March 22, 2013

When we arrived in downtown Aleppo, Syria, at noon on February 23, families and first responders were still retrieving the dead from the rubble. Government-launched ballistic missiles had struck two densely populated areas in the opposition-controlled part of the city the evening before, when families were gathering in their homes. A number of crowded apartment buildings were levelled in each attack. Four strikes that week in the Aleppo area killed 141 people, including 71 children.

We went to Aleppo as part of a Human Rights Watch investigative mission. We could see no trace of any military target in the vicinity of where these missiles had struck. Nor was there any sign of the international community, which had earlier taken responsibility for protecting women and children from precisely these kinds of war crimes.

I was in the United Nations General Assembly hall in 2005, when the heads of governments, from Russia to South Africa, China to the United States, solemnly swore they would never again be passive bystanders when faced with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

All eyes will therefore be on the leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the Brics grouping) as they meet in Durban on March 26 and 27.

There is an expectation that the countries that have so far done little to come to the relief of the Syrian people and have vetoed or abstained from security council resolutions calling for action, as the Brics members have done, should implement meaningful initiatives to stop the Syrian government's violent repression, break the cycle of atrocities by all parties and assist and protect civilians.

The situation was of "deep concern" to the Brics leaders, they said in their summit declaration when they met last year. By then, 9000 Syrians had been killed. Now, the reasons to act should be increased tenfold – the death toll, according to the UN, exceeds 70 000. The Brics should break with the past and show that the international community has the will to tackle its own impotence in the face of mounting atrocities.

Instead of spending so much time defining what they do not want to happen, they should take meaningful initiatives of their own. Brics member Russia should agree to end military support for a government firing ballistic missiles on crowded apartment blocks. All Brics leaders should condemn all atrocities and support international accountability and justice for war criminals on both sides.

Caught in the crossfire
The Brics should also call for the Syrian government to permit the delivery of humanitarian aid across its borders, including from Turkey. In Aleppo, we could see little trace of any international humanitarian relief for the large civilian population under attack or caught in the crossfire. The same is true of other war-torn towns across Syria.

We saw local people using their bare hands to dig the dead from the rubble. There are no hospital beds or medical relief for many of the critically wounded. There is too little food, no water in the pipes and no electricity for heating or lighting crowded apartment blocks.

"Why do you stay here, of all places?" I asked the desperate people we met in a damp, cold, dark and crowded building. One resident replied: "We tried to find shelter, relief and protection elsewhere, but there was only humiliation to be found, so we returned to our homes here at the frontline."

Since the conflict began, humanitarian agencies from the UN to the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent have had their access restricted by the Syrian government and they have faced serious security constraints from all armed actors. Combined with lack of sufficient funding for humanitarian aid, Syria's prohibition of cross-border relief to opposition-held areas means that even the most basic relief is out of reach for millions of Syrians.

If the Brics' diplomats were to meet the civilians in the Syrian crossfire, they would see how schools, hospitals, bakeries and apartment houses have been targeted by grenades, rockets, missiles and aerial attacks.

They could hear the direct experience of those who live there, as we did when we spoke to one, Ghassan, at what was once his brother's house in Aleppo: "I was having evening tea with my brother, as I used to every evening in his house. Just after I had left at 6pm, the sky was lit up by a tremendous flash from the Scud [missile] and all the air was sucked away. The explosion was deafening. When I ran back, my brother's house was gone. We managed to find my five nieces and nephews between three and 17 years old. They were all dead under the rubble. We still have not found my brother. When will anybody stop this madness?"

Jan Egeland is Europe Director and Deputy Executive Director at Human Rights Watch