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The United Nations (UN) has pledged to investigate the most serious crimes committed during the civil war in Syria. It has established an investigative unit to document and collate evidence of the atrocities committed by all parties that could be used for future international and national prosecutions. This represents a major milestone for the war-torn country and its people, who continue to suffer from the agonies and injustices of six years of conflict.
However, whilst UN-led investigations have the potential to hold high-level perpetrators to account, it remains to be seen if President Bashar al-Assad will ever be tried for crimes against humanity. Furthermore, there are serious doubts that retributive justice is an effective mechanism for a country that has been wracked by internal divisions that has not only affected belligerents, but also the civilian population so damaged by the war. Nevertheless, the determination of the international community to acknowledge war crimes committed in Syria is a positive and needed first step for the thousands of Syrians who have been killed, tortured, imprisoned, and disappeared by their own government and other parties to the conflict.
There is a recognized urgency to investigate the atrocities committed in Syria. Andrew Clapham, a professor of international law at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies remarked: “The focus is on collecting evidence and building criminal cases before the trail goes cold”. However, Assad’s regime has shown little support for such a process. In response to the UN General Assembly vote in December 2016 in favor of an investigation, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jafaari argued that it is a “flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a UN member-state”. With the Assad regime still in power, such attitude is unlikely to change. Therefore, as Josh Rogin, a columnist for the Washington Post solemnly predicts: “Justice for the innocent victims in Syria will likely take years, if not decades, to be realized”.
The collective decision by UN member-states to conduct investigations into war crimes committed in Syria is a positive step. However, the investigative units do not have prosecutorial powers. Thus, the ‘International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011’ can only produce evidence in the hopes that future endeavors will be taken to try perpetrators in a court of law. In this current geopolitical climate, it is uncertain when, if ever, Bashar al-Assad will be held accountable for crimes against his people. Russia continues to veto any UN Security Council referral against Assad to the ICC.
The war in Syria, characterized by its sheer complexity and involvement of numerous actors, has reached its sixth year. Serious atrocities have been committed by all parties to the conflict: government forces, Islamic State, Jabhat Fath al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra), opposition forces, and Russia. While Islamic State and al-Sham unapologetically publicize their war crimes, the Assad regime and Russia have continued to deny the severity of their actions. The Syrian Center for Policy Research has counted the death toll at 470,000 people, as of February 2016. Many more Syrians are internally displaced or have fled the country, with numbers estimated at 10.9 million. They have fled the devastation that has gripped their nation for six years. Chemical weapons, airstrikes, wide-area explosives, barrel bombs, cluster munitions, and incendiary weapons attacks are all widespread and used upon the civilian population. Syrians have been detained, imprisoned, tortured, and withheld aid. While most, if not all parties to the conflict are responsible for these war crimes, the callousness of Assad’s scorched earth campaign is particularly unpalatable.
Certainly, the decision by the UN to pursue investigations in Syria is a necessary endeavor. However, those who seek justice from high-level perpetrators may be disappointed. Further still, justice and healing for the people of Syria might only be met in generations to come. Nevertheless, by documenting war crimes committed in Syria, this inexcusable suffering ought never to be forgotten.