The human-rights situation in Syria has “deteriorated rapidly” since March and promises to end the violence have proven empty as clashes between pro- and anti-government forces escalate and spread through the country, according to a United Nations commission of inquiry.
“Gross violations of human rights are occurring in the context of increasingly militarized fighting,” the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report presented today to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “In some areas, the fighting bears the characteristics of a non-international armed conflict.”
The U.S. and the UN say President Bashar al-Assad’s government is using helicopter gunships as it steps up military operations against the opposition. After almost 16 months of conflict, the UN says its two-month-old cease-fire is failing to hold and that Sunni Muslim civilians in Syria are being killed.
Violence in Syria has “now reached or even surpassed” levels before the April 12 cease-fire brokered by UN envoy Kofi Annan, as “the second week of May saw a return to unrestrained and increasing hostilities,” Jean-Marie Guehenno, the UN special envoy’s deputy, told the Human Rights Council.
At least 435 people died in fighting between Feb. 22 and June 15, the commission of inquiry said. Assad’s government told investigators that 804 people, both combatants and non-combatants, were killed between May 7 and June 4 and put the total number of casualties by April 27 at 6,143. Non-governmental groups say between 13,000 and 17,000 people have been killed.
Among the victims were more than 100 people -- mainly women and children -- killed during a three-day attack in late May on Houla, a group of towns some 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of Homs. While the commission wasn’t allowed to visit the site, it concluded that the killings were carried out by state-backed shabiha militiamen, anti-government forces or foreign fighters with unknown affiliation.
“The situation on the ground has dramatically changed in the last three months as the hostilities by anti-government armed groups each day take on more clearly the contours of an insurrection,” the commission said in its 21-page report. “As a result of the estimated flow of new weapons and ammunitions, both to the government forces and to the anti-government armed groups, the situation risks becoming more aggravated.”
Syrian forces and shabiha “have perpetrated unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention and torture” including “acts of sexual violence against men, women and children,” according to the report. Opposition fighters have also tortured and executed government troops, shabiha and supporters of Assad, it said.
Youngsters in particular are suffering from the conflict and are often among those killed and injured during attacks on protests and the bombardment of towns and villages, the commission said.
Its findings were based on several missions in March, April and May during which 383 interviews, including 50 with women and 11 with children, were conducted. Investigators also spoke with government officials and opposition groups.
The commission of inquiry, created in September, said the fighting in Syria has created 92,000 refugees, led to the pillaging and burning of homes, restrictions on the freedoms of movement, speech and association and the systematic denial in some areas of food, water and medical care.