Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the escalating levels of violence in Syria. Syria’s air force continues to carry out indiscriminate, and in some cases deliberate, air strikes against civilians, often by using barrel bombs. The Syrian government is indiscriminately striking civilians and civilian objects in Aleppo as well as areas in Daraa and Hama governorate with unguided, high-explosive barrel bombs. The attacks continue despite a United Nations Security Council Resolution unanimously passed on February 22, 2014, demanding that all parties in Syria cease the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs and other weapons in populated areas. By analyzing satellite images recorded over the city of Aleppo between October 31, 2013, and April 2, 2014 Human Rights Watch identified at least 425 major impact sites in neighborhoods of the city held by armed groups opposed to the government. A substantial majority of these identified sites have damage signatures that are strongly consistent with the detonation of barrel bombs.
Evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch also strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014. These attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.
Despite a general amnesty for prisoners passed on 9 June 2014, the government still continues to hold peaceful activists, humanitarians, medical professionals, and journalists amongst others who are arbitrarily detained for their legitimate work.
Non-state armed groups have carried out serious abuses including indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial executions, kidnapping, and torture. Foreign fighters and jihadist groups have been among the worst perpetrators of the abuses that Human Rights Watch has documented. Non-state armed groups fighting in Syria are also using children for combat and other military purposes, and have used schools as military bases, barracks, detention centers, and sniper posts, turning places of learning into military targets and putting students at risk.
The extremist Islamist group Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) appear to have executed at least 15 civilians in northern Syria on May 29, 2014.
Neither Syrian authorities nor leaders of non-state armed groups have taken any meaningful steps to ensure credible accountability for these grave human rights crimes. The failure to hold those responsible to account has only fueled further atrocities by all sides.
Human Rights Watch believes that the Commission of Inquiry can take some additional steps to further the quest for justice for these grave abuses. In particular, the Commission should – through public letters – put high-ranking individuals on all sides on notice that they could be held criminally responsible for ongoing serious crimes by forces under their command. The Commission should also seek opportunities to highlight victims’ voices, including possibly through public hearings.
The showing of broad support on May 22, 2014 for the UN Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) from governments and nongovernmental groups alike reflects the widespread determination to achieve justice for serious crimes in Syria, and lays a strong foundation to build on despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Governments that supported that effort should remain committed to seeking justice for victims in Syria. As a next step, the HRC should recommend that the UN General Assembly call on the Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC in any resolution on Syria adopted at the HRC’s 26th Session.