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UN Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria

23rd Session - Statement Delivered Under Item 4

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the escalating level of violence in Syria.

In particular, we express grave concern for the safety of the remaining civilian population in al-Qusayr as well as wounded and captured fighters on all sides. Local opposition activists told Human Rights Watch that recent government attacks on fleeing civilians, including a reported attack on May 31, have made it difficult to escape and put remaining civilians, including many wounded, at great risk. They estimated that amid intense shelling approximately 8,000 civilians and another 1,200 wounded were in need of urgent assistance in al-Qusayr and nearby Eastern Buwayda and Dab`a.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited the State Security and Military Intelligence facilities in Raqqa, now under the de facto control of local armed opposition groups, in late April 2013. We found documents and potential physical evidence indicating that detainees were arbitrarily detained and tortured there while the city was under government control. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary and incommunicado detentions of peaceful protesters, activists, humanitarian assistance providers, and doctors. Local opposition forces and neutral international experts should safeguard potential evidence of torture and arbitrary detention in intelligence facilities in opposition-controlled areas so the truth can be told and those responsible held accountable.

Among those currently detained for their peaceful activism are Mazen Darwish and two of his colleagues from the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), Hussein Gharir and Hani Zaitani. They are facing trial on terrorism charges for this activism. The three activists were scheduled to appear before the Anti-Terrorism Court in Damascus on May 19 but the trial has now been postponed until June 26. If convicted the men may be imprisoned for up to 15 years for publicizing terrorist acts. Concerned states should urge the Syrian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all detainees held for merely exercising their right to free expression or assembly and drop all charges against them.

Research lead by Human Rights Watch in Northern Aleppo province in April 2013 demonstrated that the Syrian government continues to use air-dropped banned cluster bombs and indiscriminate aerial attacks in populated areas, making the airstrikes unlawful. These attacks are serious violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. Those who order or carry out such violations with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – are responsible for war crimes.

The opposition is increasingly conducting offensive operations and some opposition forces have carried out serious abuses like kidnapping, torture, indiscriminate shelling and extrajudicial executions. Abdullah Khalil, a long time human rights defender and the head of the local civilian council in Raqqa governorate before it became defunct in May 2013 was kidnapped early in the morning on May 19 from Raqqa city. Khalil was with four other men when he was abducted by unknown gunmen who commandeered his vehicle. Two of Khalil’s associates escaped while the whereabouts of Khalil and the other men remains unknown.  Khalil and the men were last observed stopping at a Jabhat al-Nusra checkpoint before they were driven out of the city. Family and friends fear he may have been abducted because of his activism and work to develop local civilian governance structures in Raqqa. Human Rights Watch urges the opposition Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army leadership to take all possible steps to hold those responsible for war crimes accountable and prevent such abuses by anyone under their command. Any party with the power to do so should do all it can to keep weapons from reaching the brigades responsible for atrocities.

Human Rights Watch repeats its call to the Human Rights Council to call for access to the Commission of inquiry and call on the United Nations Security Council to refer the Syria situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to ensure accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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