The UN Headquarters Board of Inquiry’s Report on the Attack Is Inadequate and the Russian and Syrian Regimes Must Be Prosecuted
In its report issued today to mark the third anniversary of the Syrian regime and Russian forces’ bombing of a humanitarian aid convoy in Aleppo suburbs, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) states that the report of the United Nations Headquarters board of inquiry on the attack is inadequate and the Russian and Syrian regime must be prosecuted, calling on the UN to follow up on its investigation.
The SNHR’s nine-page report notes that Syrian Regime forces weren’t satisfied with the cruelty of besieging areas containing tens or hundreds of thousands of people, but also prevented local and international humanitarian organizations from entering with humanitarian aid and providing medical services, even bombing the centers that provide these services within those besieged areas. The report stresses that the Syrian regime has far surpassed the level of barbarism shown by many other violent and dictatorial regimes.
In addition, following their intervention in Syria on September 30, 2015, the Russian forces adopted the same policy, deliberately bombing medical and Civil Defense centers both inside and outside the besieged areas, as well as bombing and hindering relief convoys and preventing them from reaching their beneficiaries. As the report notes, this monstrous targeting of humanitarian organizations did not stop at restricting or prohibiting their work, but far exceeded that, reaching the level of arrests, prosecutions, and very deliberate targeting and bombing of these organizations’ facilities and personnel. All of these factors pose a grave challenge to existing humanitarian personnel and to anyone wishing to work with these organizations, whether local or international, as well as to donors and international partner organizations.
In this context, the report reveals that the attack carried out by Syrian Regime forces, targeting a humanitarian aid convoy supervised by the Syrian Red Crescent in Urm al Kubra village on September 19, 2016, was a shock to the humanitarian, human rights, and media communities. In the wake of the attack, the report adds, the United Nations quickly established an internal UN board of inquiry, aiming to investigate the crime.
The report aims to remind the United Nations of its failure to take any further action over this incident and to underline that no serious effort was made to take any action against the responsible parties after the UN internal board issued its report on the incident. As the report emphasizes, this failure discredits the UN’s investigative and reporting system on Syria, showing their ineffectual nature. The report also analyzes the results of the United Nations board investigations and expose their most prominent weaknesses.
Fadel Abdul Ghany, Chairman of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), says:
“We did not expect that the killing of relief workers and the destruction of the contents of the relief convoy east of Urm al Kubra village, actions very deliberately carried out by Russian warplanes and Syrian regime helicopters, would be allowed to go unpunished. The perpetrators were fully aware that this was a relief convoy, and yet this atrocity has been forgotten as if it did not happen; the United Nations and its Secretary-General have not explicitly and clearly condemned the Russian regime, and there have been no requests or moves to prosecute it, nor has there been any condemnation of the Syrian regime. Three years have passed since the United Nations report was issued, and the victims’ families and others in Syrian society affected by this crime are still waiting for these most heinous criminals who, barbarically and in cold blood, bombed a humanitarian relief convoy to be held accountable.”
The report outlines the record of the most notable violations against humanitarian workers committed by the Syrian-Russian alliance forces, with the report documenting the deaths of 979 humanitarian workers by the Syrian-Russian alliance forces in Syria from March 2011 up until December 20, 2019, distributed to 882 killed at the hands of Syrian Regime forces and 97 at the hands of the Russian forces.
As the report notes, at least 3,847 humanitarian workers are still detained or forcibly disappeared by Syrian Regime forces since March 2011 to date. The report also documents at least 1,447 incidents of attacks against vital humanitarian facilities carried out by Syrian-Russian alliance forces from March 2011 to December 20, 2019, of which Syrian Regime forces carried out 1,044 attacks, while Russian forces carried out 403.
The report stresses that the attack by the Syrian regime and Russian forces on the humanitarian aid convoy in Urm al Kubra was planned and deliberate and constitutes a war crime, with the report outlining the details of the attack, noting that the Russian forces denied responsibility for this attack, as is the case with previous attacks.
The report further notes that one of the UN board report’s main weaknesses lies in its lack of any precise identification of who was responsible for the attack. The UN’s report did not confirm the responsibility of the Syrian-Russian alliance forces for the attack and used general and unspecified term to determine the responsibility, despite ruling out the involvement of US-led coalition and affirming the Armed Opposition’s inability to carry out air strikes.
This SNHR report refers to the reports issued by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Bellingcat blog and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which all outlined their investigations into the incident, with all these and other reports clearly proving the Syrian-Russian alliance’s or Syrian Regime forces’ responsibility for the attack. It clearly cannot be accepted that these organizations have greater capacity, tools, and expertise to identify responsibility than those possessed by the United Nations.
The report further stresses that identifying responsibility is the most important step in deciding accountability and thus in achieving justice, and argues that one can only ask what is the meaning or use of establishing a commission to investigate such a heinous crime and issuing a report on it without reaching a conclusion that determines who carried out the killing and bombing? Simply confirming that the bombing, killing and burning of an aid convoy took place is a straightforward act which does not require the formation of a committee to investigate and issue a report, with the presence of a number of photos, videos, and eyewitness testimonies being adequate. Failure to identify the responsibility of the perpetrator of the crime strengthens a culture of impunity, and encourages the Russian and the Syrian regimes to commit further similar atrocities.
The report notes that international humanitarian law is clear in granting powers to provide protection for relief work of a humanitarian nature in internal or international armed conflicts, especially when civilians suffer from difficulties due to scarcity of basic supplies such as medical and food materials; this has happened in dozens of areas and cities in Syria since March 2011 to date, as stated in (Protocol (II), Article 18-2; Geneva Convention 4, Articles 17, 23, and 59; Protocol (I), Article 70). This fundamental right has been transformed into a customary rule in customary humanitarian law (Rule 55).
The report also notes that the deliberate attacks against medical units, medical personnel, clearly identified individuals and facilities marked by emblems protected by the Geneva Convention, and those working in the humanitarian field or with peacekeeping groups, are war crimes, and it is part of the International Criminal Court’s duties to hold the perpetrators accountable, according to Article 8 of the court’s charter, as well as constituting a breach of the rules 31, 32, 45, 55, 56 of the International Customary Humanitarian Law.
As the report states, the Urm al Kubra attack unquestionably constitute breaches of UN Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2254 calling for the end of indiscriminate attacks, and a breach of UN Security Council resolution 2286 calling for an end to violations and transgressions committed in armed conflicts against workers in the medical field as well as in humanitarian relief, who are specifically performing medical tasks, noting that the bombings have accidently caused losses of civilian lives, injuries, and severe damage to civilian objects.
The report calls on the Security Council to reevaluate the level of risk of violations of human rights and its threat levels to international and regional peace and security, and to revert to Article Seven to protect humanitarian workers and facilities in Syria, to no longer classify the Syrian government as a legitimate official party in regard to any relief efforts, given its responsibility for multiple crimes against humanity, and to ensure that it is no longer supplied with large amounts of financial or any other relief, which mostly fails to reach those who desperately need and deserve this aid, instead being distributed to Syrian government supporters who have no need of it.
The report also presents a set of recommendations to the international community, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Independent International commission of inquiry (CoI), and the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), also calling on the European Union to take concrete collective steps towards holding the Russian regime accountable for this hideous crime.