ResourcesPress Release

Agreement to Evacuate Four Syrian Towns May Constitute War Crimes

Physicians for Human Rights says Syrian government forcing civilians to choose: surrender or starve

For Immediate Release

Syrian government officials and opposition forces reached a deal this week to evacuate residents from four besieged towns: Foah and Kafraya, encircled by opposition fighters, and Madaya and Zabadani, surrounded by Syrian government forces and their allies. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has long documented the devastating health effects of sieges on civilian populations in places like Madaya. The organization said today this plan to force civilians from their homes – while appearing to bring relief – may constitute forcible displacement, an illegal strategy of warfare.

“Throughout this conflict, the Syrian government has offered two unthinkable options for civilians in besieged areas: surrender or starve,” said PHR’s director of research and investigations, Marianne Møllmann. “While besieging civilians is a war crime – one carried out by many parties to this horrible conflict – forcibly removing civilians from their homes is also a war crime. Specifically, this deal will drive civilians from opposition-held areas into Idlib governorate, an area increasingly facing deprivation and bombardment at the hands of a government that has shown total callousness toward human life. People are merely being transferred from one firing range to another.”

Earlier this month, PHR published a report outlining the Syrian government’s exploitation of UN humanitarian aid deliveries. PHR’s analysis illustrated how Syrian authorities are deliberately and illegally depriving millions of people in besieged and hard to reach areas, including Madaya, of vital humanitarian aid. PHR has also documented the consequences of such deprivation of supplies: in the first year of Madaya’s siege, dozens of residents died from starvation, malnutrition, and other preventable conditions. Reports indicate that dozens more have succumbed to preventable deaths in the second year of Madaya’s siege, as aid deliveries and medical evacuations continued to be deliberately blocked.

“As PHR has shown time and time again, the intentional blocking of aid has had fatal consequences,” said Dr. Homer Venters, PHR’s director of programs. “We’ve documented cases of children starving to death, civilians dying because they no longer have access to basic medical care and supplies. The fact that Syrians are willing to leave everything behind, knowing they cannot return and heading to an area that is also under attack, shows just how immense their suffering has been.”

In addition, PHR also today called attention to the continued bombardment of medical facilities across Syria, which has only compounded the suffering. PHR has documented 433 attacks on 297 separate health facilities between March 2011 and October 2016. More than 90 percent of these attacks were carried out by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. PHR has also recorded the deaths of 786 medical personnel since the beginning of the conflict.

“Cutting off aid, besieging civilians, attacking hospitals: these are all elements of the Syrian government’s campaign to subdue not just opposition, but anyone who happens to stand in their way,” said PHR’s Møllmann. “For six long years, the conflict’s casualty count has climbed upward, and the international community has stood by. Haven’t Syrians suffered enough? It’s long past time to end these war crimes – to end sieges, ensure aid deliveries to all in need, and end the devastating attacks on hospitals and doctors.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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