As part of its annual report of the state of human rights, Amnesty International included critical facts about several hotspots within the Middle East, including Syria.
The human consequences of more than five years of conflict in Syria are incalculable. The suffering to the population includes deaths, injuries, devastation and dislocation of families and livelihoods, and the destruction of homes, property, historical sites and religious and cultural icons. Raw statistics from cities, such as Aleppo, give some indication of the scale and intensity of the crisis, but experts argue that it is just the tip of the iceberg.
By the end of 2016, the conflict had caused the deaths of more than 300,000 people and the forcible displacement of more than 11 million others, including 6.6 million who remained internally displaced and 4.8 million who had fled to other countries in search of refuge. All the forces engaged in the conflict continued to commit war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, flagrantly disregarding their obligation to protect civilians.
Syrian government forces conduct indiscriminate attacks, dropping barrel bombs and other explosives and firing imprecise artillery shells into civilian residential areas controlled by opposition fighters. Assad’s forces have continued to besiege opposition controlled areas, causing further civilian deaths from a lack of food and medicine.
Government forces also carried out direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, relentlessly bombing hospitals and other medical facilities and, apparently, attacking a UN humanitarian relief convoy. In December 2016, a ceasefire agreement between the Assad government and some opposition forces opened the way for new peace talks. The UN Security Council unanimously reiterated its call for all parties to allow the “rapid, safe and unhindered” delivery of humanitarian aid into the country.
However, the ceasefire was brokered by Russia and Turkey, with Iran ignoring the ceasefire to continue fighting in various areas of Syria. Iran is backing Assad’s regime, and this could have an impact on the peace talks. In areas of Syria controlled by the government, there has been a severe crackdown on all opposition, including the detaining of thousands and enforced disappearances where the families are denied any information about their loved ones’ whereabouts, conditions or fate.
Armed groups have been fighting in Syria and these groups have committed horrific war crimes and other serious violations of international law. As a result, civilians have killed or injured by the indiscriminate shelling and other actions by these groups.
But Syria is not the only country in the region struggling with armed conflict. Yemen is also mired in armed conflict between Yemeni and foreign forces. Again, civilians are taking the brunt of the conflict. These military forces are displaying wanton disregard for civilian lives in their choices where to use bombs, artillery shells and other imprecise weapons. As in Syria, Iran has been accused of backing groups of foreign fighters, even providing training through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as was recently revealed in a National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) report.
Meanwhile, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition of Arab state forces, which are dedicated to restoring Yemen’s internationally recognized government, have conducted a relentless campaign of air strikes on areas controlled or contested by the Huthis and their allies, killing and injuring thousands of civilians.
All of the conflicts in the Middle East are being exacerbated to some extent by the involvement of various foreign governments. Western governments are sending troops to fight terrorist factions, while there are individuals being recruited globally to fight for ISIS.
Another impact of these conflicts is the number of refugees flooding other countries in the region. Lebanon hosted more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Jordan hosted more than 650,000, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. These countries are struggling to meeting the additional economic, social and other needs that these refugees impose upon them and often with little humanitarian aid from international sources. This is becoming a burden on their own resources, especially as relocation provisions disappear or are inadequate to address the need.
In addition to these hot-beds of conflict, freedoms of expression, association and assembly have been restricted or impeded throughout the region. Most governments in the region have maintained and enforced laws that criminalized peaceful speech, writing or other expression, including social media and other online commentary.
Throughout the region, those who are speaking out for human rights are finding themselves being jailed, prosecuted and dealing with long prison terms or outright torture and ill-treatment. Journalists, unionists and filmmakers are just a few of the groups that might be targeted in any given country. Protests are often banned and if the population defies the ban, then they are likely to be forcibly dispersed.
In order for these types of sentences and targeting to take place, then the governments must know that the judicial systems will back them up and many have done so. Trials are often held without following all applicable law or aren’t held at all.
The Middle East is struggling on a variety of human rights fronts, although the current conflicts have only increased the international scrutiny of these abuses. Is it enough to change the course of many of these governments and keep them from doing business as usual? Only time will tell.