UN human rights chief fears world has grown numb to Syrian carnage

© OCHA/Hedinn Halldorsson An estimated 26,000 children aged 3-17 in Al Hol camp of Syria’s Hasakeh governorate have been out of schools for years due to conflict and displacement and are in need of education services.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


The relentless campaign of airstrikes in Syria has been met with a “collective shrug,” the top United Nations human rights official said on Friday, denouncing the world’s apparent indifference to the mounting civilian casualties as a “failure of leadership” by the world’s most powerful countries.

“Despite repeated calls by the United Nations to respect the principle of precaution and distinction in their conduct of hostilities, this latest relentless campaign of airstrikes by the Government and its allies has continued to hit medical facilities, schools and other civilian infrastructure such as markets and bakeries,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Drawing attention to the death toll caused by a succession of airstrikes in Idlib and other parts of north-western Syria, she pointed out that “these are civilian objects,” and given the persistent pattern of such attacks “it seems highly unlikely” that they were all hit by accident.

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” underscored the High Commissioner.

As a result of airstrikes over the past 10 days alone, eight locations in Idlib and two in rural Aleppo have witnessed civilian casualties, resulting in at least 103 civilian deaths, including some 26 children.

Ms. Bachelet expressed concern that the continued carnage in Syria “is no longer on the international radar.”

“Several hundreds of thousands of children, women and men have been killed in Syria since 2011,” she flagged. “So many that it is no longer even possible to give a credible estimate.”

During the early years of this “murderous conflict”, when the casualties were in the tens, then hundreds, then thousands, the human rights chief said that “the world showed considerable concern about what was happening.”

“Now, airstrikes kill and maim significant numbers of civilians several times a week, and the response seems to be a collective shrug, with the Security Council paralyzed by the persistent failure of its five Permanent Members to agree to use their power and influence to stop the fighting and killing once and for all,” Ms. Bachelet bemoaned, saying this “failure of leadership by the world’s most powerful nations” has resulted “in tragedy on such a vast scale that we no longer seem to be able to relate to it at all.”

Recent attacks

  • 16 July, Maar Shurin, Idlib
  • 21 July, Urum al-Jawz and Kafrouma, Idlib
  • 22 July, Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Idlib
  • 22 July, Saraqib, Idlib
  • 24 July, Ariha, Muhambal and Tabish, Idlib

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) has documented the killing of at least 450 civilians, including the 91 by airstrikes over the past ten days, since the latest campaign by the Government and its allies in north-west Syria began more than three months ago.

Ms. Bachelet said her staff is also continuing to gather information on three recent attacks, resulting in at least 11 civilian casualties, carried out by non-State armed groups on Government-controlled areas, in the town of Masyaf, in Hama on 21 July, and in the al-Hamadaniya and al-Jamiliya neighbourhoods of Aleppo city on 22 and 24 July.

Despite being the subject of the 2017 de-escalation agreement, and the 2018 de-militarized zone agreement, “Idlib and surrounding areas are witnessing a grave military escalation with dire human rights and humanitarian consequences for the millions of civilians trying to survive there,” according to Ms. Bachelet.

She urged “influential parties”, including those that agreed to reduce hostilities as part of the de-escalation agreement, to “urgently use their influence” to halt the current military campaign and “bring the warring parties back to the negotiating table”.

“It is essential that there is a cessation of hostilities in order to give the on-going political negotiations room to breathe”, the High Commissioner concluded. “The alternative is just more mindless death and destruction in a war without end.”

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