Photo Source: © Roman Camacho/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo Source: © Roman Camacho/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 221: Venezuela, Syria and Ethiopia

23 September 2020

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.


UN investigation documents crimes against humanity in Venezuela

On 16 September the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela (FFM) released a landmark report that identified widespread and systematic patterns of state-led violence amounting to crimes against humanity. This is the first report by the FFM, which was established by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in September 2019 to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture committed in Venezuela.

The FFM found that since 2014 President Nicolás Maduro, as well as the ministers of the Interior and Defence, “gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed.” Individuals with inside knowledge confirmed that security forces were given a “green light to kill” as part of a policy to “eliminate unwanted members of society,” and that intelligence agencies systematically targeted perceived opponents of the government, including human rights activists. Government security forces have perpetrated widespread extrajudicial executions, killing more than 8,000 people since January 2018.

During 2018 a panel of experts mandated by the Organization of American States accused the Venezuelan government of crimes against humanity and six states from the region – Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru – requested that the International Criminal Court (ICC) open a formal investigation. However, the FFM’s report is the first time that an independent UN-mandated investigative mechanism has publicly accused the government of being responsible for crimes against humanity.

The FFM has called on all UN member states, as well as the ICC, to now ensure accountability for widespread and systematic human rights violations in Venezuela. As a first step, states should actively support current efforts by a group of regional countries to renew and strengthen the mandate of the FFM during the current session of the HRC.

Netherlands initiates step toward justice for Syrian atrocities

On 18 September the government of the Netherlands initiated an international legal process aimed at holding the Syrian government accountable for its widespread and systematic use of torture. Announcing the government’s decision, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Stef Blok, said that the “Assad regime has committed horrific crimes time after time. The evidence is overwhelming. There must be consequences.” Minister Blok referred to the decade-long conflict in Syria – in which over half a million people have been killed – and said that the “regime has not hesitated to crack down hard on its own population, using torture and chemical weapons, and bombing hospitals.”

In a diplomatic note, the Netherlands formally requested negotiations on evidence of the Syrian government’s crimes and reminded the government of President Bashar al-Assad of its obligations under the UN Convention against Torture (CAT). This could eventually lead to proceedings against Syria at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as Article 30(1) of the CAT provides for dispute settlement between parties under ICJ jurisdiction. Before the Netherlands can initiate ICJ proceedings, however, there must be an attempt to settle the dispute through bilateral negotiations. The Syrian government has thus far responded by saying that the Netherlands has no right to address human rights in its country.

There is extensive evidence of the systematic use of torture by the government in Syria. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has reported that more than 12,000 people have died under torture while in detention. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry has also reported on the widespread use of torture in detention facilities, as well as other potential crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian government as part of state policy, including enforced disappearance, murder and sexual violence. The Syrian government has also used chemical weapons against civilians on at least 32 occasions since March 2013.

Despite overwhelming evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria, the UN Security Council has failed to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court or establish a special tribunal. On numerous occasions since the conflict first started in 2011, Russia and China have vetoed diplomatic efforts to hold perpetrators of atrocities accountable under international law. Although there have been some meaningful steps toward justice – including the establishment of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) and ongoing universal jurisdiction cases in Germany and elsewhere – the scale of atrocity crimes perpetrated since 2011 demands a more comprehensive approach.

Ms. Jahaan Pittalwala, Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “the decision taken by the Netherlands is an important and historic step toward accountability and justice for atrocities committed in Syria. Other parties to the CAT should support the Netherlands and consider joining any case against Syria if it is eventually brought before the ICJ.”

Militiamen kill 140 people in Ethiopia

Between 6-13 September armed militiamen killed up to 140 civilians in the Metekel zone in Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region and forced hundreds of others to flee. Some victims, including women and children, were bound and taken to an elementary school and executed, while other victims were attacked with spears.

The recent attacks in Benishangul-Gumuz are the latest in a long history of sporadic inter-communal violence. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission expressed its “deep concern,” noting that “given the patterns of similar killings in the past, the Commission urges regional authorities to carry out impartial, prompt and effective investigations into… the killings and hold perpetrators accountable.”

More than 1.2 million Ethiopians remain displaced as a result of ongoing insecurity. Many Ethiopians also remain deeply distrustful of state authorities due to the country’s long history of dictatorship and past human rights abuses. Additionally, some populations feel marginalized by Ethiopia’s federalist system of government and allege that it has resulted in ethnic favoritism and discrimination.

There have also been recent reports of rising hate speech in Ethiopia with various individuals utilizing social media platforms such as Facebook to deepen political and ethnic divisions. According to one report, local groups tracking hate speech in Ethiopia have documented individuals “calling for genocide” against other ethnic groups. Viral social media posts have previously sparked violence, including an incident that resulted in 80 people killed in October 2019. The creation of pages criticizing the popular Oromo singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa, preceded his murder in June and also sparked protests and violence that claimed 239 lives.

The Ethiopian government must confront the underlying sources of conflict in the country and implement reforms to protect human rights and guarantee equal access to government services and resources. Facebook and other social media companies operating in Ethiopia must implement policies to actively prevent the misuse of their platforms to spread hate speech and incite violence.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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