25th Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the human rights situations in Syria

The deteriorating situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic, and the recent situation in Aleppo

21 October 2016

In light of the dramatic deterioration of the situation in Syria, the Human Rights Council conducted on 21 October 2016 its 25th Special Session in Geneva with the aim of adopting an urgently needed resolution to address the human rights situations in the country and, in particular, in war-torn Aleppo.

Debate on the deteriorating situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic

The meeting was opened with a short introduction by H.E. Mr. Geert Muylle, Vice President of the Human Rights Council, who advised that the request for the Special Session was advanced on 18th October by UK along with Albania, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates among others, and supported by various Observer States.

A video statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights was then screened, during which Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein gave a brief overview on the deteriorating situation in Syria and recalled the main developments of the conflict. In particular he strongly condemned the destruction of schools of hospitals, the siege of cities and the indiscriminate shelling against civilians and described the situation as more than a humanitarian tragedy. He also stressed the failure of the international community to protect civilians and advised that this is in fact a shared responsibility.

The High Commissioner urged all parties to the conflict to abide international humanitarian law and reiterated the important role of the Human Rights Council in pressuring the Security Council to take action and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

With regards to Aleppo, Mr Al Hussein finally stated that there should be an immediate ceasefire and that the entrance of humanitarian aid should be allowed unconditionally.

It was then time for Mr Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, to deliver his statement. During this, he stressed that the situation in Aleppo is dramatic. The death toll, which at present includes more than 100 children, continues to increase due to the indiscriminate shelling and the siege at the hands of the Syrian government and its primary ally, Russia. Humanitarian aid has been prevented and humanitarian convoys have been targeted, leaving hundreds of thousands of people starving and lacking basic goods for survival. In addition, hospitals and medical facilities have been targeted by the airstrikes, resulting in a countless number of people dying for the lack of medical care.

Mr Pinheiro also mentioned the insurgency of terrorist groups that kill civilians in western Aleppo with homemade weapons, such as mortars. According to his words, no one in safe from attacks.

In this context, he stated that international legal standards of observance of international humanitarian law have been completely disregarded and that all warring parties have refused to take responsibility for their actions. The responsibility, however, belongs also to those supporting the warring parties.

In these regards, Mr Pinheiro advised that it is imperative that Member States of the Council stop disregarding the lives of the innocents and called for accountability. Like the High Commissioner, he stressed the importance to refer the situation to the ICC. Political negotiations are urgent as peace evidently cannot be achieved through military action. At the same time, unconditional humanitarian relief needs to be allowed to enter the city immediately.

He then recalled the words of Mr Steffan De Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, who said that Aleppo might not be there anymore by the end of this year, if the airstrikes do not cease.

Regardless of the outcome of the session Mr Pinheiro ensured that the Commission will keep documenting the crimes occurring in Syria. In this context, the Syrian government should cooperate and provide all information to facilitate investigations. At the same time, EU countries hosting refugees should grant them access to the victims right away.

Ms Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Representative of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, was then given the floor to present her report.  She started the speech by saying that the Syrian conflict has been allowed to continue unabated. This conflict has made millions of displaced and refugees and has witnessed terrible mass-scale abuses. In Aleppo, advised Ms Aguilar, the situation is particularly dire: incendiary weapons and airstrikes hit highly inhabited areas and destroyed infrastructure to sustain human life. In addition, humanitarian assistance has largely been prevented.

Violations in Syria have been committed by all parties to the conflict in a clear breach of international humanitarian law, which prohibits actions that cause unnecessary suffering to civilians.

The Representative then advised that the Committee encourages more Special Rapporteurs to visit the country and finally called for accountability. Since war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed, the situation should indeed be referred to the ICC.

Furthermore, Ms Aguilar urged all concerned Member States to facilitate the reception of refugees in a cooperative spirit and to contribute to the ever so needed humanitarian funding.

The President of the Council then gave the floor to the representative of The Syrian Arab Republic, which started his speech by saying that there are several countries interfering in a colonial way into Syria’s affairs. This is not facilitating a settlement of the conflict, but rather worsening it since these countries are allegedly sending weapons to the terrorist groups operating in Syria. The delegation rejected all accusation of war crimes stating these are groundless.

The representative in fact stressed that terrorists attack civilians on a daily basis, particularly al Nusra Front, nevertheless the reports of the Commission of Inquiry hardly mention this. According to the delegation, this is a propaganda campaign to demonize the Syrian government. He finally concluded by saying that most Member States of the Council are not really concerned about civilians. If they were, they would be supporting the government in the fight of terrorism.

Statements of Member States

All Member States were unified in convening that the situation in Syria is today a real humanitarian catastrophe. However, they seemed quite divided in pointing out how such a catastrophe should be addressed and what the main causes of it are.

On one side, the majority of the Member States, such as most European Union States, the Nordic countries, the Maldives, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Morocco expressed deep concern for the escalating levels of violence in Aleppo. In this regard, the deliberate targeting of highly inhabited areas, medical facilities and schools at the hands of the Syrian government and its allies was pointed at as the main source of suffering for innocent civilians, and, therefore, it was highly condemned. The prevention of humanitarian relief to the striving population was also largely mentioned as well as the recent targeting of UN humanitarian convoys.

They highlighted how all these actions are in fact breaching both International law and international humanitarian law and therefore must be immediately stopped. The aforementioned countries thus called for an immediate transparent ceasefire, underlining how a political solution is the only viable way to end the conflict. They urged the Syrian government to allow the unconditional delivery of humanitarian aid and stressed how those responsible of crimes against humanity and war crimes must be held accountable.

