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U.N. Official Says War Crimes Are Being Committed In Aleppo


You're about to hear more dire news from Syria, and a top official at the U.N. believes that in itself may be part of the problem. He wonders if we've gotten so inundated with news about conflict and suffering that we're becoming numb. But Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, believes it is his duty to keep getting the word out. And he did that again recently. He said crimes of historic proportions are being committed in eastern Aleppo, the Syrian city where government troops backed by Russia have been carrying out deadly air strikes.

Let me just ask you. You lashed out at the international community with some pretty harsh words, calling what's happening in Aleppo crimes of historic proportions. What prompted you to say this?

ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: Well, even by the standards of the horrors we've seen in Syria over the last five years, the recent what seems to be utterly indiscriminate bombing by Syrian and Russian forces creates an impression that the people in eastern Aleppo are almost entombed. They are being sort of kept to their homes, yes, but if they try to venture out to bakeries, to schools, to hospitals, the likelihood of their being bombed is quite high. And they're grounds for believing that war crimes are indeed being committed.

GREENE: The Russian government has said that both sides in Aleppo are harming people, that there are armed groups that are hitting government controls areas in the western part of the city. I mean, how do you respond to Russian claims like that?

HUSSEIN: Well, we have seen improvised mortars being used by the armed groups, and we have also expressed how deplorable it is, of course, and condemned any targeting of civilians. But the overall level or number of civilian casualties seems to accrue from the aerial bombing.

GREENE: This is aerial bombing, to be clear, by Russian and Syrian forces in the east of Aleppo.

HUSSEIN: That's right, yes.

GREENE: I mean, you know better than anyone, Russian officials and diplomats who you've worked with. I mean, Russia has a United Nations representative. There's Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister. Have you gotten any signs from the Russian government that makes you think you have a willing partner in trying to stop this violence?

HUSSEIN: There have been concerted efforts - you know, John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov have met umpteen times. And the point that we make - and I can't be drawn into the political dimensions of this conflict. The point we make is that so egregious is the suffering of the people of eastern Aleppo. Whatever the strategic motives, surely they cannot eclipse the scale and degree of suffering, and ultimately, this fighting has to cease.

GREENE: There have been these iconic photos of suffering from Syria.


GREENE: There have been words like yours, like crimes of historic proportions, but what will get countries to act?

HUSSEIN: Yeah. Over time, populations around the world have become almost sort of tranquillized to the suffering of others. There's so much of it, regrettably. There are so many conflicts, and the suffering of human beings is splashed across on newspapers, on the internet, through radio shows like this one. And what we worry about is that people are not moved anymore to take action and to put pressure on their governments to end this disastrous war. I mean, you hope that humanity is still recoiling at this sort of news, and - whether it be the bombing in Yemen or the actions in Iraq at the moment. And in all cases, we have to hold those who are prosecuting these conflicts responsible for gross violations of human rights.

GREENE: Mr. High Commissioner, before I let you go, you made a reference to you not wanting to get into the politics of this.


GREENE: And I'm reminded of some comments you made recently about Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president in the United States, saying that he would be dangerous as president.

HUSSEIN: Yes, yes.

GREENE: Why did you say that?

HUSSEIN: If Donald Trump makes good on many of the comments he's made over the past year or so, it poses a threat to the human rights of many people.

GREENE: You specifically brought up some of the comments he made about expanding the use of torture. Is that what you're talking about?

HUSSEIN: Yes, yes, absolutely.

GREENE: I guess supporters of Donald Trump might say that the threat of terrorism makes them feel like, no, that they would want their president to take whatever action necessary, even if it meant violating the rights of someone who is suspected of terrorism.

HUSSEIN: Yeah, no, that in law never works. I mean, we will return, of course, to the Stone Age like this very quickly. There can be no exceptions, for instance, to the use of torture.

GREENE: Do you worry that even saying what you have here is crossing a line and it might not be appropriate for a U.N. official to get involved in a presidential campaign in this way?

HUSSEIN: It's well within my mandate. Once they assume power, if they're a candidate, it's often too late. The human rights violations are in full flow, and if in the future, of course, historians will look back and say, well, why didn't these people speak out if they knew it was going to be a significant threat?

GREENE: Mr. High Commissioner, a real pleasure talking to you, thank you so much.

HUSSEIN: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.