of Damascus. There were also reports of further use of chemical weapons including chlorine, as well as reports of indiscriminate attacks by rebels during the period. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), May saw the highest death toll of 6,657 people since the start of 2015. Regime forces have besieged civilians, blocking food, medical supplies, and sometimes water and electricity. There have been reports of the arrest, and often disappearance, of wounded persons attempting to escape to seek medical treatment.
Jailed activists are held uncharged, sometimes for years. Estimated numbers of detainees range from tens to hundreds of thousands, often held incommunicado. On 25 February, activist Louay Hussein was bailed, but has since fled the country and is carrying on his opposition activities from abroad.
On 10 March, 4,000 shocking photographs from Syria were displayed at the UN in New York. They were taken by a former military photographer and show graphic evidence of torture by the regime. In June, a Syrian Network for Human Rights report suggested over 11,000 Syrians have been tortured to death since 2011, the overwhelming majority by the regime. The report states that the victims include 157 children and 62 women. Every day, three or four Syrians die due to torture in detention centres.
On 20 February, the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) released its 9th report on the conflict from March 2011 to January 2015. It highlighted the widespread abuses carried out by the regime, and the brutality of ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other armed opposition groups.
Regime use of barrel bombs and artillery against population areas has continued. Between 20 October 2014 and 20 June 2015, the SOHR documented that 11,000 barrel bombs were dropped in Syria. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, condemned these attacks. According to Human Rights Watch’s March 2015 report, opposition groups also indiscriminately attacked civilians in government-held territory in Damascus and Homs between January 2012 and April 2014 and into 2015 with car bombs, mortars and rockets, causing numerous civilian casualties. Hospitals, medical personnel, supplies and schools were also attacked. According to the Physicians for Human Rights March report, there have been 233 attacks on 183 medical facilities since March 2011. Regime forces have also detained doctors, shot medical personnel, and detained wounded persons seeking medical attention. In mid-March chemical attacks against civilians in Idlib province were reported. The UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted resolution 2209 in early March condemning the use of chlorine gas in Syria. If confirmed, the March attacks would constitute a violation of UNSC Resolution 2209, warranting a response under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. On 23 March, the Foreign Secretary made a statement that he was “appalled” by reports of further chemical attacks and called for an investigation. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Director General subsequently ordered two fact-finding missions (FFMs) to the region to investigate, but not attribute, allegations of chemical weapons use. We expect the FFMs to report by the end of October, if not before.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights report of 16 June entitled “The Society’s Holocaust” documented 56 sectarian massacres committed between March 2011 and 13 June 2015; 49 of these incidents were reportedly carried out by pro-regime forces, while armed groups were responsible for four other mass killings. The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented in its May report that 63% of Christian places of worship have been targeted by the regime either by shelling, or used as military bases. In February, ISIL abducted over 200 Assyrian Christians, as well as attacking Christian and other religious sites. The UNSC called for the immediate and unconditional release of the Assyrians. In March, according to the Assyrian Network for Human Rights, some captives were released. In March, the UK also participated in the UNSC debate on the persecution of minorities in the Middle East. The UK called for bold leadership from governments and communities in the region to continue working for tolerance and reconciliation. The UN is developing a plan of action on preventing violent extremism.
The COI reported on the plight of women and girls. The disappearance of male relatives has social and legal consequences, including on the status of marriage, right to inheritance and social welfare, and the management of the property of the disappeared person. Government forces have committed widespread rape. According to the March statement from Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS UK), sexual violence has been a primary reason for females to flee Syria. Women and girls’ freedom of movement has been significantly curtailed. Armed groups have imposed severe restrictions on women’s movement, dress and employment. On 18 June, Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN envoy on sexual violence, stated that teenage girls are abducted by ISIL and being sold in slave markets “for as little as a pack of cigarettes or for several hundred or thousand dollars”. She said one in three women is at risk of gender-based violence and that the five-year crisis has given rise to new patterns of child and forced marriage to fighters and sexual slavery. Sexual violence is increasingly being used as a weapon of war. The June report from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network details the horrendous violations perpetrated against women by the Syrian regime, including threats, rape, degrading body searches, and sexual harassment in prisons and security branches. It also outlines the social, economic, and psychological impact of the arrest on the lives of women after their detention.
According to the SOHR, ISIL has conscripted at least 400 children as child soldiers since January. Indoctrination is widespread. High schools in ISIL-controlled Raqqa remain closed in order to encourage youths to attend the group’s military camps. Parents, fearful of their children being brainwashed, are keeping them at home. Since ISIL’s declaration of a “Caliphate” on 28 June 2014, the SOHR estimates it has executed over 3,000 people, including 1,787 civilians and 74 children. Forced conscription of Syrian minorities by the Assad regime is also on the rise. On 29 May, Free Radio Syria reported that Druze youths studying at a Latakia university were beaten in a sectarian attack reportedly spurred by Druze opposition to the regime’s mandatory military service. On 25 June, the Syrian Observer reported that regime forces in some coastal Alawite villages in the north were attempting to force young people to join their brigade, leading to tensions between these forces and locals.
On 27 March, the UN Human Rights Council, with strong UK support, adopted a resolution on Syria, condemning the regime’s use of barrel bombs and aerial bombardment, calling for full accountability for violations committed and unhindered humanitarian assistance. It also renewed the mandate of the COI for a further 12 months. Syria was also a centrepiece of the June session of the HRC, during which consolidation of support for a strong resolution was the UK’s first priority.