UN: Syria war crimes evidence solid enough for indictment

Officials have been calling on Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC for years, but Russia would likely veto move

A father runs away with his children during a bomb attack by a Syrian aircraft that killed 25 people in the Karam el-Beik district of Aleppo, Syria, on March 18, 2014.
Ahmed Muhammed Ali/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

U.N. investigators said on Tuesday they had expanded their list of suspected war criminals on both sides of Syria's civil war and the evidence was solid enough to prepare an indictment. But with Syrian ally Russia almost certain to block any United Nations Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, it is unlikely the panel's announcement will see suspected perpetrators of war crimes brought to justice.

The chairman of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told a news conference the "perpetrators list" includes the heads of intelligence branches and detention facilities where torture occurs; military commanders who target civilians; officials overseeing airports from where barrel bomb attacks are planned and executed; and leaders of armed groups involved in attacking civilians.

Some 20 investigators have carried out 2,700 in-person and Skype interviews with victims, witnesses and defectors in the region to create the report for the United Nations Human Rights Council. They have never been allowed to enter the country, now in its fourth year of an increasingly sectarian conflict.

Despite the accumulation of evidence, diplomats say it is unlikely Syria would be referred to the ICC, which tries war crime suspects in The Hague, any time soon.

As Syria has not signed the Rome statutes establishing the ICC, the Security Council would need to make the referral. Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria throughout the war, vetoing three U.N. resolutions that would have condemned President Bashar al-Assad's government and threatened it with possible sanctions.

"We do not lack information on crimes or even on perpetrators. What we lack is a means by which to achieve justice and accountability but this is not in our powers," Pinheiro said.

The commission said the period of Jan. 20 to March 10 was characterized by escalating hostilities between insurgent groups throughout northern and northeastern provinces of Syria as rebel strongholds came under attack.

Government forces have dropped barrel bombs on Aleppo and other cities, causing extensive civilian casualties in areas with no clear military target, and severely tortured detainees.

The mostly Sunni insurgents seeking to topple Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam, have used car and suicide bombs targeting civilian areas — also violations of international law, the commission said.

Fighters from Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed detainees, including civilians, and captured soldiers, in Aleppo, Idlib and al Raqqa before coming under attack by other armed groups such as the Islamic Front, it said.

Confidential lists

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Four confidential lists of suspects have been drawn up, including the names of those responsible for hostage-taking, torture and execution, Pinheiro said.

Carla del Ponte, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor who is on the inquiry, said the investigators had gathered "objective evidence" including photographs and documents that could be used by a prosecutor for any future ICC case.

"This commission has collected a lot of evidence that can be used tomorrow to prepare an indictment," she said.

"Referral to justice is an urgent, extremely urgent need, but as you know the Security Council cannot take the decision to refer to the ICC because of the veto,” she said, referring to the likelihood that Russia and China would veto such a resolution.

The independent team was set up in September 2011, months after the start of the revolt in which at least 140,000 people have been killed.

It has called repeatedly for the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC prosecutor, a call endorsed again by Britain, the European Union, France and Switzerland on Tuesday.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has been recommending that the situation be referred to the ICC since 2011, when she put the number of dead at more than 5,000.

Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Syria’s ambassador to Geneva, denounced the commission. "Referral to the ICC is a politicized and unlawful step as there are national judicial mechanisms available in Syria," he said.

Khabbaz Hamoui accused the commission of working for the political agendas of countries that are supporting the rebels — naming the United States, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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