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HRW fears Russia will repeat Syria ‘war crimes’ in Ukraine

Published: Updated:

Human Rights Watch highlighted Tuesday Russia's track-record for bombing civilian infrastructure in Syria's conflict and voiced fear “war crimes strategy” could be repeated in Ukraine if the conflict escalates further.

Following Moscow's recognition of two self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine, HRW chief Kenneth Roth cautioned that the region could “be on the verge of a significant armed conflict”.

Given Russia's recent behaviour during Syria's civil war, that was a deeply worrying prospect, he told Geneva-based reporters during a video briefing.

In late 2020, HRW issued a report on how the Syrian government and its Russian ally “showed callous disregard” for civilian life as they strived to retake the Idlib province and surrounding areas in northwest Syria.

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The nearly year-long Idlib bombing campaign that began in April 2019 “gives us a sense of the way the Russian military has been fighting recently,” Roth said.

HRW, he said, had found “repeated instances of deliberately targeting civilian institutions, that is to say hospitals, schools, markets, apartment buildings”.

The report documented 46 cases of direct attacks on civilian infrastructure “where there was no evidence of opposition military weapons, equipment or personnel in the vicinity at the time of the attack”

Roth said, that in those cases, the strategy was “blatant”.

Russian bombers were “deliberately attacking civilian institutions to try to make life unlivable and make it easier for the Syrian military to roll in”.

During this time, he said, Russian President Vladimir “Putin had command responsibility”, and had given top honours to the “commanders who were overseeing this war crimes strategy”.

“We are deeply concerned that this war crimes strategy (could) be replicated in the case of Ukraine should armed conflict break out there,” Roth said.

Beyond the situation in Ukraine, the HRW chief also voiced alarm at the deteriorating rights situation inside Russia.

He pointed to the case of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, to “electoral charades... without meaningful political opposition”, and the extensive use of “extremist” or “foreign agent” labels to shut down legitimate organisations like Russia's leading rights group Memorial.

“We've seen very substantial backtracking,” Roth said.

“All of this adds up to an abysmal human rights situation within Russia that is rapidly approaching the level of repression that we saw in the Soviet era.”

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