Crime & Justice

UN finds 'highly likely' Syrian government, allies targeted hospitals

By Diyaruna and AFP

image

A woman stands amidst the rubble of a building that was reportedly destroyed during airstrikes by the Syrian regime ally Russia, in the town of Kafr Nabl in the opposition-held part of the Syrian Idlib province on May 20th, 2019. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

A UN board of inquiry investigating attacks on civilian establishments in Syria has found it is "highly likely" the Syrian government or its allies carried out attacks on healthcare facilities, a school and a child protection centre in 2019, according to a summary of its report published Monday (April 6th).

But the report refrained from directly holding Russia responsible.

The co-ordinates of the sites had been communicated to the belligerents by the UN to protect them from airstrikes.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, backed by Russia, began an offensive early last year on the last major opposition stronghold in north-west Syria. Russia and Syria have said their forces do not target civilians or civilian infrastructure.

Without mentioning Russia, the investigation concluded that in five out of the seven cases studied by the board, "the government of Syria and/or its allies had carried out the airstrike".

In 2019, The New York Times published an exhaustive investigation, notably including recordings of Russian pilots, that directly incriminated Russia in attacks on hospitals in Syria.

"The refusal to explicitly name Russia as a responsible party working alongside the Syrian government... is deeply disappointing," Human Rights Watch said after the summary was published.

The UN commission looked at seven strikes carried out from April to July 2019 in opposition-held territory in north-western Syria but its investigators were unable to visit the sites because the Syrian government did not grant visas.

The board dropped one of the hospitals from its review, concluding that it did not match the commission's criteria.

The cases included the Martyr Akram Ali Ibrahim al-Ahmad school in Kalaat al-Madiq on April 28th, and the Rakaya primary health care centre on May 3rd.

There were no victims in either case. The report said it was highly likely the raids were conducted by Syria or its allies.

The commission also looked at the Kafr Nabuda health centre (May 7th), which had no victims and was also likely conducted by Syria and its allies.

Denials from Moscow

A May 14th raid on the Nayrab Palestinian refugee camp, in Aleppo, resulted in 10 deaths and about 30 people injured, and was likely carried out by the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, the report said.

The Kafr Nabl surgical centre July 4th attack had no victims, and its co-ordinates were given to Russia. The Ariha child protection centre attack on July 28th resulted in a few people injured, and its co-ordinates were also given to Russia.

The report found it was highly likely that both raids were conducted by Syria or its allies.

Moscow, the Damascus regime's main political and military supporter, has denied that its aircraft targeted civilian sites.

The summary was prepared by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the basis of a 185-page confidential internal report, with 200 annexes.

The summary was submitted to the UN Security Council's 15 members.

Guterres attributed the small number of incidents examined to the absence of UN personnel on the ground, which made it difficult to determine what had happened.

At the end of July 2019, 10 Security Council members issued a rare demarche -- a formal diplomatic petition -- demanding that Guterres open an investigation into airstrikes on medical installations, infuriating Russia.

The board of inquiry was established in September and its report was supposed to have been submitted by the end of 2019, but was delayed until March.

Guterres stressed that the board of inquiry was not a criminal investigation and that its aim was to improve UN procedures and prevent attacks of this kind in the future.

Several western countries and NGOs have argued that airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria should be prosecuted as war crimes.

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