UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet today expressed horror at the scale of the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria, saying it was cruel beyond belief that civilians, mostly women and children, living under scraps of plastic sheeting and in freezing conditions are being bombed.
“Entire families, some who have fled from one corner of Syria to the other over the course of the past decade, are tragically finding that bombs are part of their everyday life,” said Bachelet. “How can anyone justify carrying out such indiscriminate and inhumane attacks?
“Civilians fleeing the fighting are being squeezed into areas without safe shelter that are shrinking in size by the hour. And still they are bombed. They simply have nowhere to go,” she said, adding there was a high risk that civilians would no longer be able to cross from Idlib to any other areas in Syria.
The High Commissioner urgently called on all parties to the Syrian conflict, including State and non-state actors, to immediately cease hostilities, and ensure the protection of all civilians.
This month the Syrian Government, backed by its allies, launched a major military offensive to retake key areas in Idlib and Aleppo. The UN Human Rights Office recorded incidents in which at least 100 civilians, including 18 women and 35 children, were killed and many other civilians injured as a result of the air-strikes and ground-based strikes by Government forces and their allies from 1 to 16 February. In addition, seven civilians, including two women and three children were killed as a result of ground-based strikes by non-State armed groups.
In all, since 1 January this year, the UN Human Rights Office has recorded the deaths of 298 civilians in Idlib and Aleppo. Around 93 percent of those deaths were caused by the Syrian Government and its allies. In addition, 10 medical facilities and 19 educational facilities were either directly hit or affected by strikes close by.
According to UN estimates more than 900,000 people, of whom about 80 percent are women and children, have been displaced since 1 December 2019, representing the largest displacement of people since the conflict began in 2011.
The UN Human Rights Office has recorded several incidents in which displacement camps were either directly hit or affected by nearby strikes. In the latest verified accounts, a ground-based strike by Syrian Government allies hit the makeshift camp of “Faheel al-Izz” near the town of Sarmada in northern rural Idlib on 14 February. Three civilians including a woman were wounded. The following day, a strike hit the nearby “al-Muthanna” camp, killing a civilian man and wounding six other civilians including a woman and a boy.
“No shelter is now safe,” said Bachelet. “And as the Government offensive continues and people are forced into smaller and smaller pockets, I fear even more people will be killed.”
The displacement camps themselves are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people seeking shelter, and there is limited access to food, clean water and medical care. Many fearing for their lives have fled the camps, braving harsh weather conditions and sub-zero temperatures, and taken their chances on the road.
“Civilians, including the most vulnerable such as the elderly, sick people and children, are being displaced,” said Bachelet. “They are now at a higher risk than ever, with little hope or guarantees for a safe and voluntary return to their areas of origin or areas of their choice.”
She called on the Syrian Government and its allies to allow humanitarian corridors into conflict areas, and to allow for the safe passage of civilians. Protection and unimpeded access should be granted by all parties for humanitarian aid and assistance for civilians.
“The protection of civilians is paramount, and the blatant disregard for the life and safety of civilians runs contrary to the obligations that all parties must uphold under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Bachelet said.
“Despite repeated calls to protect civilians in the conduct of hostilities, I remain alarmed by the failure of diplomacy that should put protection of civilians ahead of any political or military victories. I condemn in the strongest terms the continued impunity for violations of international humanitarian law committed by various parties to the conflict.”