January 30, 2014

Summary

After the demolition in Wadi al-Jouz, the army came to our neighborhood with loudspeakers. They said that they would destroy our neighborhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Jouz and Masha` al-Arb`een should a single bullet be fired from here.
¾A woman who observed the destruction of the Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood from an adjacent neighborhood.

Since July 2012, Syrian authorities have deliberately demolished thousands of residential buildings, in some cases entire neighborhoods, using explosives and bulldozers, in Damascus and Hama, two of Syria’s largest cities. Government officials and pro-government media outlets have claimed that the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings. However, the demolitions were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces. These circumstances, as well as witness statements and more candid statements by government officials reported in the media indicate that the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and in violation of international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch concluded that seven cases of large-scale demolitions documented in this report violated the laws of war either because they served no necessary military purpose and appeared intended to punish the civilian population, or because they caused disproportionate harm to civilians. Those responsible for the wanton destruction of civilian property or for imposing collective punishment have committed war crimes and should be investigated and held to account.

The first incident of large-scale demolitions documented by Human Rights Watch took place in July 2012. Satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows that since then, the Syrian authorities have demolished a total of at least 145 hectares—an area equivalent to about 200 soccer fields—of mostly residential buildings in seven neighborhoods in Hama and Damascus. Many of the demolished buildings were apartment blocks several stories high, some as many as eight. Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions.

All of the documented demolitions took place in areas widely considered by the authorities and by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch to be opposition strongholds. As far as Human Rights Watch knows, there have been no similar demolitions in areas that generally support the government, although many houses in those areas were also allegedly built without the necessary permits.

Some of the demolitions took place after heavy fighting between government and opposition forces. In Damascus, for example, government authorities demolished residential buildings in the Tadamoun and Qaboun neighborhoods immediately after government forces pushed back an opposition military offensive in the capital in mid-July 2012. Two neighborhoods in Hama that government forces destroyed in September-October 2012 and April-May 2013, had allegedly been used by opposition fighters to move in and out of the city.

Some of the demolitions took place around government military or strategic objectives that opposition forces had attacked, such as the Mezzeh military airport, the Damascus international airport, and the Tishreen military hospital in the Barzeh neighborhood. While the authorities might have been justified in taking measures to protect these military or strategic objectives, the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, in some cases kilometers from these objectives, appears to have been disproportionate and in violation of international law.

Some government and military officials have been more forthcoming about the real reason for the demolitions. The governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, explicitly stated in a media interview in October 2012 that the demolitions were essential to drive out opposition fighters. After the demolition of the Wadi al-Jouz neighborhood in Hama city in May 2013, the military warned residents in other neighborhoods that their houses would also be demolished if opposition fighters attacked government forces from these neighborhoods, according to a witness in an adjacent neighborhood.

Local residents told Human Rights Watch that government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that they had received no compensation. Several house owners claimed that contrary to the government’s stated pretext for the demolitions, they had all the necessary permits and documents for their houses, but their homes were nevertheless destroyed. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify this claim. Human Rights Watch has not documented that anybody was injured or killed in the process of these demolitions.

Under the laws of war, parties to a conflict may only attack military objectives. The intentional or wanton destruction of civilian property is unlawful unless the property is being used for a military purpose, such as for the deployment of opposing forces. However, civilian property may be destroyed if future use by opposing forces, for example to stage an attack, is expected and imminent and only so long as the expected harm caused to civilians and civilian property is proportionate to the anticipated military advantage. Destroying property merely to punish the population is always prohibited.

In areas that have not been under the control of or face no immediate threat by opposition armed groups, a warring party might lawfully seek to demolish civilian property for longer term security reasons. This would concern, for instance, civilian structures very close to military bases or airports. The laws of war place an obligation on parties to a conflict, to the extent feasible, to remove civilians and civilian objects from the vicinity of military objectives. In accordance with international human rights law, such demolitions would need to be carried out with adequate notice, consultation, and compensation to those affected.

This report is based on detailed analysis of 15 commercial satellite images and interviews with 16 witnesses to the demolitions and owners whose houses were demolished. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed media reports, government decrees, and videos of the destruction and its aftermath posted on YouTube.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Syrian government to immediately end demolitions that are in violation of international law and provide compensation and alternative housing to the victims. Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.