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An aid convoy drives through the city of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria, in March 2018 when it was still held by anti-government armed groups.  © 2018 Samer Bouidani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Brussels) – The European Union-United Nations sponsored aid conference for Syria on March 29-30, 2021, should prioritize a rights-respecting aid framework that advances urgent protection, humanitarian, and accountability needs, Human Rights Watch said today. 

The fifth conference on “Supporting the future of Syria and the region” is co-hosted by the European Union and the United Nations. Participating governments, international agencies, and institutions should ensure that they address three key areas: a principled rights-based framework for distributing aid, protecting civilians from continued abuses, and justice for atrocity crimes. Human Rights Watch also urged participating governments to address the unprecedented education crisis faced by refugees, particularly in Lebanon.

“A decade into the conflict, humanitarian needs in Syria and among Syrian refugees in neighboring countries have never been greater, while egregious human rights violations continue with impunity,” said Lotte Leicht, EU Director at Human Rights Watch. “The friends of Syria have an opportunity to build on their critical support for Syrians’ humanitarian needs by ensuring that the aid gets to civilians who need it, prioritizing protection for those in Syria, and pursuing justice for victims of horrific atrocities.”

Aid and Reconstruction

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the Syrian government has developed a policy and legal framework that allows it to divert humanitarian aid to fund atrocities, punish those perceived as opponents, and benefit those loyal to it. It has restricted access of aid organizations to communities in need, selectively approving aid projects and imposing requirements to partner with local actors linked to the abusive Syrian security services.

The humanitarian situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with large-scale crises brought about by economic collapse and the long-term impact of violations of humanitarian law. In government-held Syria, millions are going hungry, in part due to the government’s own actions, including the destruction of bakeries and agricultural crops, corruption, and restrictive policies.

In areas outside of government control, in the northeast and northwest, the situation has become more urgent with the closure of three of the four border crossings that were previously authorized by the UN Security Council. UN agencies relied on the crossings to deliver assistance to areas not under the control of the Syrian government, leaving these areas increasingly dependent on the Syrian government’s cooperation to deliver assistance to these areas, which is rarely forthcoming. The coronavirus pandemic has had a debilitating impact on health infrastructure and other aid sectors, particularly in the northwest, which were already suffering due to apparently deliberate Syrian-Russia attacks on hospitals, clinics, and other protected civilian objects.

International donors have shown significant generosity as humanitarian donors to Syria’s civilian population, but there is an urgent need to ensure that the funds earmarked for humanitarian support in Syria get to those who need them the most and are not used to facilitate violations, Human Rights Watch said.

In particular, conference participants should ensure that the UN principles and parameters for assistance in Syria, a human-rights based framework for aid endorsed by the UN secretary-general, is incorporated into the operations of UN agencies, and call for a stronger involvement of UN headquarters in oversight of systematic issues and human rights violations that arise through the assistance process.

Participants should also call on the UN Security Council to immediately and fully renew the cross-border aid delivery system, including to northeast Syria.


Active combat has declined in much of Syria, but Syrian security services continue to arbitrarily detain, torture, disappear, and harass people in government-held territories. The abuse is taking place even where the government has entered into reconciliation agreements with the people involved. In June 2020, for example, security forces beat and arrested protesters demonstrating against the government’s failure to address the country’s economic meltdown.

In areas controlled by Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of Islamist anti-government armed groups, led by the group previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, the authorities have also arbitrarily arrested activists and journalists. In areas occupied by Turkey, Turkey and the Syrian National Army, a Turkish-backed anti-government group, have arrested and illegally transferred at least 63 Syrian nationals from northeast Syria to Turkey to face trial on serious charges that could lead to life in prison, in contravention of basic protections under international law. Moreover, tens of thousands of people remain disappeared, primarily by the Syrian government but also by the Islamic State and other groups, and there is no regular access to official and makeshift detention facilities.

Conference participants should insist on the urgent release of tens of thousands of detainees and victims of disappearances, and the need to put an immediate end to rampant abuses and torture in detention facilities, as a fundamental part of any transitional process for a sustainable resolution of the Syrian conflict.

Donor countries should insist that the Syrian government provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international monitors of detention conditions to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification. The donor countries should ensure that aid groups operating in Syria prioritize monitoring detainees and returnees.

Participants should press Russia to exercise its leverage with the Syrian government to ensure urgent access to and release of detainees and victims of disappearances.

Participants should also urge Turkish authorities to stop transferring Syrian nationals from occupied areas in northeast Syria and detaining and prosecuting them in Turkey and immediately allow all detainees in their custody to contact their families, whether in Turkey or elsewhere.


All parties to the conflict in Syria have committed egregious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, with the vast majority of atrocities committed by the Syrian government and members of its security apparatus, armed forces, and militias. While evidence of these crimes has been well-documented, justice for the abuses has been limited.

Prosecutors in a few European countries are investigating and prosecuting serious crimes committed in Syria under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In April 2020, a landmark trial began in Germany against two former Syrian intelligence officials on crimes against humanity charges. One of them was convicted in February, the trail continues for the second suspect. Universal jurisdiction cases are an important avenue for addressing violations in Syria and more countries should step up and review and amend laws that make it difficult to advance justice via the universal jurisdiction route and increase their capacity to bring those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice, including by increasing funding for dedicated prosecutorial war crimes units.

In September, the Netherlands announced that it had notified Syria of its intention to hold the government accountable for torture under the United Nations Convention against Torture, a significant move that could eventually lead to proceedings against the state of Syria at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Canada took the same step in March. More is needed to build on these important measures to ensure comprehensive accountability by Syria for the horrific atrocities committed during the conflict.

Conference participants should also commit to cooperate with and support the work of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) mandated by the UN General Assembly to preserve and analyze potential evidence for use in courts that may have a mandate over these crimes now or in the future.

Participants should also expand their respective lists of those subject to targeted sanctions on the basis of ongoing human rights violations, including civilian officials and military commanders credibly implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including as a matter of command responsibility. They should also ensure that effective and functional humanitarian exemptions are provided to mitigate the spillover effects of international sanctions on Syria.

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