International Community Has Failed to Address Crimes Committed in Syrian Conflict

Press Release
August 29, 2013

International Community Has Failed to Address Crimes Committed in Syrian Conflict

Amnesty International Believes Chemical Agents Contaminated Neighborhoods East of Damascus on August 21 Attacks

Contact: Sharon Singh, ssingh@aiusa.org, 202-675-8579, @AIUSAmedia

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - Frank Jannuzi, Amnesty International USA deputy executive director, issued the following statement as governments signal their intentions to take military action against the Syrian government in response to the chemical weapons attack of August 21.

"Using chemical weapons against civilians is never acceptable. It violates international law and offends the conscience. Sadly, this is only the most recent reprehensible crime in a conflict that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives.

"Amnesty International believes the best course of action would be for the United Nations to complete its investigation into this latest outrage and for the United Nations Security Council to refer all evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity from this and other incidents to the International Criminal Court. Those responsible must be brought to justice. The walls of impunity must come down.

"It is also not too late for the U.N. Security Council to consider other measures, including targeted economic sanctions and the deployment of international human rights monitors, to reduce the ripping apart of families and the bloodshed of this protracted conflict."

Background

Amnesty International has gathered information from survivors of the chemical weapons attack believed to have taken place in the Eastern Ghouta region, east of the capital Damascus, on August 21, as well as doctors who examined those killed and treated those affected by the contamination. We have shared this and other information about the alleged chemical release with specialists in chemical agents. Based on this research and the analysis by specialists, Amnesty International believes that it is highly likely that chemical agents contaminated several neighborhoods in the adjacent towns of Zamalka and Ain Tarma in Eastern Ghouta.

According to the specialists consulted, symptoms exhibited by those affected by the alleged chemical release are consistent with exposure to organophosphorous nerve agents. These agents are part of compounds called cholinesterase inhibitors that prevent an enzyme responsible for nerve transmissions from transmitting messages effectively to the muscles, leading to reduced muscle activity. This prevents sufficient oxygen from reaching the lungs, leading to respiratory difficulties which, in severe cases, result in death. The reduced muscle activity caused by exposure to organophosphorous nerve agents also lead to involuntary muscle movements, including twitching and convulsions, and constricted pupils, all of which are symptoms that were exhibited by those present in Zamalka and Ain Tarma during the hours after the alleged attack.

Amnesty International does not have sufficient information to determine who used or released the chemical agents in the affected areas in Zamalka and Ain Tarma, which are under the control of opposition forces.

Amnesty International has not so far been able to conduct in-depth research into the chemical weapons attack that is believed to have taken place in Mo'damiya, west of Damascus, also on August 21. However, the symptoms exhibited in those affected, as shown in video footage, appear to be similar to the symptoms shown in those affected by the alleged attack on Eastern Ghouta. Accordingly, Amnesty International is concerned that Mo'damiya was also contaminated by a similar chemical agent.

While the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has been trying to convene an international conference to resolve the crisis in Syria, deadlock at the U.N. Security Council has so far hampered attempts to resolve the conflict. The Syrian government has essentially been given a green light to commit gross violations of human rights, including crimes under international law, confident that they will be protected by allies such as Russia and China. Unless that dynamic changes and effective pressure is applied on all parties, it is difficult to see how negotiations alone will resolve the crisis.

Targeted sanctions (namely a freeze on the assets of President Bashar al-Assad and others who may be involved in ordering or perpetrating crimes under international law), a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court and the deployment of international human rights monitors would help contribute to conditions for fruitful negotiations aimed at a solution that respects the human rights of all Syrians.

Amnesty International would call on them to comply with international humanitarian law, particularly in relation to the protection of civilian lives. In particular, they should:

  • Refrain from targeting civilians or civilian objects;
  • Refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks;
  • Refrain from using weapons which are inherently indiscriminate or otherwise prohibited under international humanitarian law, including cluster munitions;
  • Take all necessary precautions in attacks to spare civilians, including by issuing warnings to civilians wherever feasible, and paying particular heed to the fact that detainees are being held in military bases and facilities;
  • Take precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effect of attacks, including avoiding, to the extent feasible, locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas, and removing, where feasible, civilians from the vicinity of military objectives;
  • Refrain from using civilians to render military objectives immune from attack (that is, as human shields).

The international community as a whole should do the following:

  • It should take urgent steps to try to ease the dire humanitarian situation inside the country, where more than 4.25 million people are believed to be displaced from their homes. In particular, it should ensure that all parties to the armed conflict in Syria allow unfettered access to humanitarian organizations and agencies to provide assistance to the civilian population. In the case of the Syrian government, this should include granting cross-border access, as well as cross-line access. All parties must allow provision of assistance on the basis of need, without discrimination.
  • It should step up efforts to share responsibility for refugees and ease the strain on Syria's neighbors in order to assist and protect those who have fled the conflict. Syria's neighbors and other countries hosting Syrians must ensure that no Syrians are forcibly returned.
  • It should accept a shared responsibility to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law committed in Syria or anywhere in the world. In particular, it should seek to exercise universal jurisdiction over these crimes before national courts in fair trials and without recourse to the death penalty. This is especially important given the U.N. Security Council’s ongoing failure to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

In the absence of an international arms embargo, and because widespread and systematic armed attacks by the Syrian armed forces and allied militias with a wide range of conventional arms have resulted in crimes against humanity, any states supplying arms to the Syrian government should halt such transfers immediately. This includes all weapons, munitions, military, security, and policing equipment, training and personnel.

In addition, no arms transfer should be made to an armed opposition group in Syria where there is a substantial risk of the group committing serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The onus should be on states considering military transfers to armed opposition groups to first ensure the establishment of concrete, enforceable and verifiable mechanisms so as to remove all substantial risks that any military equipment supplied is not misused or diverted to commit or facilitate grave human rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International calls on all parties to the conflict to:

  • End attacks on civilians and civilian objects;
  • Refrain from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks;
  • End summary killings and torture and other ill-treatment;
  • Release any person held solely on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, or political opinion;
  • Communicate a zero-tolerance policy on abuses to forces under their command and condemn publicly abuses where they occur;
  • Allow humanitarian organizations and agencies unfettered access to provide assistance to the civilian population without discrimination; in the case of the government, this should include granting cross-border access, as well as cross-line access;
  • Provide access to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic to investigate all alleged crimes under international law and violations and abuses of international human rights law;
  • Allow human rights organizations and international media full and unhindered access to the areas they control, including detention centers.

Amnesty International neither condemns nor condones armed intervention. It also takes no position on the legality or moral basis for any such action. In situations of armed conflict, Amnesty International focuses on ensuring that warring parties respect international humanitarian law and human rights.

Any attack by the United States, United Kingdom, France or others against Syria will be the start of an international armed conflict between the Syrian government and foreign military forces. All parties in such a conflict must comply with international humanitarian law, including refraining from targeting civilians, refraining from carrying out indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, and taking all necessary precautions to spare civilians.

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.