On 21 October 2016, in view of the on-going human rights crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic – and in particular – the recent deteriorating situation in Aleppo, the Human Rights Council convened a special session on ‘the deteriorating situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic, and the recent situation in Aleppo.’
The meeting was requested, via an official letter on 18 October 2016 written by H.E. Ambassador Julian Braithwaite on behalf of a core group of 16 Council members and 17 Observer States, ‘following the most recent deterioration of the human rights situation in Aleppo, and the failure of the Assad regime and its allies to fulfil their international human rights commitments.’
In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Council is ‘able to hold special sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e. 16 Member States or more). Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
The Council’s action on Syria to-date
Five of the Council’s twenty-five Special sessions to-date have addressed the situation of human rights in Syria, namely: the 16th Special session on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (29 April 2011); the 17th Special session on the human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic (22 August 2011); the 18th Special session on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (2 December 2011); the 19th Special session on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic (1 June 2012).
The Council has also consistently run resolutions during its regular sessions to address the deteriorating human rights situation in Syria. At this point in time, a total of 17 resolutions have been adopted by the Council during its regular sessions (in addition to its special session resolutions) including resolution 33/23, adopted during the last regular session (33rd) – in September 2016. Resolution 33/23 came only days after several attacks against aid and humanitarian support efforts in Syria. In this resolution, the Council ‘strongly condemn[ed] the airstrikes on 19 September 2016 on a United Nations/Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy in rural Aleppo, which may constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian law, support[ed] the call by the United Nations for an immediate, impartial and independent investigation into this incident, and call[ed] upon all parties to the conflict to respect all humanitarian organisations.’ In addition, in this resolution the Council expressed ‘its profound concern at the findings of the Commission of Inquiry that violence has reached unprecedented levels in Aleppo and other parts of the Syrian Arab Republic and that civilians have suffered profoundly from aerial and shelling bombardments, primarily by regime forces and its supporters.’
Three weeks after the adoption of resolution 33/23, the United Kingdom, on behalf of a group of States, requested the 25th special session to be held on Friday 21 October, to address the continued worsening and deteriorating developments in Syria.
25th special session
The meeting, held on Friday 21 October, began with keynote statements by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, and Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, Representative of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures. A summary of their statements can be found here.
Opening the session, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (via webcast) observed that ‘once again, [the] Council has been called to discuss the disgraceful human rights crisis in Syria.’ ‘The violations and abuses suffered by people across the country, including the siege and bombardment of eastern Aleppo, are not simply tragedies,’ he said, but ‘they also constitute crimes of historic proportions.’ He reflected on the fact that ‘well over 300,000 Syrians have been killed, and countless others wounded and traumatised in the course of this civil war […] Tens of thousands of people have been abducted, summarily executed or arbitrarily detained and tortured […] Hospitals, schools, marketplaces, water facilities and neighbourhood bakeries have been deliberately and repeatedly attacked,’ and that ‘millions are routinely denied life-saving aid.’ In this context, he expressed concern that ‘the attack last month on a humanitarian aid convoy took these pervasive violations of international law to a new low of barbarity.’
‘The ancient city of Aleppo, a place of millennial civility and beauty, is today a slaughterhouse,’ he said: ‘a gruesome locus of pain and fear, where the lifeless bodies of small children are trapped under streets of rubble and pregnant women deliberately bombed.’
‘The collective failure of the international community to protect civilians and halt this bloodshed should haunt every one of us, he charged: ‘not only does it violate every norm of human rights, to our dishonour; its costs will be borne by our children, and future generations. ‘
He noted that the OHCHR has documented a number of international humanitarian law violations by all parties to the conflict in Aleppo, and called for an immediate, resolute and all-encompassing ceasefire to enable the movement of humanitarian aid. Finally, he called on the UN human rights system to ‘speak with one voice’ to promote and protect the human rights of civilians in the conflict.
