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A humanitarian and human rights crisis
Three years on, what started as peaceful reform demonstrations in Syria escalated into a prolonged and brutal internal conflict, leaving some 100,000 dead, hundreds of thousands injured, and over 9 million in need of humanitarian assistance. The international community repeatedly struggled to find a way to effectively address the crisis. In February 2014, the United Nations Security Council finally overcame internal divisions to pass resolution 2139 calling on all parties to the conflict in Syria to put an end to all forms of violence and to stop human rights violations, including those amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also calls on them to lift sieges of populated areas and to allow unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.
From peaceful protest to armed conflict
In early February 2011, the “Arab Spring” rebellion rocking the Middle East and North Africa spread to Syria. Small pro-reform demonstrations quickly swelled into mass protests in mid-March after a violent crackdown on the city of Dera’a where protesters were calling for the release of detained children. As protests spread to other cities, government forces responded with brute force, deploying tanks in residential neighbourhoods and using snipers to shoot at peaceful crowds. Thousands were arrested, hundreds disappeared, and many tortured – some to death. While a few detainees were released, others now face long sentences after grossly unfair trials. Still others continue to be held without charge. By the end of the year an armed resistance had formed. As fighting spread and intensified, tens of thousands began to flee their homes and communities in search of safety, either to other parts of Syria or over the borders into neighbouring countries.
Throughout the conflict, serious abuses, some amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed by all parties to the conflict. In addition to arbitrary detention, torture, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and unfair trials, government forces regularly engaged in indiscriminate attacks including aerial bombardment. During revenge attacks on neighbourhoods believed to be sympathetic to rebel fighters, thousands were unlawfully killed and homes systematically burned and looted to further terrorize the civilian population. Opposition forces – made up of a burgeoning number of rebel groups – have also unlawfully killed civilians through indiscriminate attacks and reckless use of weapons in residential neighbourhoods. Some groups have tortured and killed captured members of the army and security forces, including perceived supporters of the government and suspected informers. Others have taken civilian hostages. The use of child soldiers, often in support roles, has also been reported.
Cities under Siege
Around 250.000 civilians are living under siege across the country. Most live in areas besieged by Syrian government forces and have been effectively confined for a year or more in areas being bombed and shelled on a regular basis. In other areas, civilians have come under siege from armed opposition forces who have blocked the delivery of much-needed supplies.
Among the worst hit are the inhabitants of Yarmouk, a refugee camp just outside Damascus and home to 20,000 Palestinians refugees and Syrian civilians. Completely cut off from food and medical supplies in July 2013, government forces and allies have repeatedly carried out attacks, including air raids and shelling with heavy weapons, on civilian buildings such as schools, hospitals and a mosque in Yarmouk. Some 128 people have starved to death.
Starving civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime.
The Refugee Crisis
"Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Syria, 3 September 2013
The scale of the crisis is staggering: almost a third of Syria’s total population have fled their homes and communities in hopes of escaping the fighting. At least 4.25 million people are displaced internally within Syria, while more than 2.3 million people have fled the country (half of them children). The flow of refugees into neighbouring countries has put an immense strain on the limited resources available, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, where many refugees are living in precarious conditions in overcrowded refugee camps or in host communities, including in informal settlements. Very few refugees – a mere 3% – have settled outside the region.
Since protests broke out in Syria in February 2011, thousands of suspected opponents of the government have been arbitrarily arrested and detained; many appear to have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Some remain missing – their fate or whereabouts unknown to their families, who are often left in anguish and despair. Others who were subjected to enforced disappearance but eventually released after languishing for months in secret detention have told Amnesty International about the torture and other ill-treatment they endured.
An enforced disappearance takes place when a person is deprived of his or her liberty (arrested, detained or abducted) by agents of the state or persons acting with its authorization, support or acquiescence. Those responsible for the disappearance then deny that the person is being held, or conceal the fate or whereabouts, placing the person outside the protection of the law. Enforced disappearances are crimes under international law.
Enforced disappearances have been a major human rights concern through the decades of the al-Assad family’s rule. Amnesty International has been documenting cases of enforced disappearance in Syria since the late 1970s.
Use of Banned Weapons
Syrian government forces have used cluster munitions against civilian residential areas in towns and villages, contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
In mid-September 2013, the UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic confirmed that it had found convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used on a large scale during an attack on August 21, 2013 on the outskirts of Damascus. Thousands were affected by the attack, and while the death toll remains unconfirmed it is believed that at least hundreds died as a direct result of the attack.
Use of banned weapons is a war crime.
Syria has become an incredibly dangerous place for journalists who risk being targeted by both sides for unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances, abductions and intimidation. At least 36 journalists have died in what are believed to be targeted attacks. Any deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime.
Independent newspapers, and radio and television stations have not been permitted to operate freely in Syria for decades. In 2011 the Syrian authorities stepped up their repressive tactics to prevent media coverage of the then mainly peaceful uprising by introducing a virtual news blackout on mainstream media outlets between March and December. The heavy restrictions placed on the mainstream media have led to a surge in citizen journalism. Access to the country by international journalists remains difficult.