Last Friday, 24 September, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued its first report on the death toll in Syria in seven years, noting that at least 350,209 civilians were killed between March 2011 and March 2021. However, the report includes only the UN’s “minimum verifiable number,” and the actual civilian death toll is believed to be significantly higher. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, emphasized that, “behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights. We must always make victims’ stories visible, both individually and collectively, because the injustice and horror of each of these deaths should compel us to action.”
According to OHCHR’s figures, 26,727 women and 27,126 children have been killed since March 2011. The highest number of verified civilian deaths was in Aleppo governorate, with 51,731 killed.
High Commissioner Bachelet noted that documenting deaths does not present a full picture of the civilian toll of the conflict in Syria, stating that, “given the vast number of missing persons in Syria, I restate my call for the creation of an independent mechanism,” which would clarify the fate and whereabout of missing victims, identify remains and provide support to relatives. According to the HRC-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria, there have been more than 130,000 arbitrary detentions, abductions or disappearances since 2011.
Civilians continue to endure deadly conflict and atrocities in Syria. In Idlib governorate, particularly in Jabal al-Zawya, since January there has been an escalation in ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes perpetrated by Russian forces loyal to the Syrian government. Civilian objects, including medical facilities, markets, and schools, have been heavily damaged, causing dozens of civilian casualties and greatly reducing access to food, water, healthcare and adequate housing.
Since late July Syrian government forces have also increased their attacks on armed opposition groups in Dara’a governorate, with raids and missiles targeting residential buildings. The government has also utilized siege tactics, encircling towns and preventing civilians from fleeing.
The international community must help facilitate justice for Syria’s hundreds of thousands of civilian victims. The UN Security Council should immediately refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. The international community should also act on High Commissioner Bachelet’s call to establish an independent international mechanism to clarify the fate and whereabouts of all the missing and disappeared.
Clashes in Myanmar between the military and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) – civilian militias opposing the reimposition of military rule – have intensified in recent weeks, particularly since the National Unity Government (NUG) declared a nationwide uprising against the junta on 7 September. On 22 September reports emerged that fighting between the military and a PDF in Thantlang, Chin State, forced nearly all 10,000 residents to flee their homes. In response to the violence, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said that, “the murder of a Baptist minister and bombing of homes in Thantlang, Chin State are the latest examples of the living hell being delivered daily by junta forces against the people of Myanmar.”
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on 23 September, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called the situation in Myanmar a “human rights catastrophe that shows no signs of abating” and warned of an “alarming possibility of an escalating civil war.” High Commissioner Bachelet’s latest report on Myanmar documented widespread violations of human rights and International Humanitarian Law by the military, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar-based human rights organization, at least 1,146 people have been killed by the security forces since 1 February and 6,914 people remain detained for resisting the coup.
During his briefing to the HRC on 22 September, Special Rapporteur Andrews stressed that, “current efforts by the international community to stop the downward spiral of events in Myanmar are simply not working… a change of course is necessary.”
Special Rapporteur Andrews called for an arms embargo on Myanmar while High Commissioner Bachelet called on the HRC to support an inclusive political process that involves the NUG, civil society and representatives from ethnic minority communities, including women. High Commissioner Bachelet also argued that, “the human rights violations [and] crimes being committed by the Tatmadaw today are built upon the impunity with which they perpetrated the shocking campaigns of violence against the Rohingya just four years ago – and also against many other ethnic minorities over decades.”
UN member states should heed the pleas of the High Commissioner and Special Rapporteur. As the situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, it is important that the international community intensifies the pressure on the junta and acts to save innocent lives.
On Monday, 27 September, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, filed a submission to the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber requesting authorization to resume the investigation into the situation in Afghanistan. The Office of the Prosecutor had previously paused its investigation following a request from the government of Afghanistan to conduct investigations nationally. In light of the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August, Chief Prosecutor Khan emphasized in his announcement that “there is no longer the prospect of genuine and effective domestic investigations” by national authorities into crimes committed in Afghanistan.
The ICC investigations will now focus on crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, targeted extrajudicial executions, persecution of women and girls and crimes against children. Chief Prosecutor Khan explained that, “the gravity, scale and continuing nature of alleged atrocity crimes by the Taliban and Islamic State… demand focus and proper resources from my office.”
The Chief Prosecutor also decided to “deprioritize other aspects” of the investigation due to apparent resource constraints. This will exclude all alleged crimes committed by Afghan national security forces, United States (US) forces and the Central Intelligence Agency during two decades of conflict in Afghanistan. According to former Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the former Afghan security forces and members of the US military may have committed war crimes, including the torture of detainees and summary executions.
Jahaan Pittalwala, Research Analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “given recent developments in Afghanistan and ongoing reports of violations of international law, the Chief Prosecutor’s request to resume investigations is a strong and welcome step. However, it is extremely concerning that the Court is excluding former Afghan government forces and US forces from its investigations and allowing impunity for crimes perpetrated during the two-decade conflict.”
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA