GENEVA (27 October 2017) – The situation of at least 350,000 besieged civilians in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, is an outrage, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Friday, as he called on the parties to the conflict to allow badly needed food and medical supplies to get into the area.
“The shocking images of what appear to be severely malnourished children that have emerged in recent days are a frightening indication of the plight of people in Eastern Ghouta, who are now facing a humanitarian emergency,” said Zeid.
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by Government forces for more than four years. Residential areas, including those areas previously spared attack, are now being hit on an almost daily basis by ground-based strikes by government forces and their allies, with reports speaking of scores of civilian casualties.
This is despite Eastern Ghouta being considered one of the “de-escalation areas” brokered in May by Iran, Russia and Turkey under the Astana process, with the stated aim to put a prompt end to violence and improve the humanitarian situation. The Astana memorandum on the de-escalation areas further adds that rapid, safe, and unhindered humanitarian access shall be provided.
The UN Human Rights Office has also received reports of armed opposition groups conducting ground-based strikes on Damascus, including on 15 October when several mortars hit Old Damascus and killed at least four civilians.
In addition, various armed groups controlling Eastern Ghouta have restricted the work of humanitarian organisations, and clashes between these groups have for months limited civilians’ freedom of movement within the region.
“The parties to the conflict must allow the free, regular and unimpeded passage of food and other humanitarian relief and not take actions that would deprive civilians of their rights to food and health,” the High Commissioner said.
The UN last reached Eastern Ghouta on 23 September with help for some 25,000 people in the besieged towns of East Harasta, Misraba and Modira. Between January and September, the Government only accepted 26% of requests to deliver assistance to besieged and hard-to-reach areas.
“I remind all parties that the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and may amount to a crime against humanity and/or a war crime. I also call on all those with involvement or influence in the conflict to facilitate the access of humanitarian workers so they can deliver the aid that the people of Eastern Ghouta so desperately need,” Zeid said.
Prices of basic goods have sky-rocketed since Government forces took control of the eastern Damascus neighbourhoods of Qaboun and Barze in May, and destroyed the network of tunnels used to smuggle aid and various goods into Eastern Ghouta. The cost of food further soared following the recent complete closure on 3 October of Al-Wafideen checkpoint – the main access point for Eastern Ghouta – and a big rise in taxes imposed on traders by Government forces at the checkpoints. With the local economy destroyed, many people can simply no longer afford to buy food supplies even when they are available.
Unidentified attackers reportedly stormed and looted a food warehouse in the Eastern Ghouta town of Hamourya on 19 October. The following day several hundred people allegedly looted a second warehouse in the town in a possible sign of growing desperation.
The Government has also reportedly imposed severe restrictions on medical evacuations, which is said to have resulted in the death of several civilians. While a few isolated cases were evacuated, the UN Human Rights Office received a list of several hundred people in need of evacuation, including dozens of cases deemed urgent.
“Just as food and medical supplies must be allowed in, sick and injured people must be allowed to access medical care whenever and wherever they need it. I remind all parties of their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law to protect civilians at all times, and to care for the sick and wounded,” Zeid said.
“If parties to a conflict cannot meet the needs of the population under their control, they must allow and facilitate efforts by impartial humanitarian agencies to provide aid, including by granting them the right of free passage,” he added.