Ana Maria Luca

War crimes in Syria

Human Rights Watch researcher Ole Solvang, reporting from Idlib, in Syria. (Image via YouTube)

Group executions, 95 civilians killed—three of them children—women who found their husbands and sons’ bodies lying in the streets, hundreds of political detainees, people vanishing into thin air, destroyed towns. All after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to UN envoy Kofi Annan that the Syrian army would stop targeting civilians and agreed to implement a six-point peace plan.

A new Human Rights Watch report released today reveals accounts based on a field investigation conducted the towns of Taftanaz, Saraqeb, Sarmeen, Kelly and Hazano in the Idlib governorate in late March and the beginning of April. The researchers managed to find their way into Idlib and document first-hand the humanitarian situation and the human rights abuses committed by the government forces against civilians. HRW also called on the UN Security Council to ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

NOW Lebanon spoke with Nadim Houry, HRW’s head of office in Beirut, to discuss the report and how it can impact the international community’s approach on Syria.

This is not the first report on Syria that HRW releases.

Houry: This is probably the fifth. The first one was on Daraa, we also released one on Homs, then we also wrote one on the command and the orders they were receiving. We released a report on executions, called “In Cold Blood,” and we just released this one.

What makes this one different from the previous ones?

Houry: Each report has looked at different things and different areas. Even in some cases we documented similar patterns. This latest report I think is different because we had researchers on the ground. Another point to highlight is that these killings took place while at the same time there were very active negotiations for a ceasefire and there were serious commitments that the ceasefire would be enacted.  At the same time we were seeing the Syrian army rushing from town to town. We could see it very clearly: They spent two days in one town and then moved to another town for another two to three days, leaving a trail of destruction behind, trying to crush the opposition, including the armed opposition in these towns, before enacting the ceasefire.

How did the researchers get in, and why did they choose Idlib?

Houry: Because it’s easier to get in. I can’t talk too much about how they made it there. But I think that Idlib was chosen because it was most affected. It is not the only one, but it is one of the areas that has been most affected over the last two months. It is also an area where we know there have been serious violations committed, and we had already reported on them around the city of Idlib, and we wanted to investigate what happened after the Syrian army had actually moved north from Idlib city to these towns. We also had a network of activists and refugees we had talked to [whom we had met] in Turkey. We felt it was important to go investigate these claims on the ground, where they happened.

Were the researchers in any danger while documenting for the report?

Houry: There is always a risk in going in places like Syria, and that risk is mostly posed by the fact that the Syrian government has been targeting activists, local and international, who are trying to document and spread information. We have seen what has been happening to many Syrian activists who have been filming the protests. Of course there is risk. We approached the mission with great care; we planned it very carefully, not just because there is a risk for HRW staff but for anyone who helps HRW staff. We tried to take all the precautions and work in a way that minimizes the risks. Unfortunately, there is always a risk, and this is why one of our key demands has been and will be—we have written to the Syrian government multiple times—access for human rights groups.

And the answer was?

Houry: We haven’t gotten an answer. Ultimately, if the Syrian government wants to be taken seriously in front of the international forums, it will have to start allowing human rights groups, the UN commission of inquiry, journalists to go in and work unhindered.

The report recommends the UN Security Council refer the case of the towns in Idlib to the International Criminal Court. Is there enough proof for a prosecutor to build a case?

Houry: We feel very strong that there is evidence to prosecute crimes against humanity and even war crimes. The difference is that war crimes take place in an armed conflict. It is not just international NGOs that have documented crimes against humanity. The two reports of the UN commission assigned by the Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations in Syria also came to the conclusion that there is evidence of crimes against humanity. Ultimately, after more than 9,000 people have been killed, after systematic and rampant torture, after numerous cases of executions, I think it’s clear that there is enough evidence to refer the case to the ICC. I think there are enough indications that these violations deserve a trial.

This article was edited for length

  • Bhavana

    "This article reminds me of a documentary ""Operation Fine Girl: Rape Used as a Weapon of War in Sierra Leone"" which talks about the systematic use of rape against women and girls. The documentary looks at the conflict through the stories of four survivors: three women who survived abduction, rape, and enslavement by rebel forces, and one young boy, abducted and forced to become a killer himself. To watch the documentary online visit: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/4602/"

    May 3, 2012