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UN rights body should mandate special inquiry into rights abuses in Aleppo

Human Rights Council Special Session on human rights situation in Aleppo

For weeks, doctors, hospital staff, activists, and journalists in eastern Aleppo have told Human Rights Watch that Russian and Syrian aircraft have relentlessly bombarded opposition-controlled parts of the city in repeated indiscriminate attacks that hit civilians and civilian infrastructure. The attacks, using barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons, have badly damaged or partially destroyed at least five hospitals. According to the UN, the offensive has killed about 320 civilians, including over 100 children.

Human Rights Watch research has shown, this latest barrage, which began with a deadly attack on a UN aid convoy and a Red Crescent warehouse in the Aleppo countryside on September 19, 2016, is happening while the Syrian government is unlawfully restricting the delivery of humanitarian aid and the movement of civilians trying to flee the fighting.

Reports indicate that even during the Russian-Syrian humanitarian pause civilians have not been able to flee in safety, including through corridors, because of sniper fire and continued clashes between armed opposition groups and Syrian government forces. Civilians in western Aleppo have also reportedly come under indiscriminate fire from opposition fighters in the eastern part of the city.

In the face of such devastation, an urgent response from the UN is desperately needed. Yet, on October 8, the Russian government abused its veto privilege for the fifth time at the Security Council, stonewalling efforts to stop the vicious assault on Aleppo's civilians.

That is why this Special Session is so timely.  The proposed resolution appropriately demands an immediate end to unlawful attacks and that aid workers be able to safely deliver humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands trapped in Aleppo. Reflecting the absolute ban on starvation as a method of warfare, it should further remind all parties of the duty to permit civilians to safely leave an urban area under siege and that the creation of humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians does not alter this duty at all times, nor relieve parties of the obligation to avoid civilian casualties and allow unimpeded and rapid aid to those who remain. Nor does the creation of humanitarian corridors relieve attacking forces of their obligation to distinguish between combatants and civilians and to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians from harm at all times and in all areas of the conflict.

The Commission of Inquiry’s special inquiry into the events in Aleppo would publicly identify those responsible for violations and abuses of international human rights law, an important step towards ensuring that perpetrators of such violations and abuses are held accountable. We note that the Commission is requested to report its findings “no later than” the Council’s 34th session. In view of the urgency of the situation, we encourage the Commission to present its findings to a special meeting of the Council as soon as possible upon completion of its investigation.

The UN should also ensure a coordinated and cohesive response to this crisis. We encourage the Commission to also present its report to the UN General Assembly, as mandated by this Council’s regular resolutions on Syria. We are encouraged that yesterday, on the request of 70 UN member states, including 9 of 15 Security Council members, the president of the General Assembly convened an informal meeting to assist UN members to determine whether to call for an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly. Given the Security Council’s failure to maintain international peace and security in this context, we urge all states to support a General Assembly Emergency Special Session on Syria. The safety of Aleppo’s besieged civilians demands nothing less.

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