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Crimes Against Humanity in Syria

We know from history that genocide and related crimes against humanity do not just arise spontaneously. They often take place in the context of civil war, when leaders commit such crimes to advance their goals of eliminating opposition or perceived enemies. In the civil conflict now raging in Syria, reporting by independent journalists and the United Nations leaves little doubt that conditions are being laid for a dramatic escalation of violence against civilians, possibly based on their membership in religious sects. Right now the majority Sunni population, perceived by the Alawite-dominated regime to be leading the opposition, are the primary victims, but if conditions deteriorate, other groups—including Druze, Christians, and Alawites themselves—could also be targeted. The February 22 report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry to the UN Human Rights Council provides a chilling account of the nature and scope of violence being perpetrated against civilians inside Syria in recent months. Citing from various sources, the report indicates that more than 6,000 civilians have been killed, including more than 500 children, more than 18,000 people are being arbitrarily detained, 70,000 have been displaced and thousands more have simply gone missing. The report states that the widespread and systematic attacks against civilians by forces of the Assad regime constitute crimes against humanity. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has cited the use of tanks, mortars, and rockets to target densely populated civilian neighborhoods; the widespread destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure; and the use of torture and sexual violence against those being illegally detained. All of these actions, the UN notes, have met with the “approval or complicity of the Syrian authorities at the highest levels.” While the situation for civilians in Syria remains intolerable, it has the potential to worsen still further. According to independent observers, much of the violence is being organized directly by the Assad regime or through pro-regime gangs and militias that harass, torture and kill opponents. The possibility of later retribution against members of these groups is high as the violence escalates. From these reports, we do not believe that violence has crossed the line into actual genocide, defined by the United Nations as acts committed with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…” But some of the key factors used by the UN and other analysts to determine whether a country is at risk of genocide or genocidal acts are present. These factors include the stoking of sectarian tensions among the population by the regime in Damascus and its supporters, massive human rights violations and their denial by perpetrators, and the clear capacity of the regime and its allies to commit large scale acts of violence, among others. The danger is that actions by the Assad regime are plunging the country into full-scale civil war, and in the process could unleash new violence that could quickly spiral out of control and be almost impossible to contain. The line between crimes against humanity and genocidal acts is often not seen until it has already been crossed.