Siege warfare in Syria violates humanitarian, human rights laws - UN report
19 February 2014 – An estimated 240,000 Syrian remain trapped in areas under siege resulting in severe hardship, suffering and deaths of civilians, in clear breach of the obligations under international human rights and humanitarian laws, the United Nations today reported.
The analysis, based on information collected between April 2013 and 20 January of this year by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), focuses on ongoing sieges imposed by Syrian Government forces and pro-Government militias, as well as by armed opposition groups, in particular, in the Governorates of Rural Damascus, Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict must also allow safe passage for protected persons out of the besieged area. They must guarantee that the wounded and sick are collected and cared for, and must not destroy objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population through indiscriminate bombardments and attacks.
The paper states that the Government appears to have violated all the above requirements.
An orthopaedic doctor in Old Homs informed OHCHR in an interview via Skype that he could not perform simple spinal-cord operations, which in some cases caused paralysis, according to the human rights document.
"Dozens of cases of fracture and limb-related injuries have ended up in amputations or death," the authors wrote about some of the damage and destruction in Rural Damascus.
The paper states that "parties to the conflict have prevented the movement of people, goods and supplies through a system of barricades and checkpoints, adding to the hardship of civilians who are facing life-threatening shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medical supplies."
"On occasion, civilians have reportedly been prevented from fleeing through barricades and checkpoints manned by different Government military and security agencies," it notes.
In cases of Government-enforced sieges, these have been coupled with shelling and aerial bombardment, which have resulted in significant loss of life and have damaged or destroyed objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.
In the Ghouta area of Rural Damascus, where more than 173,000 people are believed to be trapped, some residents are living with hardly any food or other basic necessities, according to the paper, with a number of deaths reported due to inadequate healthcare and nutrition.
Religious clerics have reportedly issued edicts allowing residents to eat cats and dogs in order to survive, it is reported.
The chemical attack in the district of al-Muadhamiya in August last year also left many medical staff incapacitated and unable to treat others.
In Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, dozens of deaths have been reported, including from starvation, the consumption of rotten food, the chronic shortage of medical supplies, and due to the lack of medical expertise to treat sick people and pregnant women trapped in the camp, the paper states.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the analysis confirmed the devastating impact of the sieges on civilians, and denounced the lack of steady access into certain besieged areas.
"The Security Council is continuing to fail Syrians by not even managing to agree on measures to ensure the provision of basic necessities to people," she said.
"International human rights law and international humanitarian law require parties to the conflict to ensure rapid, continued and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief to all civilians in need, and not ad-hoc deliveries and operations," said Ms. Pillay, stressing that the obligation to respect international humanitarian law is not conditional on compliance by other parties to the conflict.
On the ground in Syria today, the Government and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent evacuated 11 more civilians from the Homs, including a child, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
An estimated 600 males, including some children under 18, have been brought to the Al Andalus shelter facility for screening since evacuations began on 7 February, a UN spokesperson said. About half of those people have been released so far.
"The United Nations continues to advocate for the speedy release of all children from the facility and calls for the protection of all civilians under international humanitarian and human rights laws," the spokesperson told journalists in New York.
The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) remains unable to gain access to Yarmouk for the eleventh consecutive day, spokesperson Christopher Gunness said.
"We remain ready to resume our suspended food distributions and we hope that the assurances we have been given will soon translate into a situation on the ground that allows us to move ahead," Mr. Gunness said.
Meanwhile, in Nubul and Zahra in northern Aleppo – where multiple armed opposition groups have trapped almost 45,000 people since July 2012 – food, fuel and medical supplies are being blocked from entering through checkpoints.
A lack of running water has reportedly forced some residents to dig wells without the necessary sanitary precautions, with elderly and children at particular risk of getting sick from the deteriorating sanitation conditions.
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