Syrian government forces and militia have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on civilians, a UN expert panel has concluded.
In a report that provides in chilling detail further evidence of a conflict spiralling out of control, the panel appointed by the UN's 47-nation Human Rights Council blamed the government and allied militia for the killing of more than 100 civilians in the village of Houla in May.
It said the murders, unlawful killing, torture, sexual violence and indiscriminate attacks "indicate the involvement at the highest levels of the armed and security forces and the government."
The panel also concluded in its final report to the Geneva-based council that anti-government armed groups committed war crimes, including murder, extrajudicial killings and torture, but at a lesser frequency and scale.
The report covers the period between February 15 and July 20 and involved 1,062 interviews, both in the field and in Geneva. But the panel members emphasised their lack of ability to carry out their UN mandate within Syria hampered their investigation.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since the start of Syria's revolt, inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings against autocratic regimes in the region.
The conflict has slowly changed into a full blown civil war that the panel says involves "more brutal tactics and new military capabilities on both sides."
It is the first time the panel has used the term "war crimes" to describe its findings. That is because the International Committee of the Red Cross, which oversees the Geneva Conventions known as the rules of war, only said in mid-July that it now considers the conflict in Syria to be a full-blown civil war, meaning international humanitarian law applies throughout the country.
The Geneva-based ICRC's assessment was an important reference for the panel -and for all others trying to determine how much and what type of force can be used. It also forms the basis for war crimes prosecutions, especially if civilians are attacked or detained enemies are abused or killed. Until then, everything had to be considered "a violation or an abuse," said Karen Koning AbuZayd, one of the panel members.
"The international community must come to some kind of consensus to stop the violence in the first place and then eventually hold people accountable for it," Ms AbuZayd, a US citizen and former head of UNRWA, the UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees, said.
Syria had previously won her respect, she said, because of the excellent care it provided to Palestinian refugees during her past decade of work there.
"For me, everything is pretty shocking. For these things to be happening in Syria ... It's pretty painful, I must say, to see what is happening to the country and how all sides are behaving, really," she added.
The panel's 102-page report was issued just hours after a bomb exploded in the Syrian capital of Damascus outside a hotel where UN observers are staying. The bomb was attached to a fuel truck and wounded at least three people, Syrian state TV reported. Activists also reported fighting near the government headquarters and the Iranian embassy, both in Damascus, along with clashes in different parts of Syria.
The panel was appointed to probe abuses in Syria but had hardly any access to the country, with only its chairman, Brazilian diplomat and professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, allowed into Damascus for a weekend visit last month to meet with some top government officials and families affected by the violence. A third panel member had dropped out.
Most of the report, which covers the period between February 15 and July 20, was conducted during field interviews and in Geneva with Syrian refugees outside the country. It is based on 1,062 interviews, but the panel emphasised that the investigation was hampered by the Assad regime's unwillingness to cooperate.
Their report, whose findings are strikingly more conclusive about the Houla massacre than previous interim findings, could be used by world powers to justify tougher outside action against Syria, or strengthen calls for an international investigation and prosecution of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The panel recommends that the president of the Human Rights Council forward the report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who could bring it to the attention of the most powerful arm of the UN, the Security Council based in New York. Earlier this year, the council said in a resolution that it agreed with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in her call for action by the International Criminal Court based at The Hague.
But Russia and China, two of the five veto-wielding permanent members on that 15-nation council, have effectively blocked major powers from responding in a coordinated fashion to theSyria crisis, a stalemate cited by the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, in deciding to resign from his post at the end of this month.