On the other side there were Member States such as Russia, Algeria and Cuba which stressed that the primary threat and the primary cause of suffering in Syria are terrorist groups, such as al Nusra Front and ISIS. According to these states, it is vital to fight terrorism in order to restore peace in the country and, in this context, the HRC should act in harmony within such purpose. However, the body has become a politicized platform for justifying actions that undermine the sovereignty of Syria.

Statements of Observer States

Among the Observer States, there was again general acknowledgement that the humanitarian situations of Syrians, especially those living in Aleppo, has reached unprecedented levels of tragedy. However, as for the Member States, there was disagreement over the source of such suffering and what are the steps to be taken.

States such Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, USA, Bahrain, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, Estonia, Ireland, Uruguay and Argentina condemned the cynical and systematic target of highly populated areas and medical facilities as well as the use of starvation as a military weapon. They were more or less united in accusing the Syrian government and its allies of breaching international humanitarian law and all called for accountability. Furthermore, they called for a peaceful settlement of conflict and for the unconditional delivery of humanitarian aid.

States like Malaysia and Thailand called for a peaceful and sustainable solution and reiterated the need for dialogue.

A strong condemnation for the Syrian government and its Russian allies came from Turkey the United States, which pointed at it as the main responsible of the disaster and called for accountability.

GICJ Participation to the Special Session

In cooperation with International-Lawyers.org and the International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (EAFORD), Geneva International Centre for Justice was one among the few NGOs delivering oral statements at the Special Session.

The joint statement with International-Lawyers.org focused mainly on the role of the international community in addressing the crisis in Syria, which has torn apart a country that was once a cradle of culture, development, education and cooperation. In this context, our organization recognized that the government of Syria bears the primary responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights of all of its citizens and restore public order and security in the country. However, it needs support and cooperation from the international community.

This support should abide international law as enshrined in the UN Charter. In this regard, GICJ and International-Lawyers recalled the ruling of the International Court of Justice in the Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua, which prohibited the use of force and the support of armed non-state actors when it comes to external military intervention.

The organizations therefore urged the Council to keep the rule of international law in focus as it considers how to assist Syria and warned that the failure to do so will have serious consequences for the legitimacy of its work.

In the same way, the joint statement submitted with EAFORD recalled the latest developments of the Syrian crisis, and especially in Aleppo. In these regards, the blockade of humanitarian access to the city for over a month was mentioned as well as the continuous shelling of civilian areas and the targeting of public infrastructures, including schools and medical facilities. This has indeed resulted in massacres of women, children and the elderly and almost entirely ended life in the city. Deep concern was also expressed for the blockade of the few remaining medical supplies. Furthermore, the organizations condemned the attacks against humanitarian convoys, obstructing and preventing the entry of basic goods to the besieged areas, in clear violation of all international resolutions concerning the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Syria.

In light of the urgent need for medical evacuation of the sick and wounded, and the delivery of food aid to the hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the city, GICJ and EAFORD therefore called the Council for an immediate intervention. The organizations also urged the belligerents to respect international humanitarian law, as well as provide safe corridors and roads for the delivery of humanitarian aid in order to save the lives of the trapped persons. This can only be achieved if the international community works harmoniously to find a political solution and end the conflict in Syria.

Action on L.1: The deteriorating situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, and the recent situation in Aleppo

The resolution L.1 was proposed by several states, including Albania, Australia, Belgium, Croatia, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, UK and US, and, among others, calls on an immediate ceasefire, the unconditional granting of humanitarian relief, and accountability for those responsible of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

UK, which introduced it on behalf of the sponsors, explained that what brought to the formulation of this resolution is the dramatic intensity and escalation of the conflict.

Russia, in these regards, proposed 5 oral amendments, because, according to the country, the resolution did not take into account the responsibilities of terrorist groups and neither condemned their actions. The country stressed that the resolution was highly unbalanced and that voting against the amendments would translate in deliberately supporting the crimes of the terrorist groups operating in Syria. This was opposed by the sponsors, which reiterated that there is large condemnation for terrorist groups in the resolution and believed that the amendments were a clear strategy to divert attention away from the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies. Furthermore, the amendments gave the impression that fighting terrorism can justify harming civilians.

Among those who criticized the resolution, there were also Venezuela, which stated that the text was highly unbalanced, Paraguay, which accused it of being too political, and Ecuador, which felt that the resolution was not impartial.

Each amendment was then voted for and finally rejected, while the resolution was adopted with 24 votes in favour, 7 against and 16 abstentions.

Participation of GICJ at Human Rights Council Sessions

Human Rights Council - 35th regular session (6 June - 24 June 2017)

Human Rights Council - 34th regular session (27 February - 24 March 2017)

Human Rights Council - 33rd regular session (10 September - 30 September 2016)

Human Rights Council - 32nd regular session (13 June - 1 and 8 July 2016)

Human Rights Council - 31st regular session (29 February - 24 March 2016)

Human Rights Council - 30th regular session (14 September - 2 October 2015)

Human Rights Council - 29th regular session (15 June - 3 July 2015)

Human Rights Council - 22nd special session on the human rights situation in Iraq in light of abuses committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and associated groups - 1 September 2014:

Human Rights Council - 21st special session on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem - 23 July 2014:

Human Rights Council - 26th regular session (10 - 27 June 2014):

Human Rights Council - 25th regular session (3 - 28 March 2014):

Human Rights Council - 24th regular session (9 - 27 September 2013):

Human Rights Council - 23rd regular session (27 May - 14 June 2013):

Human Rights Council - 22nd regular session (25 February - 22 March 2013):

Human Rights Council - 21st regular session (10 - 28 September, 5 November 2012):

Human Rights Council - 19th regular session (27 February - 23 March 2012):

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