U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the Syrian government’s siege of suburban Damascus an “outrage” on Friday, demanding access for aid workers so they could head off a “humanitarian emergency.”
“The shocking images of what appear to be severely malnourished children that have emerged in recent days are a frightening indication of the plight of people in Eastern Ghouta, who are now facing a humanitarian emergency,” said the U.N. human rights chief.
“I remind all parties that the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare constitutes a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and may amount to a crime against humanity and/or a war crime,” he added.
According to the United Nations, residential areas of Damascus are suffering “ground-based strikes by government forces and their allies” on a daily basis. Humanitarian organizations have been blocked from reaching the affected areas, while heavy fighting makes civilians afraid to leave.
The U.N. stated that it has been unable to access Eastern Ghouta since September 23. Assad’s regime approved only 26 percent of requests to deliver humanitarian aid.
“Unidentified attackers reportedly stormed and looted a food warehouse in the Eastern Ghouta town of Hamourya on 19 October. The following day several hundred people allegedly looted a second warehouse in the town—a possible sign of growing desperation,” the U.N. reports.
“Residents survive on smuggled goods, paying extortion prices to warlords and local traders. Activists say two children have died of starvation in the last two months,” adds the Associated Press.
The AP notes that Eastern Ghouta has been under siege for almost four years, constantly bombarded by government forces. Although the area is supposed to be covered by the de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, the situation has actually grown worse since May, because regime forces seized two key neighborhoods used to smuggle in food and supplies. Residents are now paying about $6 a pound for smuggled sugar, measured against average monthly incomes of just $100.
Both human-rights activists and the United Nations have accused the Assad regime of using starvation as a weapon, blocking aid shipments to rebellious areas until they accept Assad’s rule. An estimated 800,000 people continue to live under siege conditions in various parts of Syria.