Paulo Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic during of Special Session on the deterioration of the human rights situation in Aleppo of Syria of the Human Right Council. 21 October 2016. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Mr. Pinheiro, the Chair of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, explained that ‘the dramatic escalation of violence that followed the collapse of the 10 September cessation of hostilities agreement has featured the use of heavy weapons, including bunker-buster bombs, which have levelled much of Eastern Aleppo city with intolerable consequences for ordinary civilians. Over three days in late September, a reported 300 people died and the death toll now includes more than 100 children.’ ‘Temporary humanitarian pauses are not enough to provide adequate relief,’ he noted: ‘a sustained, long-term effort without conditionalities is necessary if aid is to reach those civilians in need.’
In conclusion, Mr. Pinheiro argued that ‘it is imperative that the Member States of this Council refuse to countenance callous disregard for the lives of the innocent and the laws that have preserved not only international peace and security, but the very essence of humanity […] Perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity will only cease to violate the laws of war when it is clear they will be held to account. This is why referral of the conflict in Syria to the ICC or an ad hoc international justice mechanism is critical to resolving this conflict.’
Ms. Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, speaking on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, condemned ‘in the strongest terms the siege tactics used by the Syrian government and other parties to the conflict and expresses deep concern about the restriction on movement of civilians out of conflict areas, especially the most vulnerable (children, the sick and wounded, older persons, persons with disabilities).’ The Coordination Committee urged all parties to the conflict to ‘to grant full access to the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic and to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as UN agencies delivering aid.’ The Coordination Committee expressed support for the draft resolution and steps taken to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.’
During the following debate, 63 State delegations (including the Syrian Arab Republic) and 12 NGO representatives took the floor to deliver statements.
Draft resolution L.1
H.E. Mr. Hassam Edin Aala, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic, expressed regret that the United Kingdom was ‘again […] leading a handful of countries’ pushing for special sessions and to ‘impose politicised resolutions [in the] Council.’
He argued that the ‘handful of countries’ supporting the resolution were not concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people, but rather ‘seeking to revive dead colonial glories’ or ‘supporting, funding and arming the Wahabi, Takfiri terrorism in […] Syria.’ He rejected the ‘false accusations, and the manipulation’ by the United Kingdom and its allies within the Council. Finally, stating that, ‘the Council’s selective decisions have abused and politicised and prejudiced on the Syrian government to the Syrian people,’ he ‘called on Council members to vote against the resolution.’
The United Kingdom, on behalf of a group of States, stressed that they wished that the ‘recent developments on the ground in Aleppo did not warrant this exceptional and urgent consideration by the Council,’ but added that ‘sadly, they do.’ They rejected the criticism of some States against the draft resolution, saying: ‘you will hear today claims that this resolution is unbalanced, and that it doesn’t reflect ‘the real’ situation on-the-ground. We will be asked to consider amendments designed to distract and divert attention, and to dilute the purpose of this resolution. And we will be told that the threat from terrorism in Syria warrants this brutal campaign of terror from the skies. None of this is true: this is a balanced resolution, recalling the legal obligations of all parties to the conflict.’ Finally, the United Kingdom, said: ‘we will also be told that the unilateral ‘humanitarian’ efforts of one State – Russian Federation – should be celebrated in this text. However, as our oral revision of the text makes clear, the greatest humanitarian gesture that Russia could possibly make would be to support the immediate and sustained implementation of a cessation of hostilities.’ The United Kingdom called on all Members to vote for the resolution, and to ‘vote no on the hostile amendments that have been tabled.’
As the debate continued, Council members were divided primarily on the issues of: addressing the role of Russia in ‘providing humanitarian aid’; referring the situation to the ICC; and the extent to which the resolution should identify the responsible parties to the conflict.
Saudi Arabia stated that the recent level of destruction and suffering in Aleppo was unprecedented and amounted to crimes against humanity. They underlined the importance of ensuring humanitarian access is provided to those in need, and supported the call to bring the responsible parties to justice before the ICC.
Germany reminded Members of the Council that, only three weeks prior to the special session, the Council had adopted a resolution stressing the importance of achieving full cessation of hostilities in Syria. Nevertheless, they noted, less than three weeks later, the level of violence had increased to such a significant degree that it warranted the holding of this special session.
