UN probe decries use of sieges, starvation in Syrian military strategy

UN probe decries use of sieges, starvation in Syrian military strategy

GENEVA - Agence France-Presse
UN probe decries use of sieges, starvation in Syrian military strategy

This Jan 31 file photo, released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk queuing to receive food supplies. AP photo

Syrian government forces are waging a campaign of siege warfare and starvation against civilians as part of its military strategy, a U.N.-mandated probe said March 5.

"The government employs siege warfare, instrumentalising basic human needs for water, food, shelter and medical care as part of its military strategy," the independent Commission of Inquiry on the human rights situation in Syria said in a report.

The commission, which includes legendary former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, stressed that more than 250,000 people remain besieged in war-ravaged country.

Many of them were "denied humanitarian aid, food and such basic necessities as medical care, and must choose between surrender and starvation," it said, decrying a "starvation until submission campaign." 

"Siege warfare is employed in the context of egregious human rights and international humanitarian law violations," it said, pointing to the situation in Ghouta, Daraya and Moadamiyet al-Sham in rural Damascus, the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp near the capital and the old city of Homs.

The report covers a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by both sides from mid July last year to January 20. It highlights the 20,000 people trapped in Yarmuk with no food or medical supplies.

People have nothing to eat, having exhausted all their supplies and resorted to eating plant leaves... reports of deaths from starvation were received," the report said.

Widespread torture

Opposition groups had also laid areas under siege, including the towns of Nubul and Al-Zahraa in Aleppo province, as well as part of the Al-Ghab valley in the central province of Hama, the report said.

The commission, headed by Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, was created in 2011 by the UN Human Rights Commission to look into specific abuses committed in the war, which is estimated to have killed more than 140,000 people.

The government and its allies, it said were conducting "widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity," it said.

The government forces were also responsible for war crimes, including murder, massacres, hostage-taking and using child soldiers, it said, also slamming the government's indiscriminate use of so-called barrel bombs that killed and maimed hundreds in Aleppo. Torture and other ill-treatment was also rife inside Syrian detention centres, the report said.

One witness described how a detainee had last July begged prison guards to take him to the toilet, only to be beaten to death in front of the other inmates.

Opposition guilty too

The vast array of opposition groups had also committed war crimes, including murder, executions without due process, torture, hostage-taking and rape, as well as targeting medical and religious personnel and journalists.

Worst hit were civilians in areas controlled by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Raqqa province, where they were systematically subjected to "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" which amounted to crimes against humanity.

The commission has never gained access to Syria, relying on more than 2,600 interviews in the region and from Geneva.

It has drawn up a confidential list of people and groups it believes should be held accountable. "Individual fighters and their commanders may be held accountable for their acts under international criminal law," the report said.

It also stressed the responsibility of "external actors that support the belligerents financially and logistically," and also lamented the lack of action by the U.N. Security Council.