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Atrocity Alert No. 122, 12 September 2018: Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela and Burundi

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Potential Idlib offensive begins with bombing of hospitals

Since 4 September Idlib governorate has witnessed an escalation of bombing in what appears to be the start of a final government offensive on the opposition-held territory. Recent violence has followed the pattern of past offensives, with airstrikes by the Syrian and Russian air forces targeting civilian infrastructure and leading to the displacement of over 30,000 people. On 6 September the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, noted that “given the high population of civilians in Idlib, the impact of a military offensive there may be the worst we have seen in Syria yet.”

Four hospitals in Idlib have been targeted by airstrikes, including the Maghara hospital in Kafr Zita on 6 September. The Nabd Al Hayat hospital in Ma’arrat An Nu’man District and another hospital in Kafr Zeita sub-district were both hit on 8 September, and the the Latamna hospital in Latamna city was bombed on 9 September.

Idlib and adjoining portions of Aleppo and Hama governorates constitute the last remaining major opposition stronghold within Syria. Following past government offensives in Aleppo, Homs and the southwest of the country, hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters were evacuated to Idlib. As a result, approximately half of the 3 million people living within the governorate are already internally displaced.

Despite the clear and imminent threat of atrocities facing the population of Idlib, the international community has been unable to take collective diplomatic action. During a 7 September summit, the Astana guarantors – Russia, Iran and Turkey – failed to reach agreement on a potential ceasefire. A UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting the same day had no outcome.

For years the international community has watched as civilian populations across Syria have been besieged, bombed, starved and forced to flee their homes. Despite past failures, the UNSC and other stakeholders must uphold their responsibility to protect civilians in Idlib and work to prevent a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Justice and accountability for war crimes in South Sudan

On 6 September ten South Sudanese soldiers were given prison sentences for a July 2016 attack on the Terrain hotel in Juba, during which several foreign female humanitarian workers were gang-raped and a local journalist was murdered. Although the judgement marks a welcome step towards justice in South Sudan, since the outbreak of civil war in December 2013 all parties to the conflict have subjected thousands of women, men and children to extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence.

A pervasive culture of impunity in South Sudan has fueled a recurring cycle of violence.Earlier this year the Human Rights Division of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that between 16 April and 24 May government forces attacked 40 villages during a military offensive, during which 120 girls and women were raped and 232 civilians were killed. To date, no perpetrator has been held accountable for these and other similar atrocities committed by both government and rebel forces against South Sudanese civilians.

The government has also repeatedly delayed the formation of the Hybrid Court – a previously agreed condition of the 2015 peace agreement that was designed to hold perpetrators of atrocities committed during the civil war accountable for their crimes. On 9 August President Salva Kiir granted amnesty “to those who waged war against the government,” a political gesture that may include those responsible for past atrocities.

The Terrain hotel attack received global media attention due to the involvement of employees from international aid organizations. In the aftermath of last week’s judgement it is essential that the government now pursue accountability and justice for all South Sudanese who have been victims of similar crimes.

Venezuela’s refugee crisis is a human rights crisis

The Organization of American States (OAS) has called for greater burden sharing among regional governments to ensure adequate protection and assistance for desperate Venezuelans. As a result of political instability, a dire economic crisis and intense government repression, at least 1.6 million Venezuelans have fled their homeland since 2015, with the overwhelming majority seeking sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

During a 5 September OAS special meeting on Venezuela, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights provided a number of recommendations for regional governments to respond to the migration crisis, including combating xenophobia and providing humanitarian assistance to fleeing Venezuelans. In an open letter, Amnesty International also called upon regional governments to uphold their collective responsibility to protect and guarantee the human rights of desperate Venezuelan migrants.

Amnesty International also proposed accepting Venezuelan migrants as refugees in keeping with the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. This Declaration expanded the definition of a refugee as encapsulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention to include those fleeing the “massive violation of human rights” in their home country. The legislatures of fourteen Latin American nations have previously adopted the Cartagena Declaration’s definition.

In May this year a report by a panel of independent international experts commissioned by the OAS accused the government of Venezuela of having systematically committed widespread human rights abuses and violations in its attempt to suppress political opposition to President Nicholas Maduro. The report stated that "the widespread and systematic targeting of opponents of the regime or suspected ‘enemies of the state’” constitute crimes against humanity committed as a matter of state policy.

UN Commission lists potential atrocity perpetrators in Burundi

Last week the Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi presented its latest report, warning that serious human rights violations, including possible crimes against humanity, continue to be committed across the country. More than 1,200 people have been killed in politically inspired violence since April 2015, while at least 10,000 Burundians have been arbitrarily detained. Approximately 430,000 Burundian refugees remain in neighboring countries.

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government has engaged in a systematic policy of violence and intimidation against its perceived political opponents. This has included summary executions, rape and sexual violence, torture, and enforced disappearances. The CoI report highlights the personal role of President Nkurunziza in fueling violence and other grave human rights violations committed by state institutions and the Imbonerakure – the ruling party’s youth wing. The CoI has compiled a list of alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity, warning that the Burundian legal system is unwilling and unable to bring perpetrators to justice.

The government has systematically blocked the CoI from entering Burundi and continues to deny the veracity of its findings. However, such independent investigations into possible mass atrocity crimes remain essential. During its upcoming 39th session, the UN Human Rights Council should review and renew the mandate of the Commission.