Aerial bombardment and ground offensives by Syrian government and Russian forces against civilian areas of southern Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo governorates have dramatically increased since mid-December. An estimated 300,000 people have fled the region, including at least 175,000 children. On 7 January the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian Crisis, Mark Cutts, described the “daily nightmare” of airstrikes and the shelling of villages while raising alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Idlib, “where over three million civilians remain trapped in a war zone – the vast majority of them women and children.”
During the latest escalation, entire towns and villages have been razed as Syrian government and Russian forces attempt to capture the strategic M5 highway linking Damascus with Aleppo. Airstrikes and heavy shelling since mid-December have targeted marketplaces, displacement shelters, medical facilities and civilian evacuation routes, resulting in scores of deaths. The city of Maaret al-Numan and surrounding areas are almost entirely emptied after approximately 80,000 civilians have escaped Idlib and fled north towards the Turkish border.
Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major region of Syria containing areas outside government control. Since 29 April 2019 Syrian government and Russian forces have conducted a military campaign to seize control of the area from non-state armed groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In total, over 1,330 civilians have been killed and 700,000 displaced in northwest Syria since April.
The UN negotiated a six-hour humanitarian pause on 23 December to allow safe passage for civilians trying to flee Idlib, although some attacks on civilian convoys reportedly continued. A ceasefire was announced on 9 January 2020 by Russia and Turkey in order to facilitate the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of desperately-needed humanitarian aid. However, the ceasefire has been repeatedly violated by Syrian government and Russian forces, including unconfirmed reports that ten civilians were killed in an airstrike earlier today.
The international community must act now to protect the lives of the three million civilians still living in northwest Syria, including those fleeing airstrikes, artillery fire and ongoing fighting. The recent ceasefire should be upheld and all parties should fully implement the September 2018 demilitarized zone agreement. Those responsible for ongoing violations of International Humanitarian Law in southern Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo governorates must be held accountable for their crimes.
According to the office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, around 1,427 Yazidi women and girls are reportedly still being held in sexual slavery by fighters from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). These Yazidi women and girls remain missing more than five years since the genocide against their people began and three years since the territorial defeat of ISIL in Iraq.
During August 2014 ISIL launched a campaign of atrocities across northern Iraq, systematically targeting ethnic and religious minority communities, such as Yazidis, Christians, Shabak and Turkmen. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that following its attack on the Sinjar region of Iraq, ISIL “committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yazidis.” This included killings, sexual slavery, enslavement, torture, forced conversion, and forcible transfer of children.
While Iraqi courts have reportedly sentenced thousands of alleged ISIL members to death on charges of terrorism, no one has formally been held accountable for the genocide against the Yazidi or for slavery and sexual violence perpetrated as a matter of policy in territory ISIL once occupied. Numerous challenges, including a lack of domestic legislation criminalizing atrocity crimes, have prevented the pursuit of justice in Iraqi courts.
The international community has tried to assist the Iraqi government and hold those responsible for atrocity crimes accountable, including through the potential establishment of an international tribunal. Some states have also begun to pursue cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The first trial of an alleged ISIL member for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Yazidi is currently underway in Germany.
The UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD), established by the UN Security Council in 2017, is currently collecting evidence of atrocities committed by ISIL in Iraq. During 2019 UNITAD excavated 17 mass graves around the village of Kocho in Sinjar. UNITAD has also identified 160 ISIL-affiliated individuals who could potentially be held legally responsible for atrocities. Karim Asad Ahmad Khan, Head of UNITAD, emphasized in a recent briefing to the Security Council: “It is, of course, the responsibility of all of us to ensure that not only are words spoken, but that we have the collective stamina and focus to make sure that proper investigations and accountability are realized in practice.”
Iraq should expeditiously adopt enabling legislation to incorporate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law. All perpetrators of atrocities in Iraq should be held accountable for their crimes with the full legal, political and logistical support of the international community. The Iraqi government also needs assistance in order to comprehensively address the psycho-social needs of all survivors of atrocity crimes, including sexual violence.
On Friday, 10 January, the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) released a report on inter-ethnic conflict between the Hema and Lendu communities in Ituri province, documenting violations that may amount to crimes against humanity. According to UNJHRO, at least 700 people were killed and 142 were subjected to sexual violence between December 2017 and September 2019. The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) has previously discovered several mass graves in the area. During the violence, entire villages were burnt to the ground and schools and health clinics were attacked and destroyed.
The majority of victims were from the ethnic Hema community. According to the report, “the barbarity that characterizes these attacks – including the beheading of women and children with machetes, the dismemberment and removal of body parts of the victims as trophies of war – reflects the desire of the attackers to inflict lasting trauma to the Hema communities and to force them to flee and not return to their villages.” Some Hema armed groups also engaged in reprisal attacks targeting the Lendu. Although the government deployed additional security forces to Ituri province, they failed to stop the violence and at times “committed abuses such as extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention.”
The Hema and Lendu ethnic groups have a long history of conflict, including intense fighting in Ituri province that started in the late 1990s and resulted in thousands of deaths. The Hema are predominately pastoralists and the Lendu are mainly farmers, with longstanding disputes over access to land and resources. Although the two communities had coexisted relatively peacefully since 2007, several waves of inter-ethnic fighting have taken place since December 2017. The UN Refugee Agency has documented that more than 556,000 people have been internally displaced by the violence while an estimated 57,000 fled across the border to Uganda.
The recurrence of deadly conflict between the Hema and Lendu communities demonstrates the need for urgent reconciliation efforts as well as accountability for crimes perpetrated during the past two years. The DRC government should help mediate inter-communal tensions, and address structural issues of land access, resource allocation and poor governance in Ituri province. The government must also ensure that all troops deployed to Ituri who commit human rights abuses against the local population are removed from active duty and held accountable for their actions.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA