Evidence is mounting of a war crime allegedly perpetrated by joint Russian-Syrian military forces when a school in the rebel-held village of Idlib province was bombed on October 26, leaving dozens of pupils and teachers dead. The bombing may be the deadliest school bombing since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011.
Last month, a Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews and photographs, placed Russian and Syrian bombers above the site in the village of Haas that day. Now, new satellite imagery provides additional verification that they were behind the bloodshed. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the imagery reveals damage to two sites within the school complex, to the schools’ courtyard walls and to several smaller buildings within the complex. The air strikes killed as many as 40 people, most of them children.
The village of Haas is controlled by an alliance of rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. State-run Syrian news reports said rebels in Haas had been targeted, but left out mention of the school bombing. The Russian Defence Ministry denied that the attacks on the opposition-controlled village took place at all, but according to the Russian state-funded television network RT, the ministry offered to support an international inquiry to get at the true facts.
We should call them to account and ask them to explain the HRW report.
The Russian Defence Ministry claimed that no damage could be spotted on the roofs of the school buildings, but even from the photos supplied by the Russian government, HRW reported, damage “consistent with air strikes” is visible that was not there in satellite images taken a few months earlier.
The satellite imagery is also consistent with multiple videos. One video, posted by the media office of the Revolutionary Forces of Syria, shows an SU-24 aircraft above the site. A second video, posted by the Kafranbel Media Centre shows an object falling, causing an explosion.
Only the Russian and Syrian militaries conduct air strikes in Syria using SU-24 aircraft. Munitions that have been used by the Syrian air force earlier in the war and also during the joint Russian-Syrian military operation that began in September 2015 — bombs that detonate in the air, close to the ground, to maximise the damage created by the blast — were used in the October 26 air strike.
In response to the ongoing slaughter of Syrian civilians, the Canadian Mission to the United Nations has submitted a rare request for a General Assembly meeting of all 193 member states to “explore concerted action to apply pressure on the parties of the violence”. Canada’s request letter has been co-signed by 69 other member-states. The very inquiry the Russians reportedly offered should also be put to the United Nations Security Council and independent investigators should be appointed.
As Tony Lake of Unicef said, if this air strike was deliberate, it is a war crime. War crimes are grave violations of international humanitarian law, when committed with criminal intent, which requires “purposeful or reckless action”.
This school bombing is only the latest in numerous bombings of Syrian schools, hospitals and homes by Syrian and Russian forces. As United States Secretary of State John Kerry said in early October, “Russia and the [Syrian] regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals and medical facilities and children and women.”
“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” Kerry said. “This is a targeted strategy to terrorise civilians.”
For too long, we have seen international law violated. For too long, schools have been used as theatres of war and children as instruments of conflict. Schools should be what they always were intended to be: safe havens where children can learn -- and children should never again be on the front line. If we don’t hold the perpetrators accountable, it will happen again.
— WorldPost/Global Viewpoint Network
Gordon Brown is also a United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education.