As a stark reminder of the pervasive climate of impunity in Syria, a video recently posted online is said to show Hezbollah militants summarily executing their captives. Though unverified, the video may depict what could possibly constitute yet another war crime committed during the Syrian conflict. Mistreatment of detainees is a rampant problem, underlining the need to continue accountability and education efforts to make sure individuals and fighters understand their responsibilities for proper conduct during conflict. Documenting the violations will be important to the overall transitional justice process that emerges in Syria.
The video, posted on Tuesday, appears to show armed fighters pulling bloodied captives from a van before laying them on the ground and shooting them. Lebanon’s The Daily Star reported that the militants appeared to be members of Hezbollah, and noted their Lebanese accent. The paper added that a Hezbollah spokesman claimed the organization was “preparing to issue a response to the video.” The location of the killings is thought to be either rural Damascus or Qusayr, Homs.
The Lebanese-based militant group’s presence in Syria has been known for several months. In May, the group’s leader publicly acknowledged Hezbollah’s active role supporting the government forces of Assad in the conflict. Hezbollah has fought alongside other foreign fighters and been recognized as having a significant influence on the fighting.
The severity of killing detainees cannot be overstated. Protections afforded to detainees apply not only to civilians, but also to members of militias “who have fallen into the power of the enemy,” as stipulated in the Third Geneva Convention. Human Rights Watch put it succinctly in a recent article, writing, “Torture and extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic.”
There has been widespread documentation of such violations against prisoners. Last month’s 6th Report of Commission of Inquiry on Syria from the UN accused both government and anti-government forces of committing war crimes specifically including “execution without due process.” This is a continuing problem. Late last year, for example, Physicians for Human Rights condemned instances where rebel groups executed government soldiers they had taken prisoner. Violations against detainees are thought to be common inside government prisons, where “tens of thousands” are being held for peaceful activity alone, according to Human Rights Watch.
Documenting these violations can provide the first step in ensuring guilty parties can be held accountable, especially for the detainee executions that can constitute war crimes. Therefore it is important for groups and individuals to continue efforts to document the treatment of detainees by any party to the conflict. Such widespread documentation may also be able to contribute to future efforts to determine whether or not such abuses were systematic and widespread, a relevant conclusion in the context of accountability mechanisms.
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