A United Nations commission of inquiry says it has evidence the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and one rebel group have committed at least eight massacres over the past 18 months.
The commission, which released its latest report on the human rights situation in Syria on Wednesday, says it is investigating nine more suspected mass killings since March.
The U.N. investigators accuse both the Syrian government and opposition forces, including Islamist foreign fighters, of war crimes. But they note it is the government that commits the vast majority of killings and other abuse.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, calls the U.N. report powerful and very disturbing to read.
“It shows that the violations being committed in Syria continue at the same intensity, if not greater intensity as before," said Bouckaert. "The levels of massacres, summary executions, indiscriminate bombings of towns, as well as a significant increase in terms of abuses being committed by opposition forces, particularly some of the more extreme elements, such as the jihadi groups of (al-Qaida's) Islamic State of Iraq (and the Levant).”
This latest report covers the commission’s work from 2011 to mid-July, and will be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council next Monday. It says relentless shelling by government forces has killed thousands of civilians and displaced the populations of entire towns. The report describes Syria as a battlefield where massacres are perpetrated with impunity.
An untold number of men, children and women have disappeared, many are killed in detention and survivors live with the physical and mental scars of torture, the report finds. It also says hospitals and schools have been bombarded.
The investigators note a sharp rise in hostage taking and kidnappings by both pro-government and opposition forces. They say these acts are motivated by financial gain or to exchange prisoners held by opposing forces.
They say pro-government forces use the threat of rape as a tool to terrorize and punish women, men and children perceived as being associated with the opposition.
Bouckaert says some elements of the opposition are no better than the Assad government when it comes to observing human rights.
“Both sides are responsible for war crimes," he said. "Both sides are responsible for just reprehensible atrocities in Syria. And, one of the shortcomings of the commission of inquiry report, once again, is that it has not made a strong call to refer this situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”
The report does not cover the August 21 chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb. The United States blames the attack on the Syrian government, an accusation the government denies.
Bouckaert, who authored a recent Human Rights Watch report on chemical weapons, says his group's report presents convincing evidence that the Assad government was behind the chemical attacks.