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UN Commission Cites Human Rights Abuses by Syria Government, Rebels

  • David Arnold

UN independent Commission of Inquiry members Karen Konig AbuZayd (left) and Paulo Pinheiro (right), the chairman, conferred about a recent report on human rights abuses in the Syrian war during a panel presentation in Geneva, Switzerland on September 17, 2012.

UN independent Commission of Inquiry members Karen Konig AbuZayd (left) and Paulo Pinheiro (right), the chairman, conferred about a recent report on human rights abuses in the Syrian war during a panel presentation in Geneva, Switzerland on September 17, 2012.

A U.N. commission says it is monitoring human rights abuses by anti-government rebels in Syria, but that President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces bear the greatest responsibility for civilian death and destruction in the country.

The civil war in Syria has been underway for more than two years, with an estimated 70,000 killed and millions more left homeless or forced to flee the country.

The U.N. Human Rights Council’s independent Commission of Inquiry has been monitoring the situation in Syria for the past 19 months and says the biggest change it has noticed in recent months is that opposition forces have carried out an increasing number of abuses.

"What has changed is the extent of what is happening on the opposition side as they acquire more weapons and more people coming in from the outside to fight on the side of the opposition," said Karen Konig AbuZayd, one of five members of the commission.

"We found that the extremist groups… are engaging in many more human rights violations that resemble some of those from the government side," AbuZayd said. "Of course the opposition doesn’t have the air power the government has, so they don’t compare to the extent of what the government is doing."

We found that the extremist groups… are engaging in many more human rights violations...
Child exploitation is another worrisome new development among opposition forces, according to the commission. AbuZayd said some rebel fighting units have recruited Syrians under the age of 18 for combat roles, but that the Syrian Army does not use underage fighters.

Investigators can’t enter Syria

As examples of opposition human rights abuses, the U.N. commission cited suicide bombings of military facilities that "kill indiscriminately and result in scores of civilian deaths." It also cited dozens of allegations of specific incidents under investigation, including the government shelling of the towns, including Kafr Aya, Jobar, Tadmur, Rastan, Gornata and Qusayr.

The commission also said it was investigating the killing of as many as 80 opposition prisoners in Maarat al-Numan. Eighty bodies were found in a waterway in a neighborhood of Aleppo.

The Syrian government has not allowed U.N. inspectors to enter the country, the commission says, and the "lack of physical access to the country has seriously hampered the conduct of the commission’s investigation."

Last month, the commission’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said investigations were underway into 20 alleged massacres and claims of hundreds of "unlawful killings." But he said the prime focus of the commission continued to be the government’s "indiscriminate and widespread shelling, the regular bombardment of cities, mass killings and the deliberate firing on civilian targets."

Syrian ambassador Faysal Khabbas Hamoui dismissed the commission’s recent report and accused Qatar and Turkey of “supporting terrorism.”

Where would justice be served?

The latest U.N. commission report covers a six-month period and is based on 445 interviews.

Sooner or later the International Criminal Court must be seized of the matter.
According to the commission, it is considering accusing the Syrian government of “crimes against humanity” and “violations of international human rights.” It said the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups could be charged with “human rights abuses.”

After further investigation, the charges could be referred to a special convened Syrian court or the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“Sooner or later the International Criminal Court must be seized of the matter,” said Commissioner Carla del Ponte.

This latest commission report was submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. Accompanying the report was a confidential list of individuals who could be charged with crimes against humanity. The list of names, known only to the commissioners, is locked in a safe in Pillay’s office in Geneva.

“Not even she has looked at those names yet,” said AbuZayd.

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