Following the chemical attack in Syria and the subsequent airstrikes on Syria by the United States, United Kingdom and France, CIVICUS interviews a representative of The Arguendo Initiative about the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations taking place in Ghouta, Syria. The objective of the Arguendo Initiative is to enhance collaboration and information sharing to help people create a better and more informed society. The Arguendo Initiative is a member of CIVICUS and expresses concerns over the crisis in Syria and the lack of an adequate response from the international community to address the human rights violations.

1. What is the human rights situation in Ghouta at the moment?

The conflict in Syria continues to be characterised by human rights and international humanitarian law violations, with over 400,000 dying since 2011. The Syrian government and its allies raced to secure territories and consolidate gains, using prohibited chemical weapons, indiscriminately attacking civilians and withholding humanitarian aid. Practices of arbitrary detention and torture remain widespread. Anti-government armed groups have attacked civilians, kidnapped, and tortured. Civilian casualties from the US and US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS surged, while ISIS planted landmines and used human shields. Finally, ISIS was defeated but that only led to the Russian backed Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad to escalate the conflict against the rebels. The Syrian government has allegedly used chemical weapons multiple times, as recently as on 7 April 2018 on the city of Douma. The United Nations and allied organisations have been unable to supply aid in the absence of a cease-fire. Reports suggest that aid workers and journalists in Syria are being targeted and killed.

2. What is the humanitarian situation and how has this affected ordinary Syrians?

As per a UNICEF Report dated 29 November 2017, a survey of 27 locations in East Ghouta conducted in early November had found that 11.9 percent of children under five years old are acutely malnourished. The number is now likely to be far worse. It has been two months since the UN Resolution and conditions have only worsened. The Syrian government forces backed by Russian air force has cut Ghouta into three small parts which are completely cut off to external aid and supplies. The locals trapped there are being starved and forcibly displaced. As per reports, even United Nations aid relief missions have been stopped from reaching them. Ghouta.com says that as many as 1331 adults and 234 children that have died in Ghouta, this month alone.

3. How has the influence of foreign powers like Russia fuelled the crisis?

From 4 October 2011 till today Russia has vetoed 12 Security Council Resolutions on Syria, including resolutions related to use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against its own citizens. Despite a ceasefire being declared by the United Nations Security Council by virtue of SC/Res/2410, assault by the Syrian government forces, backed by the forces of the Russian Federation have continued. The Russian President Vladimir Putin had on 26 February 2018, ordered a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta, despite the aforementioned UNSC resolution clearly stating a 30 day ceasefire (Clause 1 of SC/Res/2410) and calling for an end of siege of areas in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya (Clause 10 of SC/Res/2410). Clause 5 of S/Res/2410 also demands that the member nations allow “safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for United Nations’ and their implementing partners”’.

Even recently, after the recent incident of chemical attack in Douma, Russia vetoed against Draft Resolution S/2018/321 on the 11th of April 2018.

4. Has the recent UN Security Council Resolution been respected?  If not, why?

The Russian, Iranian and Syrian government's claimed that the UNSC Resolution SC/Res/2410 did not apply to their military actions in Ghouta, or Syria in general, as their actions are against “terrorist organisations”. This argument had no legal basis for the UNSC Resolution 2410, Clause 4 (on which Russia, Turkey, and Syria were basing its claims as it clearly states;  “Affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS, also known as Da’esh), Al Qaeda and Al Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council;”

That is, SC/Res/2410 allowed continuation of military operations against ISIL, Al Qaeda, Al Nusra Front, their affiliates and any group designated as a terrorist ‘by the Security Council’. It is to be noted here that the Syrian Rebel forces, currently in control of Eastern Ghouta have never been declared or designated as a terrorist organisation by the Security Council and hence as per SC/Res/2410, all operations against them should have been stopped with immediate effect. Since then the Security Council resolutions tabled have been vetoed by Russia.

5. How has the violence affected civil society organisations?

The impact has been massive. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has demanded immediate unhindered access to the area to provide care to those affected, to assess the health impacts, and to deliver a comprehensive public health response. The agency reminded the parties to the seven-year conflict of their obligation to refrain from attacking medical facilities and personnel, in line with Security Council resolution 2286, which was adopted unanimously in 2016 and which also demanded an end to impunity for those responsible for such attacks. WHO is currently coordinating the health cluster partners – a WHO-led team of 118 national and international nongovernmental organizations, UN agencies, national authorities and donors working inside Syria to provide emergency and trauma care, as well as basic health services, for people displaced from Eastern Ghouta and stands ready to step up assistance to the newly-accessible areas there once access is granted. Reports from on-ground journalists and aid organisations like White Helmets are sporadic with reports of government specifically targeting emerging hospitals.  In a letter to the doctors of east Ghouta, Orena Bilbao, Operations Coordinator for MSF programmes in Syria, explains:

“At this very moment, our ability to assist in providing healthcare in East Ghouta is almost non-existent. We went from supporting 20 clinics and hospitals at the beginning of this offensive, to just one clinic, which we are not even able to provide medical supplies to anymore, a month later. The other 19 facilities were closed or abandoned after government forces reclaimed the area, or put out of service after being repeatedly hit during the offensive. The medical needs remain overwhelming: people do not simply disappear when the frontlines shift.”

6. What are three things that need to change for peace to return to Ghouta and Syria?

First a ceasefire: Governments the world over need to step up the pressure on US, UK, France (all three of which are conducting air strikes against the Syrian government but have previously accidently even targeted innocent civilians),  the Syrian government (which stands accused of using chemical weapons and killing its own citizens) and the Russian government  (which is supporting Syria), as well as the rebels to commit to ceasing the war and returning to the negotiation table and allowing WHO and other CSOs to deliver aid and relief to those trapped in Syria.

Secondly, dedicated measures for transition into a peaceful society that takes into account all the needs involved, and all voices involved, as well as an emphatic focus on rebuilding Syria, including, if necessary, re-invoking the Trusteeship Council to rebuild Syria.

Lastly, allowing relevant authorities to investigate the Syrian Civil War to determine the usage of chemical weapons and liability of any other war crimes (if found) to meet the ends of justice - restorative, and transitional.

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