Photo Source: © Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images
Photo Source: © Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images

Atrocity Alert No. 365: Syria, Nicaragua and Cluster Munitions

20 September 2023

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.


Since 1 September there has been an increase in hostilities across northwest Syria, with shelling and clashes reported across Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at least 27 civilians, including 11 children, have been killed or injured. OCHA also reported that over 26,500 people have been newly displaced due to the rise in hostilities, causing overcrowding in displacement camps with high needs for emergency shelter, food and water.

The clashes mark a significant escalation in violence that has been ongoing in northwest Syria in recent months, particularly in Idlib governorate. Ground fighting, shelling and airstrikes perpetrated by forces loyal to the Syrian government have damaged medical facilities, markets, schools and displacement camps, greatly reducing access to food, water, medical care and adequate housing. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, between January and August, at least 49 civilians were killed, including 16 children, and 112 injured in northwest Syria before the increase in hostilities. The armed extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham also continues to perpetrate abuses, including arbitrarily detaining activists and journalists.

Over 12 years into the conflict, civilians in Syria continue to suffer extensively from atrocity crimes. The latest report of the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Syria found that grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continue across the country in areas controlled by both the Syrian government and non-state actors. All parties to the conflict continue to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity through arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial killings in areas under their control.

Parties to the conflict, including the Syrian government, also continue to obstruct life-saving humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians. According to the CoI, following the devastating earthquake of February 2023, the Syrian government and other parties hindered the distribution of aid to earthquake victims and continued shelling targets in affected areas, likely amounting to war crimes. Commissioner Lynn Welchman said, “These instances, as well as the failure of the UN Security Council to reach a consensus in July to extend cross-border aid deliveries via the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, stand as a stark reminder of how hostilities, politicization and fragmentation in Syria harm civilians and deprive them of much-needed assistance.”

In line with the recommendations by the CoI, all parties to the conflict must immediately cease indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, while the international community must continue pursuing accountability and justice for perpetrators of likely atrocity crimes. The UN Security Council should explore sustainable and efficient avenues to ensure that critical humanitarian aid reaches all Syrians in need throughout the country.


On 12 September the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHREN) – an investigative body established by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2022 – warned that under President Daniel Ortega the Nicaraguan government continues to commit crimes against humanity to crush dissent, alerting that political persecution has continued to intensify in recent months.

The GHREN explicitly warned about patterns of attacks against universities, students and professors, in an attempt to fully eradicate opposing voices. To date, the government has cancelled the legal status of 27 universities and has deliberately targeted and harassed students, forcing many into exile. According to the GHREN, systematic attacks against academic institutions and individuals are perpetrated at the highest level of the state, asserting that, “The seriousness of these violations, in conjunction with the other crimes documented to date, perpetrated by reason of the political identity of the group targeted, lead us to conclude that these constitute prima facie the crime against humanity of persecution on political grounds.”

The GHREN also documented continued arbitrary detentions, arbitrary criminal proceedings, strict surveillance and serious threats and harassment of actual or alleged opponents, as well as the deliberate denial of re-entry to Nicaragua for those who have been forced to flee. In recent months, more than 300 individuals have also been arbitrarily deprived of their nationality, a strategy increasingly used by Nicaraguan authorities to intensify repression.

Also on 12 September, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presented its latest report on Nicaragua dated 10 August, which similarly documented escalating patterns of political repression. OHCHR also reported continued violence in indigenous territories and against people of African descent, including “killings, torture, sexual violence, the deliberate burning of homes and communal property, threats, harassment and violent invasions of their lands.” OHCHR also warned about the “sharp escalation in frequency and gravity of attacks against the Catholic church,” which, according to previous reporting by the GHREN, is “part of a systematic campaign to “eliminate, by different means, any opposition in the country.”

Elisabeth Pramendorfer, Latin America expert at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said, “Nicaragua’s further descent into authoritarianism – despite ongoing UN investigations and public scrutiny – has shown the consequence of the international community’s failure to apply a coordinated, holistic and robust strategy to respond to the crisis. While condemnation at the HRC is important, regional and international stakeholders urgently need to go beyond words and work on a joint action plan to identify and act on leverage points with the Ortega government.”


During 2022 there was an alarming rise in the number of civilians killed or injured by cluster munitions, according to the annual report released by the Cluster Munition Coalition. At least 1,172 casualties resulting from cluster munitions were recorded across eight countries in 2022. This is the highest annual number of people killed and injured by cluster munitions since reporting began in 2010. Of the overall total, cluster munition attacks killed or wounded at least 987 people – 95 percent of whom were civilians. A further 185 casualties were caused by cluster munition remnants, with children comprising 71 percent of these casualties.

In Ukraine alone, cluster munition attacks killed or injured at least 890 people – the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians – with many more likely unrecorded. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian forces and Russian-backed armed groups have repeatedly used deadly cluster munitions throughout the conflict. Ukrainian forces have also used cluster munitions in populated areas, causing civilian casualties.

The use of cluster munitions was also recorded in Syria and Myanmar (Burma). Syrian government forces used cluster munitions extensively from 2012–2020. Despite diminishing use in 2021, the UN, the Syrian Network for Human Rights and others documented evidence of cluster munition in November 2022 in Idlib governorate. Evidence emerged indicating that the Myanmar Armed Forces used cluster munitions for the first time in 2022 and the first half of 2023, with an apparently domestically-produced cluster bomb. The report verified photographs of cluster bomb remnants and other evidence from attacks by the Myanmar Air Force in Chin, Kayah, Karen and Shan states.

Cluster munitions remain an especially dangerous weapon of war due to their indiscriminate nature. Large munitions release dozens of bomblets that are dispersed over a wide area, with many often failing to immediately explode. Remaining where they fell, the unexploded munitions act like landmines for years to come, posing an extremely high risk to civilians who come across them unknowingly. The use of cluster munitions has effectively been banned since 2010 when the Convention on Cluster Munitions, joined by 124 states, went into force. Their use in civilian populated areas is a violation of International Humanitarian Law that may amount to war crimes.

Savita Pawnday, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said, “Parties to various conflicts around the world continue to use these illegal weapons to perpetrate atrocities against civilians. Despite evidence that such weapons have already caused significant civilian harm in Ukraine, in July the United States announced the transfer of an unspecified quantity of cluster munitions to the Ukrainian government. This creates an unnecessary, deadly threat to civilians for generations to come and the US and Ukraine should reconsider any future transfer of such weapons.”

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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