(Beirut, July 28, 2016) – Syria’s and Russia’s creation of humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians besieged in eastern Aleppo in Syria does not relieve them of their obligation to avoid civilian casualties and allow aid to those who remain.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on July 28, 2016, that Russia and Syria will open three humanitarian corridors out of eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to flee, and a fourth corridor for surrendering fighters. The previous day Syrian forces, with the assistance of Russian aircraft, completed their encirclement of eastern Aleppo, gaining control over all roads to the area. The Syrian army dropped flyers in eastern Aleppo advising residents to leave areas where fighters were present and providing a map of the four humanitarian corridors out of the city.
“Syria and Russia should provide civilians with safe exit routes, but these routes can’t be used to presume that no civilians remain or to justify attacks against those who do,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “Many civilians may be unable or afraid to leave, and those who don’t or can’t evacuate remain entitled to protection from attack.”
The United Nations estimates that eastern Aleppo currently has a population of between 250,000 and 275,000, and aid agencies estimate that a third of them have been dependent on aid delivered via the recently closed Castello Road.
The state-appointed governor of Aleppo province said that three corridors were now open and that the local authorities have “set up temporary shelters to welcome citizens leaving Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods.” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also issued a decree to provide amnesty for members of armed groups who surrender within three months.
Feras Badawi, a local journalist in the eastern part of the city, said that “there are no corridors open yet, and we don’t trust that they will let us out. If we wanted to leave Aleppo, we would have done so earlier. One of the corridors the flyers said was safe and open is Bustan al-Qasr, but we are getting news that the Syrian army is targeting it with artillery weapons.”
Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, from Aleppo’s Syria Civil Defense, a search-and-rescue organization that operates in opposition-held Syria, said that to his knowledge the three corridors were not yet open. He added that many Aleppo residents “refused to go” to government-held areas and wanted safe passage to rural areas in northern Aleppo controlled by armed groups.
Residents of eastern Aleppo and aid workers told Human Rights Watch by phone that as the Syrian government siege has tightened since July 11, food prices have soared and supplies have decreased to alarming levels. UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council on July 25 that food in eastern Aleppo is expected to run out by the middle of August.
Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict should take all feasible steps to evacuate the civilian population from the vicinity of fighting or military objects. The creation of humanitarian corridors and the issuance of effective advance warnings of attack to the civilian population do not relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm. That is, the corridors and warnings do not permit Syria and Russia to treat civilians who remain in eastern Aleppo as combatants subject to attack.
All parties are also obligated to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need. Starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited.
Armed groups in eastern Aleppo should not block or impede the evacuation of those wishing to leave and avoid deploying military forces in or near densely populated areas, Human Rights Watch said.
“Russia and Syria’s humanitarian gesture will be more credible if their relentless indiscriminate attacks on eastern Aleppo stop and civilians can safely leave the city,” Houry said.