UN push for Syria war crimes trial

Female members of the Free Syrian Army during training. The government has said it is willing to talk to rebels. Picture: Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
Female members of the Free Syrian Army during training. The government has said it is willing to talk to rebels. Picture: Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
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United Nations investigators said yesterday that Syrian leaders identified as suspected war criminals should face the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The investigators pressed the UN Security Council to “act urgently to ensure accountability” for violations, including murder and torture, committed by both sides in a conflict that has killed an estimated 70,000 people since the revolt against president Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

The calls came as the regime suggested for the first time it was willing to hold direct negotiations with rebel forces it has long dismissed as terrorists, despite Mr Assad insisting last month there would be no dialogue with people he called “puppets made by the West”.

During a parliamentary session yesterday, national reconciliation minister Ali Haidar said: “We, the government and me personally, will meet, ­without exceptions, Syrian ­opposition groups inside and outside [Syria].

“The president of the country has said that we will try with everyone that is against us politically. And even those who use arms – we must try with them.”

He said “preparatory talks” were different to the National Dialogue, a reconciliation proposal by Mr Assad that officials have said should be held in Damascus and only with members of the opposition “without blood on their hands”.

Meanwhile, speaking of its latest report on Syria, Carla del Ponte, a former ICC chief prosecutor who joined the UN team in September, said it was time for the ICC to take action.

She said: “Now really it’s time … We have a permanent court, the International Criminal Court, who would be ready to take this case.”

The inquiry, led by Brazilian diplomat Paulo Pinheiro, is tracing the chain of command to establish criminal responsibility and build a case for prosecution.

“We were able to identify high-level perpetrators,” Ms del Ponte said, adding these were people “in command responsibility … deciding, organising, planning and aiding and abetting the commission of crimes”.

She said it was urgent that The Hague-based war crimes tribunal should take up cases of “very high officials”.

She added: “We have crimes committed against children; rape and sexual violence. We have grave concerns.”

Ms del Ponte – who brought former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to the ICC on war crimes charges – said the ICC prosecutor would need to deepen the investigation on Syria before an indictment.

Mr Pinheiro, noting that only the Security Council could refer Syria’s case to the ICC, said: 
“We are in very close dialogue with all the five permanent members and with all the members of the Security Council, but we don’t have the key that will open the path to co-operation inside the Security Council.”

Karen Koning AbuZayd, an American member of the UN team, said it had information pointing to “people who have given instructions and are responsible for government policy, people who are in the leadership of the military”.

The inquiry’s third list of suspects, building on lists drawn up in the past year, remains secret. It will be entrusted to Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, upon expiry of its mandate at the end of March, the report said.

Ms Pillay, a former ICC judge, said on Saturday that Mr Assad should be investigated for war crimes, and called for outside action on Syria, including possible military intervention.

Mr Pinheiro said the investigators would not speak publicly about “numbers, names or levels” of suspects, adding that it was vital to pursue accountability for international crimes “to counter the pervasive sense of impunity” in Syria.

The investigators’ latest report, covering the six months to mid-January, was based on 445 interviews conducted abroad with victims and witnesses. They have not been allowed into Syria.

“We identified seven massacres during the period, five on the government side, two on the armed opponents’ side. We need to enter the sites to be able to confirm elements of proof that we have,” Ms del Ponte said.