Air strikes on the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta and shelling from the rebel-held zone into Damascus probably constitute war crimes and must be prosecuted, the top U.N. human rights official said on Friday.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the perpetrators of such crimes in Syria should know they were being identified and that dossiers were being built with a view to future prosecutions.
In one of the deadliest offensives of Syria’s war, government air strikes and bombardment have killed hundreds of people over 12 days in eastern Ghouta, an area of besieged towns and farms in the last major rebel-held region near the capital.
The U.N. Security Council called on Feb. 24 for a 30-day ceasefire in eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people live.
“Despite this rare example of unanimity, civilians in Eastern Ghouta have reported that air strikes and shelling continue,” Zeid told the Geneva rights forum during an urgent debate held at Britain’s request.
“Once again, I must emphasise that what we are seeing, in eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria, are likely war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity. Civilians are being pounded into submission or death.”
He added: “Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Attempts to thwart justice, and shield these criminals, are disgraceful.”
Hussam Aala, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said that Zeid was “selective and biased” and that the debate was “politicised”.
The Syrian army had taken every step to protect civilians and had opened “humanitarian corridors for the passage of civilians to separate them from the terrorists”, he said, referring to the insurgents in eastern Ghouta.
British Ambassador Julian Braithwaite said that eastern Ghouta had become “the epicentre” of suffering in Syria, with starving families huddled in basements to hide from “indiscriminate regime bombing”.
Britain has presented a resolution, which it hoped the Council would adopt later in the day, calling on U.N. war crimes investigators to carry out an inquiry into events in Ghouta and report back by June.
“The Assad regime and its Russian backers continue to carry out air strikes. Air strikes which have caused more deaths of innocent men, women, and children, and which have caused more destruction of civilian infrastructure – including a maternity ward,” U.S. charge d’affaires Theodore Allegra told the meeting.
Syrian government forces aim to advance into eastern Ghouta one “bite” at a time, a pro-government commander said on Friday, as a war monitor said the army had seized new ground from rebels.