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Syria Uses ‘Strategy of War Crimes’: Human Rights Watch

A handout image released by the Shaam News Network on September 19, 2013 shows Syrian rebels mourning fallen comrades in the central Syrian province of Hama. Photographer: Abdullah Al-Hamoui/Shaam News Network/AFP via Getty Images
A handout image released by the Shaam News Network on September 19, 2013 shows Syrian rebels mourning fallen comrades in the central Syrian province of Hama. Photographer: Abdullah Al-Hamoui/Shaam News Network/AFP via Getty Images

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- The Syrian regime has been using a “strategy of war crimes” that’s killing 5,000 people a month to crush the armed opposition and peace negotiators must focus more attention on the deaths, Human Rights Watch said.

The group also upbraided U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for not wanting to “rock the boat” in his effort to bring both sides to the negotiating table in Switzerland tomorrow. “You don’t even see the U.S. government speaking about the mass atrocities,” its executive director, Kenneth Roth, said.

The New York-based rights group said that mass killings in civil war-torn Syria were “probably the most acute crisis of the last year,” as it published its annual report today.

“Atrocities in Syria are not an unfortunate by-product of the war -- they are the way the Syrian government has chosen to fight this war,” Roth told reporters today in Berlin. This amounts to a “strategy of war crimes aimed at making life as miserable as possible.”

The report comes as a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders prepares for the first face-to-face meeting with President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators since the civil war began in 2011. More than 100,000 people have died and more than 2 million have fled during the conflict, the United Nations says.

Victims of the conflict, which has pitted largely Sunni rebels against Assad’s government, can’t wait for the “distant prospect” of a peace accord as some 5,000 Syrians die every month, according to Roth.

“It is possible to pressure Assad to comply with international humanitarian law standards,” Roth said, citing a Russian-backed chemical weapons accord. “Those governments have simply not been willing to use their leverage.”

‘Mass Atrocities’

The group’s director also took aim at the U.S. National Security Agency, whose mass data collection was revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden in classified documents last year, for violating the privacy rights of individuals.

President Barack Obama’s defense of electronic spying as a bulwark against terrorism and his pledge to apply new restrictions on surveillance last week fails to acknowledge bulk data collection as a threat to privacy, the group said.

The administration’s defense “is a complete failure to recognize the privacy interests involved,” Roth told reporters. “Obama still has it wrong and there is nothing in his speech that recognizes the privacy rights involved.”

He gave the U.S. leader better marks for a May speech in which Obama laid out measures to ensure American drone strikes avoid killing civilians.

Elsewhere, the rights group criticized governments that used electoral majorities or popular backing as a way to sideline minorities, such as in Egypt, Turkey and Thailand.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Donahue in Berlin at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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