UNITED NATIONS, GENEVA - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, on Thursday (Feb 11) expressed "utmost alarm" at the rapidly worsening human rights situation in and around the city of Aleppo and other parts of Syria, where he said "shocking violations and abuses are committed on a daily basis."
"I condemn these horrendous acts unequivocally," he said. "The warring parties in Syria are constantly sinking to new depths, without apparently caring in the slightest about the death and destruction they are wreaking across the country. Women and children, the elderly, the wounded and sick, the people with disabilities are being used as bargaining chips and cannon fodder day after day, week after week, month after month. It is a grotesque situation."
"Since the latest offensive by government forces began last week in the Governorate of Aleppo, reportedly accompanied by numerous air strikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft, some 51,000 civilians have been displaced and a further 300,000 are at risk of being placed under siege," Zeid said, adding that dozens of civilians have reportedly been killed since 1 February. "We have also received numerous reports of destruction of civilian infrastructure, including at least three clinics and two bakeries since the launch of this latest round of hostilities," he said.
The High Commissioner stressed that hundreds of thousands of civilians in other parts of Syria are also facing dire humanitarian conditions, particularly those under sieges imposed both by government forces and affiliated armed groups, and by armed opposition groups, including ISIL.
"In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, Madaya, Deir ez-Zour, Fuah and Kafreya people are in an utterly desperate situation, with many deaths, including of young children, as a result of severe malnutrition and lack of access to medical care," he said.
In Moaddamiyat al-Sham, a town located a few kilometres from Damascus, since government forces established a full siege in December, some 35,000 civilians have been enduring intense shelling and aerial attacks, and a dramatic deterioration of their living conditions, with food prices rising sharply and no infant-formula milk available. While some food was delivered to the pro-government eastern side of town, at least six civilians, including five children, died directly as a result of malnutrition in January, and more than 25 children under the age of two are said to be suffering from malnutrition and related health problems.
In Madaya, at least 26 people have died from malnutrition since the beginning of the year, despite the arrival of a large humanitarian convoy on 11 and 14 January, and at least 300 people - including women and children - are in need of immediate evacuation.
Some 200,000 people living under an Islamic State-imposed siege in Deir ez-Zour are experiencing severe water shortages and a total lack of electricity, the UN reported. It stated that several people accused of smuggling food into the city have been executed by Islamic State fighters.
Despite the delivery of humanitarian aid to the villages of Fuah and Kafreya in January, the situation remains grim as approximately 20,000 civilians remain under siege by the armed opposition groups Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra Front, who issued threats that they would slaughter the villagers in retaliation for government actions against areas under their control.
"The deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law," Zeid said. "The targeting of civilians, including thousands of children, is abhorrent and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Those responsible for such acts, including under command responsibility, must be brought to justice," he added.
"I remind all parties of their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians at all times and to allow full access to humanitarian relief, to collect and care for the sick and wounded, and not to take actions which would deprive civilians of their right to food and health," the UN human rights chief said.
Zeid also stressed that the all parties to a conflict have obligations under international humanitarian law not to place the civilian population in peril by taking shelter among them, or in protected structures such as schools and hospitals.
"The peace talks in Geneva must be resumed as early as possible," he said. "It is unconscionable that the various parties cannot even manage to sit around the table, when, because of their actions, more than a quarter of a million people have died, and the rest of the population is suffering to such a degree. A lasting peaceful resolution of this horrific war must be built on a solid foundation of human rights."