(New York) – Syria’s newly created opposition front should send a clear message to opposition fighters that they must adhere to the laws of war and human rights law, and that violators will be held accountable. Countries financing or supplying arms to opposition groups should send a strong signal to the opposition that they expect it to comply strictly with international human rights and humanitarian law.
Syrian opposition factions signed an agreement in Qatar on November 11, 2012, to create a new umbrella grouping, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the National Coalition). The unity accord states that the National Coalition “supports the unification of the revolutionary military councils under the leadership of a supreme military council,” will establish a “national judicial commission,” and will “form a provincial government after gaining international recognition.” The accord will come into force once it has been ratified by its members.
“Ending abuses by armed members of the opposition should be a top priority for the new coalition,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It should make a public commitment to uphold international norms, vet armed groups for violations before providing them support, and hold violators to account.”
Human Rights Watch has documented more than a dozen extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces and torture and mistreatment in opposition-run detention facilities. Opposition leaders have told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses, but there is no evidence that they have taken steps to end the abuses or hold those responsible for abuses accountable.
Torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and torture or executions of civilians may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread or systematic as part of a state or organizational policy.
On November 1, video evidence emerged that shows armed gunmen affiliated with the opposition apparently carrying out a mass summary killing of men in their custody. In the footage, the members of the armed group open fire on and kill at least 10 men. According to the opposition groups that posted the footage it is filmed after opposition fighters captured the Hamisho government checkpoint near Saraqeb, Idlib.
Preliminary evidence implicates two armed opposition groups in the killings: the Der` al-Jabal Brigade and Dawud Batallion of the Soukour al-Sham coalition.
The video of the execution was first posted on the Der` al-Jabal brigade YouTube channel but was taken down after a public outcry about the executions. The same channel added two new videos on November 4 that were apparently taken from the soldiers operating the Hamisho checkpoint showing them drinking and dancing the day before the attack. The Dawud Batallion also posted a video montage of the entire operation to take over the Hamisho checkpoint. Human Rights Watch is unable to confirm the veracity of these videos.
Everyone in the custody of the opposition Free Syrian Army and other opposition forces, including members of the Syrian security forces and shabeeha, should be treated humanely in accordance with international humanitarian law and human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said.
“Syria’s new opposition coalition needs to make it clear that it envisions a Syria that turns the page on violations by armed gunmen,” Whitson said.
In statements to the media, the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Hassem Al-Thani, called for the National Coalition to be recognized as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. On November 12 Abdulatif al-Zayani, the Gulf Cooperation Council secretary general, announced that it would recognize the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
On November 13, the European Union and the League of Arab States will meet in Cairo to discuss providing support to the National Coalition. The United Kingdom foreign secretary, William Hague, has also announced that on November 16 the UK will host a donor meeting with representatives from the National Coalition to discuss support.
All countries providing diplomatic, financial, and other support to the National Coalition should encourage it to make adherence to the laws of war and human rights law a priority, Human Rights Watch said.
Military and civilian Syrian opposition leaders should immediately take all possible measures to end the use of torture and executions by opposition groups, including condemning and prohibiting such practices, Human Rights Watch said.
Military and civilian Syrian opposition leaders should investigate abuses, hold those responsible to account in accordance with international human rights law, and invite recognized international detention monitors to visit all detention facilities under their control. Initiatives to have armed opposition groups adopt and enforce codes of conduct that promote respect for human rights and international humanitarian law should be encouraged.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented and condemned widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, enforced disappearances, use of torture, and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has concluded thatgovernment forces have committed crimes against humanity.
The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would have jurisdiction to investigate violations by both government and opposition forces, Human Rights Watch said. Russia and China should support such a referral.