International humanitarian law and human rights violations in Syria


Provide a brief overview of the current situation with regard to international humanitarian law and human rights violations in Syria.


All parties involved in the Syrian conflict have carried out extensive violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. In particular, all parties are guilty of targeting civilians. Rape and sexual violence have been widely used as a weapon of war, notably by the government, ISIL and extremist groups. Reports by the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic constitute the most definitive source of evidence about human rights violations in the Syrian conflict. Their findings are corroborated by reports by other human rights groups, e.g. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as media coverage of the conflict. The available evidence varied in the extent to which it differentiated between men, women and children.

Key Findings

  • The Syrian government and its Russian allies have used indiscriminate weapons, notably barrel bombs and cluster munitions, against civilians, and have deliberately targeted medical facilities and schools, as well as humanitarian personnel and humanitarian objects. Enforced sieges accompanied by attacks (e.g. artillery shelling) have been used against opposition-held civilian; Syrian aircraft have also dropped chemical weapons on such areas. Tens of thousands of people have been illegally detained, tortured and executed by the regime.
  • Armed Syrian opposition groups have also carried out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and besieged government-controlled areas depriving residents of food and medical supplies. There have been reports of armed groups detaining people illegally and carrying out summary executions.
  • The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has carried out suicide bombings in civilian areas, and imposed harsh religious laws on areas under its control, and enforced these through corporal punishment and the death penalty. Yazidi women brought to Syria from Iraq have been held as sex slaves and subjected to sexual violence. ISIL has also deliberately destroyed important historic cultural sites, notably Palmyra.
  • Kurdish groups have carried out what appear to be reprisal mass displacements of civilians from areas that they win control of, and even demolished homes in such areas. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) is also accused of forcibly recruiting young boys and men to fight in its units.
  • The international coalition has killed civilians in its airstrikes.


Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2017). International humanitarian law and human rights violations in Syria. K4D Helpdesk Report 127. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.