The Syrian government has carried out a deliberate policy of “extermination” against thousands of civilian detainees amounting to crimes against humanity, a newly released United Nations report said on Monday.
Government-held detainees were tortured and beaten to death or died as a result of “inhuman” living conditions, such as lack of water, food, or medical care.
The government is also responsible for enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
The report also documents violations carried out by some anti-government groups, such as setting up makeshift detention centers where government soldiers were “ill-treated and executed.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is highlighted as conducting mass executions of government soldiers and torturing detainees.
The so-called Islamic State is also highlighted as carrying out massive killings and rights violations.
The findings are based on 621 interviews with witnesses and a large amount of documentary material, covering the period between March 2011 and 30 November 2015.
The UN investigators suspect that tens of thousands of people reside in Syrian government jails at any one time where state forces have “engaged in the multiple commissions of crimes, amounting to a systematic and widespread attack against a civilian population.”
The accounts by surviving detainees interviewed by the UN investigators “paint a terrifying picture of the magnitude of the violations taking place,” the report says.
Although the majority of victims of government violence are men, the UN investigators found cases where women and children have died in detention centers held by the Syrian government as well. One of the earliest such cases is that of a 13-year-old boy who was detained in April 2011. In May, his body was returned to his family with obvious signs of torture.
As a consequence of the “widespread conduct of mass arrests, arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance, victimizing the general civilian population living in restive areas and persons otherwise perceived to be in opposition to the Government, and the ensuing ill-treatment and killing of those detained,” the forces belonging to the Syrian government are responsible for a wide range of crimes, violating international humanitarian law.
The UN report calls on the UN Security Council to adopt “targeted sanctions” against Syrian military and civilian officials complicit in deaths, torture and forced disappearances, but did not name the suspects.
The UN criticism comes amid a government offensive with the backing of Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias against the northwestern city of Aleppo. The rebels have controlled the eastern part of the city since 2012 but many observers expect that the city might fall into government hands as a result of the recent push by Damascus.
The recent government assault marks one of the biggest shifts in the five-year-long war and has halted peace talks in Geneva that were formally announced on 1 February.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when peaceful protesters took to the streets demanding political reforms as part of what became known as the Arab Spring. The government responded by initiating a widespread violent crackdown against dissenters, which eventually led to the escalation and militarization of the conflict.
It is estimated that the war has claimed over 250,000 lives so far. Around 4.6 million people have fled the country and another 13.5 million are believed to be in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.