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UN to vote on gathering evidence of Syria war crimes

Civilians wait to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo Syria on December 18
Civilians wait to be evacuated from eastern Aleppo Syria on December 18 REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
3 min

The United Nations General Assembly was set to vote late Wednesday on a proposal to collect evidence of war crimes in Syria for future prosecution. Its chances of approval are unclear, though there is no shortage of accusations in the country’s five-year conflict.

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A resolution was put on the table Monday to create an “international mechanism” that would collect, preserve and analyse evidence of war crimes by all players in the Syrian conflict.

The mechanism would complement the existing Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, established by the UN Human Rights Council, which documents accusations of war crimes.

“It’s going to include arbitrary detentions, torture, indiscriminate aerial attacks, siege warfare, the use of chemical weapons, many different things Human Rights Watch and other organisations have been documenting over the past five to six years,” said Hadeel al-Shalchi, Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch.

The rights group has called on governments to support the resolution, which it hopes will also work as a deterrent in a conflict, where alleged abuses happen with impunity.

Evidence for future cases

“Potential perpetrators will know that people are watching, that the world is watching, and that they may one day find themselves behind bars,” al-Shalchi said. “But at least this mechanism would focus on collecting, consolidating, preserving, analysing potential evidence, and also preparing files in order to facilitate future criminal proceedings.”

Although it does not propose taking any steps to set up a tribunal, the resolution raises the question of what court or tribunal would actually try such cases.

France and the United States have accused Russia and Syria of war crimes, and Russia has used its veto on the UN Security Council to block any referral of the conflict to the International Criminal Court.

Any attempt to establish a special tribunal would almost certainly meet with the same resistance in the Security Council.

“We don’t see now how there could be any political will to establish such an ad hoc tribunal, given that the tribunal would be in charge of investigating all responsibilities of the crimes being perpetrated,” said Clémence Bectarte, a French lawyer with the International Federation of Human Rights.

“This is why it’s important for other UN bodies, such as the General Assembly, to take strong stances and positions on documentation to remind the international community that one day we will have to talk about transitional justice and justice for the victims in Syria.”

Witness and victim accounts

For human rights observers, doubts surrounding the future of proceedings, inevitably linked to an end to the conflict and political resolution to the standoff in Syria, should not stop the collection of evidence.

“Witness and victim testimonies, but also any kinds of other evidence on people wounded, must be preserved if we want to go someday to a mechanism of transitional justice, and to be able to determine criminal responsibilities and understand what has been committed,” said Bectarte.

If the resolution fails, however, there is little indication that the current situation will change.

“We could see more of the same, more atrocities, more human rights abuses, and more war crimes being committed in Syria, that may be documented but with complete impunity,” said Hadeel al-Salchi. “So we’re really urging governments to support the General Assembly resolution.

 

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