Middle East

Civilians starved into submission by pro-government forces: U.N.

GENEVA: Syrian government forces are waging a campaign of siege warfare and starvation against civilians, a U.N.-mandated probe said in a report Wednesday.

“The government employs siege warfare, instrumentalizing 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.

The commission, which includes legendary former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, stressed that more than 250,000 people remain besieged in the 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,” the report 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 Moadamieh in rural Damascus, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near the capital, and the old city of Homs.

The report alleges a litany of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by both sides from July last year to Jan. 20. It highlights the 20,000 people trapped in Yarmouk 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.

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

The commission, headed by Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, was created in 2011 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission to look into specific abuses committed in the war, in which an estimated 140,000 people have died.

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

Government forces were accused of committing war crimes including murder, massacres, hostage-taking and the use of child soldiers, and were slammed for their use of so-called barrel bombs, which have killed and maimed hundreds in Aleppo.

Torture and other forms of ill-treatment were also rife inside Syrian detention centers, the report said. One witness described how last July a detainee had begged guards to take him to the toilet, only to be beaten to death in front of his fellow inmates.

A vast array of opposition groups have committed war crimes including murder, executions without due process, torture, hostage-taking and rape, as well as targeting medical and religious personnel and journalists, according to the report.

Worst hit were civilians in areas controlled by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, in Raqqa province, where they were systematically subjected to “severe physical or mental pain or suffering” that amounted to crimes against humanity, the report said.

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

“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 lamented the lack of action by the U.N. Security Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 06, 2014, on page 8.




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