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U.N. Security Council Looks at Torture and Abuse

On Tuesday the U.N. Security Council will convene privately to consider and view images from a report about the alleged torture and execution of detainees by the Syrian government.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The meeting is part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes to submit to the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC).

Western powers including France, the host of today’s meeting, want to refer Syrian regime officials to the ICC. Russia, an ally of the Syrian government, has stood against an ICC referral.

“A referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC could mark a turning point in addressing the revolting abuses that have marked the Syrian conflict,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

Balkees Jarrah with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch weighs in on the process.

What is happening at the Security Council today?

France will convene an “Arria-formula” meeting, an informal, confidential gathering of Security Council members, to consider a January report by a group of legal and forensic experts about the alleged torture and execution of detainees in Syria.

Additionally, members will also discuss ways to ensure justice for crimes in Syria. France transmitted the report to Council members two weeks ago. As we understand, this meeting is one step in an initiative, led by France at the Security Council, towards a resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Has Human Rights Watch documented instances of abuse?

Human Rights Watch has documented the Syrian government’s extensive use of torture in facilities across the country by speaking to survivors and defectors, visiting former detention centers and seeing firsthand torture devices and chambers. Human Rights Watch has also documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by some non-state armed groups, “including the indiscriminate use of car bombs and mortars, kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial executions.”

On the basis of this investigation, Human Rights Watch has concluded that government and pro-government forces have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. These are the types of crimes that fall under the ICC jurisdiction.

What countries have endorsed referring Syria to the ICC?

Nine of the 15 current Security Council members have publicly expressed support for referring Syria to the ICC – France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Chile, Lithuania, and Nigeria – but about 64 countries around the world have called for a referral. China has remained silent on the court’s involvement. The only comment that Russia has made is that it is “ill timed and counter-productive,” but this was made over a year ago, in response to a letter that Switzerland delivered to the Security Council on behalf of 58 countries, calling for an ICC referral. I should also mention that the United States has also remained silent on the court’s involvement, and we’ve been calling on the U.S. to publicly express their support for an ICC referral, and to join the countries around the world that have done so.

Apart from the countries, there is also a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that is looking into abuses in Syria. It has published about seven reports since it was established in 2011.

The latest report from the U.N.’s Syria Commission of Inquiry, published on March 5, found that all sides to the Syria conflict continued to commit serious crimes under international law and held that the Security Council was failing to take action to end the state of impunity.

The latest report recommended that the Security Council give the ICC a mandate to investigate abuses in Syria. Additionally, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has repeatedly recommended that the council refer the situation to the ICC, most recently last week, on April 8.

What would the process of referral look like?

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. As a result, the ICC can only obtain jurisdiction over crimes there if the Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the court. The Security Council has made similar referrals twice, for the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005 and Libya in 2011. Actually, Russia and China both supported the Libya referral in a unanimous Security Council vote.

What is the next step? What’s the ideal outcome?

We have a growing call for accountability through the court. Following this meeting, the question will be: Will Security Council Members give their support for this referral?

The ideal outcome is that council members give the ICC a mandate to investigate crimes in Syria. The court is not a comprehensive solution to the state of impunity in Syria. A lot more will need to happen, because of the scale of crime. The national system will have to deliver some level of justice as well. The reality is, the system in Syria is neither capable nor willing to carry out any type of credible justice for the abuses that are being committed there.

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