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Transfer of the Civilian Population in International Law - January 2017 (OHCHR legal note)

An increasing number of localised ceasefire agreements are being agreed between armed opposition groups and the Government of Syria. While efforts aimed at ending the fighting are to be encouraged, the terms of the agreement must be in conformity with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The terms of such agreements vary, generally involving the return of territory to the control of the Government and the transfer of armed opposition group fighters to other opposition-held areas. Their families are often allowed to accompany them. In some instances, other civilians have been evacuated to nearby areas under Government control or to distant opposition-held areas. However, in many such instances it is extremely difficult to ascertain the extent to which the civilian population is voluntarily choosing to leave. While civilians enjoy the rights to freedom of movement and to security and freedom of person and so may freely choose to leave their homes should they wish, any forcible removal of the civilian population - including coercive measures aimed at forcing their removal - may constitute a violation of the international humanitarian law prohibition on forcible transfer. While there have been previous examples of ceasefire agreements being reached earlier in the conflict such as was seen in Homs in 2014, since August 2016 there have been a number of ceasefire agreements having been or in the process of being reached- often after months or years of siege conditions, lack of items necessary for survival, and constant bombardment from the air and ground. Furthermore, at least some agreements have been reached between the opposing forces without consultation with the civilian population. In order to ensure the protection of civilians it is essential to examine each such agreement closely and on a case-bycase basis and against the strict parameters of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. In August 2016, a ceasefire agreement was reached in the town of Daraya in which the entire civilian population was evacuated as part of a deal to end the fighting. Reports received by OHCHR indicated that the agreement was negotiated between the Government of Syria and the Local Council of Daraya, with little consultation with civilians in the town. Information indicated that at least some of the civilians were evacuated against their will. If confirmed to be the case, such an involuntary displacement could amount to a violation of the international humanitarian law prohibition on forced displacement. 

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Original Publication Date: 
31 Jan 2017
Document type: