William Hague should step up pressure for accountability over Syrian opposition abuses

Foreign Secretary ‘must insist on practical actions not just fine words’ over opposition abuses - Kristyan Benedict

As leaders of the recently-formed Syrian National Coalition meet in London today, Amnesty International has called on the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague to push for concrete action from Syria opposition groups over curbing war crimes by armed groups in Syria.

In recent months, armed opposition groups all over Syria - both forces fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and others with no links to the FSA - have been accused of a growing number of serious abuses and potential war crimes, including the torture and unlawful killing of captives, hostage-taking, and endangering civilians through the reckless use of weapons in civilian areas.

Amnesty welcomes Mr Hague’s statement stressing the need for Syrian opposition groups to adhere to international humanitarian law, but to date no members of armed groups appear to have been held responsible for alleged human rights abuses.

Earlier this week Amnesty called on Syria’s new opposition leadership - the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces - to establish oversight mechanisms to stem abuses by armed groups under their control. This includes creating an effective command and control structure capable of ensuring that fighters are aware of their duty to abide by international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International UK Syria campaign manager Kristyan Benedict said:

“The crimes of Syrian government forces still dwarf those on the other side, but there’s a growing list of incidents where armed opposition groups have reportedly tortured and killed people they’d captured. 

“William Hague must insist on practical actions not just fine words to prevent opposition abuses. We need to see proper accountability, with any fighters accused of abuses detained and proper investigations mounted.

“Mr Hague needs to reinforce the message - ‘It doesn’t matter which side you’re on in Syria, if you torture and kill prisoners, you need to be brought to justice’. There should be no place in the future Syria for war criminals - from any side. 

“As we’ve seen in Libya, where militias are largely out of control, a failure to curb abuses from opposition forces can sow the seeds of future disaster.”

Amnesty also reiterated its call on the Syrian government, whose armed forces and paramilitary militias are responsible for most of the violations, to put an immediate end to the increasingly frequent attacks against civilians not involved in the conflict, notably through indiscriminate air bombardments - including with internationally-banned cluster bombs - and artillery shelling.

Commanders and others in a position of authority may be held criminally responsible if they fail to prevent war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law. Fighters on all sides must be made aware that they will not be able to hide behind the excuse that they were “just following orders” or by saying “they don’t show us any humanity, so why should we should them any?” They need to be made fully aware that they will be made to answer for their actions, the organisation said.

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