BEIRUT: Human Rights Watch has accused Syrian rebel groups outside Damascus of war crimes after they placed hostages including civilians in cages for use as “human shields” to deter government strikes. Video posted over the weekend showed dozens of captives, among them soldiers and civilians, in cages being transported to different parts of the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the powerful Jaish Al-Islam group had placed the caged captives in public squares to deter government bombing. Human Rights Watch said the practice “constitutes hostage-taking and an outrage against their personal dignity, which are both war crimes.”
“Nothing can justify caging people and intentionally putting them in harm’s way, even if the purpose is to stop indiscriminate government attacks,” said HRW deputy Middle East director Nadim Houry. “Ending Syria’s downward spiral requires international backers of armed groups as well as the government to make protecting civilians a top priority.” The rights group noted that a similar practice was reported in September, in two government-held Shiite towns under rebel siege in Idlib province. There images emerged purporting to show captured rebels placed in a cage on a building in one of the villages to deter opposition shelling.
Eastern Ghouta is a rebel stronghold outside Damascus and a frequent target of heavy and bloody government air strikes and shelling. At least 70 people were killed and 550 wounded in government attacks on Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, last week, according to non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders. Rebels in the region regularly bombard the capital, and rights groups have condemned both sides for their indiscriminate fire. More than 250,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests. All sides in the complex civil war have been accused of abuses of varying degrees, including the use of banned weapons, torture, arbitrary arrest and execution.
Gas attacks probe
Meanwhile, a UN panel will soon begin work on tracking those responsible for deadly gas attacks in Syria, but the head of the investigation says it will be difficult to come up with a complete list of perpetrators. Virginia Gamba stressed that the team of 24 multi-skilled experts she is assembling will adhere to “sound, objective, impartial” guidelines “that no one can question” to find the culprits. “Will I have the name, surname, and age of a perpetrator? I have no idea,” Gamba said in an interview at her new UN offices. “It’s going to be very hard to do.”
A disarmament expert from Argentina, Gamba heads the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), approved by the Security Council in August after evidence surfaced of chlorine gas attacks on three Syrian villages last year. Describing herself as a “technician,” Gamba was picked for the job partly because she has worked on two previous UN missions on chemical weapons use in Syria. But this panel is “a different kettle of fish,” she stressed, with a broader scope and more challenging mandate to identify who is to blame for the attacks, using unassailable methodology.
The starting point for the international investigation are three fact-finding missions from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that concluded that chlorine was probably used as a weapon on the opposition-held villages, killing 13 people. But the OPCW stuck to its mandate and did not assign blame for the attacks in Idlib and Hama provinces, among the many horrors to have been documented in Syria’s four-year war.
A very big canvas
Taking those reports, the panel has been asked to dig deeper with the aim of not only pointing the finger at those who carried out the attacks, but also identifying their co-conspirators, organizers, financial backers and sponsors. “This is what the intention is: to create a very big canvas where everyone would be accountable either directly or indirectly from the very first round of accountability to the end,” said the 61-year-old former head of the UN disarmament agency. “But it is difficult… this was a year ago.”
The JIM is the most concrete UN effort to date to establish some accountability in the war that has left more than a quarter of a million people dead, and displaced nearly 12 million. The panel will be fully up and running around mid-November, with offices in New York, The Hague and Damascus, and a first report on its findings is expected in February. It has been set up initially for one year, but its mandate could be prolonged. Under an agreement being negotiated with Damascus, the team will be able to conduct field missions, speak to witnesses and collect evidence.- Agencies