U.N. finds brutality, depravity on all sides in Syrian carnage

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community settle at a camp at Derike, Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community settle at a camp at Derike, Syria, Aug. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed) AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have used chemical agents – most likely chlorine – in at least eight attacks this year and systematically committed massacres and other war crimes, while the Islamic State has perpetrated attacks on civilians that amount to crimes against humanity, a U.N. report said Wednesday.

The report issued by the U.N. Human Rights Council represented the latest measure of the brutality, depravity and carnage of Syria’s more than three-year civil war. It also delivered a stinging rebuke to the United States and other powers for giving up on trying to forge a negotiated resolution to the conflict that’s claimed an estimated 191,000 lives.

“Influential states have turned away from the difficult work required for a political solution,” said the report. “Recent events emphasize the urgency of finding a political settlement to the war.”

In a statement, Paulo Pinheiro, the chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said: “Hundreds of civilians are dying each day as the fighting goes on with no regard to law or to conscience.” Pinheiro, a Brazilian national, also told reporters, “The international community has completely failed to protect civilians.”

Similarly, fellow commissioner Carla del Ponte, a Swiss national, said: “In Syria, it’s total impunity. Crimes are committed each day from all parties.”

The 45-page report, which covers the period of Jan. 20 through July 14, said Syrian government forces had conducted offensive operations in April against civilian-inhabited areas of Idlib and Hama provinces in which witnesses smelled “a scent akin to domestic chlorine” after helicopters dropped barrels of explosives.

The accounts of victims and the medical personnel who treated them “provide descriptions of symptoms compatible with exposure to chemical agents, namely vomiting, eye and skin irritation, choking and other respiratory problems,” said the report.

“Reasonable grounds exist to believe that chemical agents, likely chlorine, were used on Kafr Zeita, Al Tamana’a and Tal Minnis on at least eight different incidents within a 10-day period in April,” said the report. “There are also reasonable grounds to believe that those agents were dropped in barrel bombs from government helicopters.”

Chlorine is defined as a chemical weapon under a 1992 international ban on the use of such weapons, and using is a war crime under the treaty that created the International Criminal Court, the report said.

“Government forces continued to perpetrate massacres and conduct widespread attacks on civilians, systematically committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity,” the report found.

The Islamic State, the extremist group that’s overrun large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, and other insurgent factions also committed war crimes, “including murder, extortion, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking” and violations of international law such as recruiting children and rape, the report said.

The report accused Islamic State fighters of committing crimes against humanity that included murder, torture, disappearances and forced evictions as part of an attack on civilians in Aleppo and Raqqa provinces.

Pinheiro warned that the Islamic State “poses a clear and present danger to civilians, particularly minorities, under its control in Syria and in the region.”

Executions in public spaces in these areas, the panel said, have become a common spectacle on Fridays.

“Children have been present at the executions, which take the form of beheadings or shooting in the head at close range. . . . Bodies are placed on public display, often on crucifixes, for up to three days, serving as a warning to local residents.”

Public squares in Islamic State areas also have become “the scene of amputations, lashings and mock crucifixion.”

“Men have been lashed for smoking, possessing alcohol, trading during hours of prayer and failing to fast during Ramadan,” the report noted. The report also said men had been flogged for escorting “improperly dressed” female relatives.

Moreover, the panel documents that it also received multiple accounts of women who’d appeared in public with their faces uncovered “being beaten with sticks “ by patrolling Islamic State fighters

The Islamic State also is recruiting children into armed roles “some from the age of 10.” Then they’re trained at camps operated by the militants.

Commissioner Karen Koning Abu Zayd, a U.S. national, told McClatchy the security situation in Syria is going “downhill. It’s getting worse,” and she noted the Islamic State is getting stronger as more Syrian and foreign fighters join its ranks.

The commission recommended that the U.N. Security Council take appropriate action by referring the situation in Syria “to justice, possibly to the International Criminal Court,” and it reiterated its call for an arms embargo to curb the proliferation and supply of weapons.

The report’s findings are slated to be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Sept. 16.

In a separate study published last Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, estimated that over 191,000 people had been killed in Syria from March 2011 through the end of April 2014.

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