Syria’s cessation of hostilities, which came into effect on February 27, was supposed to reduce violence and guarantee delivery of humanitarian aid to desperate populations in need across Syria. The reduction of violence witnessed in the first weeks of the cessation has started to reverse course, and the cessation has largely failed on its promises to deliver life-saving humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrians in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.
Attacks on medical personnel and facilities, one of the most egregious and unlawful aspects of the conflict, have resumed. In the last two weeks of March, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented the killings of four medical personnel and an attack on a hospital. Opposition fighters shot a nurse in Ankhal, Daraa on March 18, and Syrian government forces killed the three other medical personnel in the suburbs of Damascus during the last week of March. Government forces also shelled a hospital and physiotherapy center in Yamadiya, Latakia on March 31, forcing both facilities to evacuate and cease services. From the start of the conflict through the end of March 2016, PHR has documented the deaths of 730 medical workers and 359 attacks on 256 separate medical facilities. Syrian government forces and their Russian allies are responsible for more than 90 percent of these attacks. The latest attack occurred on April 13, when an airstrike killed Dr. Hasan al A’raj, Health Director of Hama governorate, as he was leaving his hospital.
Five years of relentless violence have devastated civilian life and left 13.5 million Syrians in need of basic humanitarian assistance. However, the Syrian government has systematically obstructed delivery of such aid by creating burdensome procedural processes, refusing to respond to or outright denying requests for access, refusing inclusion of medical and food aid in approved convoys, and stripping such aid from pre-approved deliveries.
Since the start of the cessation, UN agencies have delivered aid to only 11 of the 18 UN-designated besieged areas, with supplies sufficient for about 147,000 people. Syrian government officials have stripped many of these deliveries of medical and food aid, and the deliveries that have arrived have included supplies sufficient to meet only a fraction of the areas’ populations. Residents of the 11 areas remain in desperate need of aid, along with the additional 340,000 besieged Syrians who continue to live without access to vital humanitarian aid. By some counts, the actual number of besieged people is two times higher.
Targeted attacks on medical facilities and personnel are war crimes. Indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas affecting medical facilities and personnel are war crimes. Deliberately obstructing civilian access to humanitarian aid is a war crime. Given the widespread and systematic nature of these violations in Syria, these attacks constitute crimes against humanity.
In view of the continued violations, Physicians for Human Rights demands immediate implementation of the following steps:
- All parties to the conflict must immediately cease all violations of international humanitarian law, especially siege warfare and attacks on medical personnel and facilities.
- The Syrian government must promptly approve all UN OCHA-submitted requests for humanitarian aid deliveries, and remove procedural delays that continue to hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid. Furthermore, it must approve the inclusion of medicines and medical supplies, including surgical supplies, in all aid deliveries and prevent security forces and other officials from removing pre-approved medical supplies.
- The international community, given the failure of the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, must support other credible justice initiatives to ensure that perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity are held accountable. These initiatives could include the creation of an ad-hoc or special tribunal and the prosecution of appropriate cases under universal jurisdiction.