UN human rights chief says the Syrian regime's five-year siege of the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta included the use of chemical weapons and starvation. UNHCR says almost 50,000 have fled the enclave in recent days.

At least 19 civilians were killed in Bashar al Assad regime’s air strikes and attacks in eastern Ghouta on Monday, according to Syria’s civil defence agency or the White Helmets. March 19, 2018
At least 19 civilians were killed in Bashar al Assad regime’s air strikes and attacks in eastern Ghouta on Monday, according to Syria’s civil defence agency or the White Helmets. March 19, 2018 (Reuters)

UNHCR on Tuesday called for full humanitarian access to civilians inside and outside of Syria's eastern Ghouta to meet their urgent needs. 

The UN refugee agency says almost 50,000 have fled the enclave recent days.

On Monday, the UN human rights chief told an informal meeting of the Security Council on Monday that the Syrian regime's five-year siege of the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta has involved "pervasive war crimes," use of chemical weapons and starvation as a weapon of war. 

Home to some 400,000 people, eastern Ghouta has remained under a crippling regime siege for the last five years.

At least 19 civilians were killed in Bashar al Assad regime’s air strikes and attacks in besieged eastern Ghouta on Monday, according to Syria’s civil defence agency or the White Helmets. 

Since February 19, nearly 1,000 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta, and the death toll is expected to rise further as attacks by the regime remain ongoing.

Blocked by Russia

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al Hussein was blocked from addressing a formal council meeting by a Russian procedural manoeuvre, but he delivered his hard-hitting speech to an open meeting anyway, decrying "mind-numbing crimes" committed by all parties in Syria using "unlawful methods of warfare."

He said multiple parties to the conflict, now in its eighth year, "claim to justify their military offensives based on their struggle against terrorism."

But Zeid said, "Never before have the campaigns against terrorism been used more often to justify the unconscionable use of force against civilians than in the last few months in Syria."

He was especially critical of Syria, singling out Assad's claim that his regime makes every effort to protect civilians.

The UN's top human rights official dismissed it, saying, "When you are capable of torturing and indiscriminately killing your own people, you have long forfeited your own credibility."

Zeid pointed to eastern Ghouta as an example.

"The siege of eastern Ghouta by the Syrian government forces, half a decade-long, has involved pervasive war crimes, the use of chemical weaponry, enforced starvation as a weapon of warfare, and the denial of essential and life-saving aid," he said.

Zeid said this has culminated "in the current relentless, month-long bombardment of hundreds of thousands of terrified trapped civilians."

"Families are now streaming out of the area," he said, "but many civilians fear reprisals will be taken against them for their perceived support for opposition groups."

Taking the regime to court?

Zeid stressed that "those who have perpetrated and are still perpetrating these mind-numbing crimes committed in Syria must be made to answer before a properly constituted court of law."

"This must be assured and made non-negotiable for the victims," he said, but also for the legitimacy of the UN and the Security Council, and to prevent future violations and advance human rights around the world.

He again urged the council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. 

That remains highly unlikely, however, since both Russia and China vetoed a resolution backed by more than 60 countries in May 2014 that would have referred the Syrian conflict to the ICC.

Zeid also said justice and respect for human rights must be at the centre of any peace talks.

"No settlement which shields the perpetrators from prosecution is worth discussing, simply because such a settlement would be utterly empty," he said. "For peace in Syria to be meaningful and lasting, a guarantee of justice for the Syrian people must be assured."

Zeid had been scheduled to speak at an open council meeting on Monday afternoon, but when it started, Russian Deputy Ambassador Gennady Kuzmin protested that it was a question for the Human Rights Council in Geneva, not the Security Council, which is charged with ensuring international peace and security.

He demanded a procedural vote on whether the meeting should be held.

To proceed, at least nine of the 15 council members had to vote "yes," but only eight did so. Four countries voted "no" – Russia, China, Bolivia and Kazakhstan – while the three African countries, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea abstained.

Longtime UN observers said it was exceedingly rare for a scheduled council meeting to be halted by a procedural vote.

Daesh takes small Damascus area 

Daesh fighters holding a small district in Damascus gained some ground after Syrian forces moved into a neighbouring area that the opposition abandoned last week, a war monitor said.

In fighting that lasted 24 hours, the ultra-hardline militant group killed 36 Syrian soldiers, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Syrian forces could not immediately be reached for comment.

The district of Al Qadam lies in the Syrian capital's southern suburbs and has not been part of the month-long offensive waged by the Syrian regime against the opposition fighters and other insurgents in eastern Ghouta.

It is located next to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, a scene of fierce fighting early in the seven-year conflict.

Last week, the opposition which had held part of Al Qadam for years quit the district for opposition areas in northern Syria under an evacuation deal with the government, allowing the army to move in.

However, Daesh, which had held a separate part of Al Qadam and had sporadically fought the rebels there, launched an assault to take the area they had vacated.

Daesh has lost almost all its territory in Syria after two rival offensives last year by the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States.

It now controls only the small pocket in Al Qadam, a patch of territory in southwest Syria near the borders with Jordan and Israel, and two small areas of desert on each side of the Euphrates near the border with Iraq. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies