The Geneva II peace conference on Syria must aim to urgently end government sieges imposed on opposition-held towns where civilians are starving to death, said Amnesty International.
The organization is urging government and opposition groups to commit to granting unfettered access to humanitarian organizations operating throughout Syria during the UN-backed talks which begin on 22 January in Switzerland.
“Heartbreaking images from besieged Syrian towns showing emaciated children and skeletal figures with yellowing skin have emerged in recent days. The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Syria is expanding at an overwhelming pace. We are urging all states involved in the Geneva II talks, the United Nations, the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition to make alleviating the suffering of people in Syria a top priority,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director.
“If the peace conference goes ahead as planned, it will represent a rare opportunity to make vital progress on human rights for both sides of the conflict. Those involved in Geneva II must ensure that human rights remain at the forefront of the agenda and are not sacrificed for the sake of a political compromise.”
The Syrian government has obstructed the delivery of vital aid to civilian populations in and around Damascus including the al-Yarmouk camp for Palestinian refugees, where at least 49 people, including 17 women and girls, are reported to have died since last July, including some who starved to death. A nurse at a local hospital told Amnesty international that since mid-November 2013 when government forces took control of an area near the camp, several civilians have been killed by snipers while foraging for food in nearby fields.
“Every day, we receive around four people – probably half of them women - who were shot at by snipers as they were picking plants and shrubs in the fields. The women say they prefer to risk their own lives to spare their children. On one occasion, we received a teenager, probably aged 16 or 17, who was shot dead. His father started talking to him, saying: ‘You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your siblings.’ It was heartbreaking,” he said.
Blockades on Moadamiya and Eastern Ghouta and in other areas have also left desperate civilians trapped and facing extreme food and medical shortages. Last month UN humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos estimated that 250,000 people in besieged areas were beyond the reach of aid.
One civilian trapped in Moadamiya told Amnesty International: “I would wake up at night and drink water several times in the hope that in the morning, I'd feel less hungry... there is just nothing to eat.” Despite a truce between Syrian government forces and opposition armed groups in Moadamiya last December, so far humanitarian aid allowed into the town has been far from sufficient and lacked nutritious goods – including fruits and vegetables.
“The Syrian government is cruelly punishing civilians living in opposition-held areas. Starving civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime. The blockades must be lifted immediately and access to humanitarian aid must never be used to score military or political gains,” Philip Luther said.
The Syrian authorities may inspect goods entering and leaving towns but must not block the delivery of basic supplies including food and medical aid. Both government and opposition forces must also guarantee safe access for workers delivering life-saving humanitarian aid and immediately end attacks on medical and humanitarian workers.
Detained activists and civilians
In addition to ensuring humanitarian access, Amnesty International is calling on participants at Geneva II, particularly states with influence on the Syrian government and armed opposition groups, to secure the release of all peaceful activists, including human rights defenders, and civilian hostages they are holding.
Since 2011, thousands of peaceful opposition protesters have been detained by government security forces. Some have since been released but in many cases detainees have been tortured to death or given lengthy prison sentences following unfair trials. Others continue to be held without trial.
Majd al-Din al-Kholani, aged 25, is one such detainee. He was arrested in 2011 after organizing protests in Daraya, a city south-west of Damascus, when he gave Syrian soldiers water bottles with flowers to oppose the use of force against demonstrators. He continues to be held incommunicado. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience who, along with many other peaceful activists, should be released immediately and unconditionally. Recently the organization received credible information that his case had been transferred to a secret field military court where he may face the death penalty or prolonged imprisonment.
In August 2013, at least 105 civilians, mainly women and children, were abducted from their mostly Alawite Muslim villages by an armed group that had hoped to swap them for opposition fighters held by the regime. They continue to be held hostage. States taking part in Geneva II and that have influence on such armed opposition groups must act immediately to secure their safe release.
“Too many people have been detained, abducted or subjected to enforced disappearances in Syria with their fate remaining unknown. Any deals made by participants in the Geneva II peace conference must also aim to secure the release of the thousands of peaceful activists like Majd al-Din al-Kholani and those abducted, particularly women and children,” said Philip Luther.
Syrian women’s voices
Amnesty International is also calling for local activists and women to be given a platform at the Geneva II conference so that they can make effective contributions to any decisions made.
The organization is urging states to stop all arms transfers to the Syrian government and to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) as well as any armed opposition groups committing war crimes and other serious human rights abuses.
Amnesty International is also calling for an end to attacks on non-military targets, particularly by the government and for both sides to stop the widespread practice of summary killing and torture. Since 2011, the organization has been calling on the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.