Blocking aid to Yarmouk camp may be war crime: UN rights chief

Published Friday, January 17, 2014

Syria's repeated obstruction of aid convoys to the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus might be considered a war crime, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said Friday.

"Impeding humanitarian assistance to civilians in desperate need may amount to a war crime," Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.

Rebels control swathes of Yarmouk, but for months Syrian government forces have imposed a suffocating siege on the camp, where some 20,000 Palestinians live despite terrible shortages.

"Government forces and affiliated militias appear to be imposing collective punishment on the civilians in Yarmouk," Pillay said.
Over the past four months, numerous attempts by the UN and other organizations to bring convoys of food and medical aid to Yarmouk have been thwarted, while very little aid was getting through for the nine months prior to that, she noted.

"Civilians, including many women and children, are caught in a quagmire between besieging Syrian government forces and affiliated militias surrounding the Yarmouk camp, as well as anti-government armed groups operating inside," Pillay said.

She pointed to repeated reports of deaths from starvation, from the consumption of rotten food, and because of the chronic shortage of medical supplies and expertise.

The camp-dwellers also have to deal with severe water shortages, a lack of power, plus ongoing fighting and sporadic aerial attacks.

"The extent of malnutrition, and the numbers who have died directly or indirectly because of it, are not known for sure," Pillay said.

"But it is crystal clear that the situation in Yarmouk is now extremely desperate, and that civilians are dying as a result," she added.

The laws of war prohibit the starvation of civilians as a method of combat, as well as banning attacks on food stocks or drinking water installations, among other things considered indispensable to the survival of the population.

Pillay also protested that aid convoys had come under fire, saying that intentional attacks against humanitarian personnel and supplied were also a war crime.

"All parties to the conflict must urgently facilitate unimpeded access to humanitarian relief to the civilians trapped in Yarmouk, before more children die," she said.

"In addition, immediate action needs to be taken to ensure safe passage for all those civilians wishing to leave," she added.

More than 160,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Yarmouk until December 2012, when the vast majority fled after armed opposition groups entered the camp and government forces attacked.

Small groups were also subsequently allowed out by surrounding Government forces, or managed to escape.

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has been unable to deliver any assistance since September last year, with the single exception of a delivery of 2,000 doses of polio vaccines in December, Pillay's office said.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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