U.N.'s rights boss warns Russia over Syria air strikes

October 4, 2016 5:22 AM EDT

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein attends the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council at the U.N. European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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By Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights chief told Russia on Tuesday that air strikes on civilian targets in the Syrian city of Aleppo may amount to crimes against humanity which could be brought before the International Criminal Court.

High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein said initiatives to resolve the situation in besieged, rebel-held eastern Aleppo should include proposals to limit the use of the veto by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

This would enable major powers to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, a step previously blocked by Russia and China.

"Such a referral would be more than justified given the rampant and deeply shocking impunity that has characterized the conflict and the magnitude of the crimes that have been committed, some of which may indeed amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity," Zeid said in a statement.

In New York, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin dismissed Zeid's proposal, telling reporters: β€œIt’s not his responsibility to discuss veto powers.”

"Unfortunately my good friend has been overstepping the limits of his responsibilities quite a bit and this is unfortunate.”

The Russian Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. When asked how Russia viewed the suggestion of limiting the veto rights of permanent Security Council members, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Negatively".

Last week Peskov said the Russian air force would continue to support Syrian government troops and that what he called the "war on terror" would continue.

Russia is the main military backer of President Bashar al-Assad.

Zeid said Syria's government and its allies attacked targets protected by international law, including medical units, aid workers and water-pumping stations.


He said that dropping indiscriminate incendiary weapons in heavily populated areas was particularly concerning, as well as being banned by a treaty that Russia is bound by.

He compared Aleppo to the World War Two battles of Warsaw and Stalingrad and the attack on Dresden, and said calling the enemy a "terrorist organization" was not an excuse to ignore the laws of war.

The rebels' use of inaccurate "hell-fire cannons", homemade mortars that fire gas cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel, was also totally unacceptable, he said.

The World Health Organization said that between Sept. 23 and Oct. 2, 342 people had been killed in eastern Aleppo, including 106 children, and 1,129 had been wounded, including 261 children.

Those figures were based on reports from functioning health centers and the true figures were probably much higher, spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.

"As of yesterday, we have now only six partially functional hospitals that are in service, only one hospital that offers trauma care services," Chaib told the briefing.

WHO still hopes to be able to evacuate sick and wounded from Aleppo, she said.

The Syrian government has yet to respond to a U.N. plan for aid convoys in Syria during the month of October, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay, additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Angus MacSwan)

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