GENEVA – The U.N. on Wednesday said for the first time that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebels have perpetrated war crimes, in a highly anticipated report that spells out clear responsibility for attacks on civilians and that could be used in possible prosecutions against the leader and others.
It also contained an ominous warning that Syria’s 17-month-old civil war was moving in “brutal” directions on all fronts as Assad’s forces step up air assaults and anti-government armed groups seek stronger firepower to fight back.
The panel appointed by the 47-nation Human Rights Council blamed the government and pro-government shabiha militia for the killing of more than 100 civilians in Houla in May and said the murders, unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks “indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government.”
The panel concluded that anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but at a lesser frequency and scale.
A confidential list of people and armed units believed to be responsible for crimes against humanity, breaches of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations is to be submitted to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in September.
In its use of the term “war crimes” to describe its findings, the panel relies on an assessment of Syria by the International Committee of the Red Cross in mid-July. The Geneva-based ICRC, which oversees the Geneva Conventions known as the rules of war, said it now considers the conflict in Syria to be a full-blown civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
The panel’s 102-page report was issued just hours after a bomb exploded in the Syrian capital of Damascus outside a hotel where U.N. observers are staying. The bomb was attached to a fuel truck and wounded at least three people, Syrian state TV reported.