“I was beaten with cables and told to kneel before a picture of Bashar Al-Assad.”
Former detainee Abu al-Najem
Six years of crisis in Syria, which began after anti-government protests erupted in March 2011, have been marred by horror and bloodshed. Parties to the conflict continued to commit human rights abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. To date, victims have seen no justice. Syrian government forces, with the support of Russia, have attacked and bombed civilians, killing and injuring thousands; maintained lengthy sieges on civilian areas; subjected tens of thousands to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions; and systematically tortured and otherwise ill-treated detainees causing countless deaths in custody. Armed groups have indiscriminately shelled and besieged predominately civilian areas, and committed abductions, torture and summary killings.
Today, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses continue in Syria. These crimes should not go unpunished. Victims and their families have the right to truth, reparation, and justice.
A glimmer of hope for accountability emerged when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution establishing an investigative mechanism in Syria.
It aims to bring to justice all those suspected of committing human rights violations or crimes under international law. This is an opportunity to send a clear message to all perpetrators in Syria that they will be held accountable. It is time to ensure that the cycle of war crimes, crimes against humanity and impunity ends now. Justice and accountability are essential to any future sustainable peace in Syria. The path to justice can be long, but we must act now to ensure that the UN takes all the steps necessary towards an effective international mechanism for Syria.
Steps to an Effective UN Mechanism
- Pass the resolution: Resolution 71/248 passed by the UN General Assembly in December 2016 establishing the UN Mechanism.
- Secure adequate funding for the mechanism by UN member states.
- Hire competent, experienced, and independent staff: Hire Head, Deputy Head, and staff, experienced in International Criminal investigations, prosecutions and evidence analysis.
- Draft comprehensive and practical internal regulations and procedures on issues such as organizing, collecting, safekeeping of information; cooperation and sharing of information; confidentiality, privacy and protection of sources.
- Proactively collect data: Make requests to government agencies and identify sources of evidence and contacts.
- Start independent, impartial, and comprehensive investigations: Interview witnesses and conduct on-site investigations.
- Effectively organize and analyze high volumes of collected data in an accessible way: Set up secure and organized (electronic) databases and analyze evidence to establish (high-level) perpetrators and patterns of conduct.
- Operate and report transparently: Prepare reports to the UN General Assembly and ensure meaningful participation and information to victims, NGOs and all stakeholders.
- Efficiently prepare comprehensive case files to prosecute individual perpetrators: Prepare case files on crimes under international law and suspected individual perpetrators with a view to national or international prosecutions (including by the mechanism itself)
- Operationalize data: Share and make readily accessible evidence and case files (subject to safeguards and procedures)
Governments can also bring justice to Syria
Many countries around the world can prosecute persons for crimes committed in Syria, even if the suspects or the victims are of a foreign nationality. These crimes include war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, genocide, acts of terrorism and enforced disappearances.
This mechanism of prosecution is called Universal Jurisdiction and several European countries have exercised it to investigate war crimes committed in Syria or Iraq. But we need more countries to start investigations and prosecutions to ensure that victims and their families receive the justice and reparation they deserve.
Syrian communities and organizations in Europe and elsewhere play an important role in providing testimonies and identifying suspects, thus increasing the opportunity for states to investigate and prosecute war crimes in their national courts.
Countries that can exercise this form of jurisdiction include: Argentina, France, UK, USA, Australia, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, South Korea, Mexico, Switzerland, Sweden, Senegal and Uruguay.
Human Toll of the Conflict
More than half of the population within Syria in need of humanitarian assistance including food, water, shelter and healthcare.
250,000 people have been killed, according to the UN.
4.9 million people are now refugees abroad.