While action in the United Nations Security Council on the catastrophe in Syria has been stymied by Russian and Chinese vetoes, the UN Human Rights Council and the organization’s high commissioner for human rights are taking the lead in responding to the crisis. On February 22, a panel of international experts submitted a well-documented, damning indictment of the Syrian government to the high commissioner, Navi Pillay, along with a sealed dossier listing names of high-level Syrian military and civilian officials whom the investigating experts charge with “a widespread and systemic pattern of gross abuses.”
The report suggests that the list could include President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle, and that the names may ultimately be turned over for prosecution to the International Criminal Court in The Hague—though this is unlikely to happen any time soon, since the court’s indictment process takes time and it has often been difficult to arrange taking custody of the accused. (Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has evaded arrest and trial by the court for almost four years for crimes in Darfur.) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is on record saying that it was “almost certain” that crimes against humanity had been committed by Assad’s forces in Syria. An overwhelming majority of UN member nations recently joined in the condemnation of the Assad regime in a nonbinding General Assembly vote.
The new human rights panel report says that armed opponents of the Syrian government were also committing abuses, including torture, but not but not on the scale of the Syrian security forces or, apparently, as a systematic policy. Nonetheless, some Free Syrian Army members or units and other opposition fighters have been included on the list of alleged abusers.
A day after the report was released and on the eve of an international meeting on the Syrian crisis held in Tunis, the UN and the Arab League, in a surprising move, recruited Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general, to serve as a joint special envoy to Syria. It remains to be seen whether Annan will even be able to enter Syria under the current regime to accomplish his task of trying to create an interim transitional government and an end of hostilities, or at least a ceasefire between a government committed to a military solution and a divided opposition. (The appointment is interesting on a couple of counts. Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, still enjoys enormous respect and popularity internationally, often overshadowing his successor, Ban Ki-moon. The Syria assignment, bound to be fraught with difficulties, will put Annan back in the global spotlight, for better or worse.)
In the case of Syria, the report covers the situation from December of last year until February 15 of this year. The commission’s conclusions are unambiguous, showing a pattern of abuses growing steadily worse since March 2011.
“Following a further review of its evidence, including information collected since November 2011, the commission is satisfied that a reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of Government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations,” the report said. “The commission also identified particular army units, security agencies and their branch offices for which there are reasonable grounds to believe that they carried out gross human rights violations.” A full database has been supplied to the UN human rights commissioner.