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Collecting evidence

The UN opens "impartial" investigation into Syrian war crimes

The UN opens “impartial” investigation into Syrian war crimes

The United Nations has agreed to the creation of an independent body that will investigate whether war crimes occurred during the five-and-a-half-year Syrian civil war, which has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives thus far.

The move comes after weeks of intense scrutiny of Syria – and in particular Aleppo, where the U.S., France, and the U.K. have all accused the Syrian government of committing war crimes. The U.N. itself called the situation in the key Syrian city “a complete meltdown in humanity.”

What is happening?

The U.N. General Assembly has agreed to create an “international, impartial, and independent mechanism” that will “collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence” about possible war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria over the past five years.

Ultimately the group will also be charged with preparing cases if they are referred to regional, national or international courts.

The U.N. has asked all countries and parties involved in the conflict – along with civil society groups – to provide all information and documentation the investigating body may require.

Why now?

Liechtenstein’s U.N. ambassador Christian Wenaweser, who sponsored the resolution, said the inaction of the UN to date had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and sent the wrong message to the world.

“Our inaction tends to signal that war crimes and crimes against humanity are condoned and have no consequences,” he said.

The UN estimates that 400,000 people have died during the civil war (some estimate the death toll to be higher), while half of all 22 million Syrians have been displaced.

In the last week, Syrian government forces have recaptured the key city of Aleppo from rebels, which is seen as a significant victory for Assad. Russia, Turkey, and Iran said this week that they were seeking a solution to the conflict.

Did everyone agree?

The resolution was passed by a vote of 105 to 15, with 52 abstentions. There were strenuous objections from Syria — as well as from Russia and Iran — accusing the assembly of interfering with national sovereignty and stepping on the toes of the council, which is usually responsible for issues of international peace and security.

“The establishment of such a mechanism is a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a U.N. member state,” Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari said before the vote. Iran’s deputy ambassador to the UN Gholam-Hossein Dehqani said the move “undoubtedly seeks to advance a political agenda under the disguise of quest for justice.”

Others praised the establishment of the new panel: “The General Assembly today demonstrated that it can take the reins on questions of justice in the face of Security Council deadlock,” Balkees Jarrah, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, adding that it was “a critically important stand for victims of massive grave crimes.”

 

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said the move was a step in the right direction and “sends an important message to Assad and those responsible for crimes: you will be held to account.”

Isn’t there already a commission looking into war crimes in Syria?

Yes, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic was established by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in August 2011, just five months after the Syrian conflict began.

In 2014 the commission sought to refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court with a U.N. Security Council resolution, but it was vetoed by Russia and China.

The commission has prepared several reports into the use of chemical weapons during the five-and-a-half-year conflict and says it has a confidential list of suspects on all sides who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The two organizations will now work together and the commission has welcomed the establishment of the new group, saying it’s looking forward to collaborating.

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