UN Commission: Syrian Earthquake Victims Abandoned, Neglected


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GENEVA —Failure to provide timely aid and protection to Syrian earthquake victims has cost the lives of many civilians caught in this catastrophic disaster, according to a U.N.-appointed commission of inquiry on Syria.

The three-member independent body accuses the Syrian government and other parties to that country's conflict, the international community, and the United Nations of the abandonment of millions of Syrian civilians in dire need.

"Syrians for good reason felt abandoned and neglected by those who were supposed to protect them in the most desperate of their times," said Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the commission. "Many days were lost without any aid to the survivors of the earthquake, which became an epicenter of neglect."

He said the warring parties failed to agree on an immediate suspension in hostilities in northwest Syria and "they failed to allow and facilitate life-saving aid to reach the victims through any available route."

According to the Reuters news agency, Syria's information ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pinheiro said the commission was investigating fresh attacks, even in areas devastated by the earthquakes, including "last week's reported Israeli attack on Aleppo international airport, a conduit for humanitarian aid."

Before the earthquake struck, humanitarian aid was mainly delivered to Idlib in northwest Syria through one crossing point from Turkey. It took the Syrian government in Damascus a full week after the quake to allow two additional border crossings to open for the delivery of lifesaving assistance, including letting in rescue teams and equipment.

Commission member Hanny Megally has accused armed groups of deliberately obstructing humanitarian aid from crossing these lines. At the same time, he said the United Nations and the international community seemed paralyzed during the early stages of the relief effort.

He said they could have acted more quickly in getting desperately needed aid to the victims instead of waiting a week for Damascus to grant access.

"This was an earthquake. It was an exceptional circumstance," he said. "Legal scholars will argue in exceptional circumstances, you can act even if it means crossing boundaries or trampling on state sovereignty, so to speak."

His colleague, Lynn Welchman, noted that the government of Syria has a duty to allow impartial humanitarian aid to come through without waiting for a Security Council resolution mandating this.

"But because of the dysfunction of the Security Council, it has become impossible to avoid political brinksmanship in the Security Council on this issue, which comes at the expense of civilian lives and welfare," she said.

The commission is calling for a full, independent investigation and accountability to understand how this comprehensive failure to support millions of people in dire need could have happened.

The commission has launched its latest report on the Syrian crisis just days before the country enters its 13th year of civil conflict. The report, which was prepared before last month's earthquake, summarizes violations committed against civilians during the second half of last year.

It has documented increasing insecurity in government-controlled areas, with people subjected to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances. It reports civilians living in the earthquake-affected northwest were particularly exposed to deadly attacks in the preceding months.

In November, the report found Syrian government forces used cluster munitions, which are prohibited under international law. It said these weapons struck densely populated displacement camps in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, killing and injuring 67 people.

The report has documented the killing and maiming of civilians by unguided rockets and airstrikes by Russian forces in August and July in Al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo.

"These and other atrocities we investigated continue a long-established pattern of indiscriminate attacks, which may amount to war crimes," said Pinheiro.

The three-member panel deplores the unlawful incarceration by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of 56,000 people, mainly women and children in Al-Hawl and Roj camps in northeast Syria.

The commission said they are being held in conditions that "appear to constitute cruel and inhuman treatment" and in a state of legal limbo. It reports about 10,000 wives and children suspected of being linked to Islamic State militants are kept in separate detention camps.

Pinheiro said, "The suffering inflicted on them may amount to the war crime of committing outrages on personal dignity."

The U.N. investigators are calling on states to speed up the repatriation of their citizens.

They also are calling for the establishment of an independent international body to help search for the whereabouts and fate of thousands of people who have gone missing in this civil war.

They note that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will brief the General Assembly on the issue of missing persons in Syria later this month.

"We hope this will now lead to concrete action on this without further delay," said Pinheiro.

The report will be submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council next week.