‘Left To Die Under Siege’: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Eastern Ghouta

August 12, 2015

‘Left To Die Under Siege’: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Eastern Ghouta

Nearly half a million civilians live in areas under siege across Syria four years after mass popular protests against the government sparked a bitter, ongoing armed conflict that has seen war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights abuses committed on an epic scale.

The prolonged sieges enforced by the Syrian government and non-state armed groups have cut civilians off from food, basic necessities, and life-saving assistance, in violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law. The hundreds of thousands of civilians living under siege who struggle to survive amidst this deprivation also have to contend with daily, often indiscriminate, aerial strikes and shelling.

Conditions for the 163,500 people living under siege in Eastern Ghouta, an agricultural and industrial area 13km north-east of Damascus, are particularly acute. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), parts of Eastern Ghouta have been under siege by Syrian government forces since 2013. The government had, however, begun restricting the movement of civilians, confiscating food and arbitrarily depriving civilians from electricity and water since late 2012. Non-state armed groups operating in the area have also contributed to the worsening humanitarian situation for civilians there, including by inflating the price of food and other basic necessities and arbitrarily restricting the movement of civilians trying to leave Eastern Ghouta. Amnesty International has been conducting research on the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta since late 2012.

A glimmer of hope emerged for Syrians, in particular those living under siege, when the UN Security Council adopted, over a year ago, Resolutions 2139 and 2165 demanding that all parties to the conflict, and in particular the Syrian authorities, end all attacks against civilians, lift all sieges, provide unfettered cross-line and cross-border humanitarian aid access and release all arbitrarily detained people. Despite these unequivocal demands, however, well over a year after the resolutions were passed, the parties to the conflict continue to violate them, and international law, with impunity.

The Syrian government has been carrying out aerial and shelling attacks on civilians and civilian objects in Eastern Ghouta since 2012. This report documents Syrian government attacks against civilians and civilian objects in Eastern Ghouta between January and June 2015 and the conduct of non-state armed groups operating in the area. Amnesty International conducted 32 interviews with current and former residents of Eastern Ghouta, as well as with three doctors, five local aid workers and two humanitarian organizations based there. The interviews were conducted either in person or by Skype, phone or email, between April and June 2015. In addition, Amnesty International reviewed hundreds of photos and videos that corroborated witness accounts. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), a local monitoring group, aerial and shelling attacks killed at least 462 civilians and 16 fighters in Eastern Ghouta between January and June 2015. For this report, Amnesty International investigated 13 attacks that killed in total 231 civilians and three fighters. Eyewitness testimony and expert analysis of weapons’ remnants in videos and pictures indicate that in the majority of the 8 attacks the Syrian government used fighter jets to drop unguided bombs and locally produced explosives on civilians and civilian objects, weapons that are too imprecise to target military objectives that may be present in heavily populated civilian areas such as Eastern Ghouta. Witness testimony and photos and videos from strike sites indicate that in 10 of the 13 attacks there was no legitimate military objective struck or present at or in the vicinity of the strike site. Whether the strikes directly attacked civilians or were indiscriminate in nature, they were serious violations of international law. Directing attacks at civilians not directly participating in hostilities or at civilian objects and carrying out indiscriminate attacks that kill or injure civilians are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes.

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