A new unit is being set up by the United Nations in Geneva
to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria
, UN officials have said.
The first major policy announcement under the newly inaugurated UN secretary-general, António Guterres, the unit will “analyse information, organise and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes”, a UN human rights official said.
The team will investigate “primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and identify those responsible”, the official added. Although it will not be able to prosecute, the unit will prepare files that could be used in future prosecutions by states or by the international criminal court in The Hague
The focus on prosecutions also means evidence collected since 2011 by a UN commission of inquiry may be sharpened into legal action.
Legal experts and activists welcomed the initiative. “The focus is on collecting evidence and building criminal cases before the trail goes cold,” said Andrew Clapham, professor of international law at Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.
Jeremie Smith, of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the UN must lay the groundwork for prosecutions ahead of any “exodus” of perpetrators when the war ends. “This is the only way to make sure criminals don’t get away by fleeing the scene of the crime,” he added.
The commission of inquiry has issued 20 reports accusing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government, rebel forces and Islamic State of mass killings, rapes, disappearances and recruiting child soldiers. It too lacks a prosecutorial mandate, but has denounced a state policy amounting to “extermination” and compiled a confidential list of suspects on all sides, which is kept in a safe.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International last week claimed the Syrian government executed up to 13,000 prisoners in mass hangings and carried out systematic torture at a military jail. Syria denied the report, calling it “devoid of truth”.
A UN report in January put the start-up budget for the new team at between $4m and $6m. Funding is voluntary and so far $1.8m has been donated, the UN official said.
According to diplomats, the UN is aiming to recruit between 40 and 60 experts in investigations, prosecutions, the military and forensics. “It’s a very important step. It will not only allow court cases but also help us preserve evidence if there are cases in the future,” a senior western diplomat said.
Many national courts could pursue suspects using the unit’s dossiers, Clapham said. States that have joined the international criminal court could bring cases without referral by the UN security council.