Ecuador expressed deep concern over the ‘process by which [the] special session [had] been convened.’ While reiterating its condemnation of the deterioration of human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Syria, it said that the special session had a ‘purely political background,’ and ‘nothing or little to do with the human rights situation in Syria, as we see in the failure of form and substance in this resolution.’
China reiterated the importance of the international community adhering to the general noted based on the principle of the autonomous decision of the Syrian people on the future of their own country, and expressed the central role of the UN in this regard, to act as the main channel of mediation.
Proposed amendments to the draft resolution
Alexey Borodavkin, Permanent Representative of Russian Federation to the United Nations Office at Geneva during of Special Session on the deterioration of the human rights situation in Aleppo of Syria of the Human Right Council. 21 October 2016. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
The Russian Federation said they opposed the holding of the special session, and introduced 5 written amendment to the resolution, to ‘stress the important role Russia has played in the key role in providing humanitarian aid to the population.’ The proposed amendments sought to remove references to the ICC, to reiterate and expand on the role of ‘terrorist organisations’ in Syria; and sought to include language on welcoming steps to improve the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. The Russian Federation requested all amendments to be taken one-by-one, and urged all Members of the Council to support them.
The United Kingdom argued that the amendments were designed to divert attention from those responsible for the violations in Aleppo. It further argued that the amendments sought to justify the bombing of Aleppo with the excuse of the threat of terrorism. The United Kingdom rejected all amendments and urged States to vote against them all.
The proposed amendments were all rejected by vote.
The Russian Federation expressed disappointment that none of its proposed amendments were adopted by the Council, reiterating that it was doing everything it could to ensure a negotiated peace in Syria, in compliance with previous UN Security Council resolutions. They subsequently demanded that the draft resolution as a whole to be put to a vote.
Albania, Belgium, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Switzerland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Togo, United Arab Emirates, and United Kingdom.
Algeria, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Cuba, Russian Federation, and Venezuela.
Bangladesh, Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and Viet Nam.
With the adoption of resolution S25/L1 (as orally revised), the Council welcomed any ‘genuine’ steps to improve the humanitarian situation in Aleppo, and welcomed the decision of the United Nations Secretary-General to establish an internal UN board of inquiry on the incident involving the bombing of a United Nations-Syrian Arab Red Crescent relief operation to Urum al-Kubra, in the Syrian Arab Republic, on 19 September 2016.
The resolution demanded ‘ the immediate implementation of the cessation of hostilities’ (o.p. 2), and ‘that the regime and its allies end immediately all aerial bombardments of and military flights over Aleppo city’ (o.p. 4). It also demanded that ‘all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities and its supporters, promptly allow rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained humanitarian access for United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and borders, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need through the most direct routes’ (o.p. 3)
Finally, the Council requested, with resolution S25/L1 (as orally revised), that the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic ‘conduct a comprehensive, independent special inquiry into the events in Aleppo, to, where possible, identify all those for whom there are reasonable grounds to believe that they are responsible for alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law, to support efforts to ensure that perpetrators of alleged abuses and violations are held accountable, and also requests the Commission to provide a full report of the findings of its special inquiry to the Human Rights Council no later than its thirty-fourth session.’
 Belgium, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Paraguay, Portugal, Qatar, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates.
 Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.
 Only two out of the twenty-five Special sessions of the Human Rights Council have been of a thematic nature, however, namely, on: ‘the negative impact on the realization of the right to food of the worsening of the world food crisis, caused inter alia by the soaring food prices’ (7th special session); and ‘The Impact of the Global Economic and Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights’ (10th special session).
 Albania, Belgium, Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Maldives, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Switzerland, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Togo, United Arab Emirates, and United Kingdom.
 Algeria, Bolivia, Burundi, China, Cuba, Russian Federation, and Venezuela.
 Bangladesh, Congo, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Namibia, Nigeria, Panama, Paraguay, Philippines, South Africa, and Viet Nam.
Feature photo: A general view of participants during of Special Session on the deterioration of the human rights situation in Aleppo of Syria of the Human Right Council. 21 October 2016. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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