UN gathers Syria starvation stories, but war crimes charges against unlikely
A top war crimes investigator for the United Nations says his commission is gathering stories from the people of Madaya, the Syrian town where people had been cut off from food and aid for months.
“They have provided detailed information on shortages of food, water, qualified physicians, and medicine. This has led to acute malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups in the town,” Paulo Pinhero, chairman of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, told Reuters.
“Siege tactics, by their nature, target the civilian population by subjecting them to starvation, denial of basic essential services and medicines,” Pinhero said in an email to Reuters.
Although an aid convoy arrived in the besieged town Monday, bringing a month’s worth of food and medical supplies for the 40,000 people, the UN says is by no means a long-term fix and is calling for sustained access to provide humanitarian relief.
“All actors in the Syrian conflict have been committing crimes against humanity. Everyone has blood on their hands,” says Kyle Matthews, the deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights. “There’s no angels. There’s a lot of devils.”
This isn’t the first time the term “war crimes” has been used to categorize the horrors and brutality inflicted upon Syrians.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war for almost five years, with no signs of stopping in the immediate future. An estimated 250,000 people have died, 4.5 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees and a further 6.5 million have been internally displaced, according to the UN.
Matthews points to the barrel bombs the Assad regime has for years dropped on civilians in rebel-held areas and its use of chemical weapons and the atrocities committed by ISIS as examples of the acts that could be considered war crimes.
The UN estimates a total of 400,000 people are living under siege and are blocked from access to humanitarian aid in 15 besieged communities.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said the Assad regime is using “grotesque starve-or-surrender tactics” in Madaya and other areas. At the same time, the Islamist rebel group had cut off aid to the towns of Kafarya and Foua, some 330 km north of the capital city Damascus, while ISIS has also reportedly cut off access to food and aid in the besieged city Deir al-Zour.
The starvation of people — or using food as a weapon of war — falls under is a war crime, according to the International Criminal Court (ICC>.
“[It’s] a slow way to kill their enemies,” Matthews says, adding there is mounting documentation to show the Assad regime has cut off communities from access to food in order “to eventually either starve or weaken rebels.”
“But most times it affects the entire civilian population [of that area].”
While human rights groups and foreign government officials are accusing the Syrian government of committing a war crime, prosecuting Assad, rebel groups or Islamic State leaders under international law isn’t all that likely.
That means the Syrian government could not be brought before the ICC unless a UN Security Council referred it to the court. Permanent security council member Russia is an ally of the Assad government and probably wouldn’t allow that to happen — no matter how many other governments and human rights groups call for it.
“In a way, Assad is still protected,” Matthews said.
“We’re going to have to make a decisions soon as to whether we want to pursue justice or we want to [pursue] peace. The two don’t always go hand-in-hand.”
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