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Human rights chief on Syria: ‘mass killings, summary executions, and torture are the norm’

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay delivered a speech on Syria to the Human Rights Council that reiterated her persistent protests about the Syrian government’s massive abuses during the country’s 18-month upheaval. But the latest message was perhaps more striking for the increasingly harsh tone she has taken in enumerating the crimes of the armed ...

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay delivered a speech on Syria to the Human Rights Council that reiterated her persistent protests about the Syrian government’s massive abuses during the country’s 18-month upheaval.

But the latest message was perhaps more striking for the increasingly harsh tone she has taken in enumerating the crimes of the armed opposition, including summary executions.

Syria’s opposition forces, she warned, "should be under no illusion that they will be immune from prosecution" for their alleged crimes. "I urge them to make a strenuous effort to halt the deterioration in their conduct, and adhere to fundamental norms of international law."

The warning comes weeks after a U.N. Commission of Inquiry concluded that both the Syrian government and opposition fighters have committed war crimes and other serious violations of the laws of war. Pillay reiterated her call for the U.N. Security Council to authorize an inquiry into Syrian crimes by the International Criminal Court.

"I would like to remind states that they unanimously agreed, at the 2005 World Summit, that each state is obliged to protect populations from crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes," she said. "The international community must assume its responsibilities and act in unison to prevent violations."

Pillay said the greatest responsibility for the violence in Syria lies with the government, which continues to fire heavy weapons into densely populated residential neighborhoods and is increasingly mounting "indiscriminate attacks" attacks in urban areas by helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft. "In a further alarming development, last week, it was reported that houses in parts of Damascus were being bulldozed — an act that may well amount to collective punishment and constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity," she said.

Pillay said that human rights abuses across the country "are rampant, and have reached the point where mass killings, summary executions and torture are the norm."

"As we speak," she added, "civilians, including children, are continuing to be injured and killed in Syria virtually every hour of every day."

Pillay said she was "deeply shocked" by reports of a mass killing last month in the town of Darya, on the outskirts of Damascus, where Syrian security forces are suspected of killing hundreds as part of a counterinsurgency operation aimed at rooting rebels from the capital.

While Pillay didn’t directly accuse Syria of responsibility, she noted that government forces played a role in an earlier massacre in the town of Al Houla. "Information is also being gathered about other reported mass killings and summary executions, including some carried out by opposition forces," she said.

In her strongest criticism to date of the fragmented insurgency, Pillay said anti-government forces have also adopted a number of government tactics, including the posting of snipers who target civilians. She also faulted the combatants’ unnamed military backers for exacerbating the conflict, and urged them to stop supplying the two sides with ammunition.

"As time has passed, opposition forces have also been increasingly implicated in kidnapping and abductions, including of foreigners perceived as being government supporters," she said. "The undoubted climb in the number of human rights violations attributed to the opposition forces, in addition to the ever increasing brutality by the authorities and their Shabbiha allies, is pat of the rapid downward spiral that is gripping Syria and on the international level, increasing the sense of deep foreboding, frustration, and impotence about where this conflict is heading."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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