Syria and Domestic Prosecutions: Upholding hope, one case at a time (Part 1 of 2)

Credit: Lynsey Addario

As of July 2018, more than 500 000 people had been killed as a result of the conflict in Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. With the UN Special Envoy for Syria having recently resigned, signs of hope seem dire for many Syrians and their supporters, there and abroad.

A side-event held today, on Day 3 of the 17th Assembly of State Parties (ASP) to the International Criminal Court, brought distinguished panelists together to discuss the role of prosecutions held in Europe through universal jurisdiction for international crimes, using Syria as an example. More than only about accountability, the resounding message about these prosecutions was that their role was to give out and to inspire the people to be strong, fight for justice and, maybe, eventually, be able to move on.

Earlier this week, during a keynote address at a reception held before the launch of the ASP, Ms.Catherine Marchi-Uhel aptly said that the ICC is the center piece of the international justice system. However, she also reminded the audience that the role of the international jurisdiction as a springboard for national prosecutions is often overlooked.

Yet, despite the hopes, symbolism and assistance to the rebuilding of judicial institutions that national prosecutions can bring (as I mentioned in my previous blog post on Quid Justitiae in the context of the present ASP), the political context may simply not allow it and, in the case of Syria, there is obviously no need to elaborate on why prosecutions at the national level are not possible.

In the case of Syria, one of the worst situations since World War II, as Ms Marchi-Uhel underlined, the pathway to the ICC is blocked, as a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution to refer the case to the ICC was vetoed in 2014. With the ICC option gridlocked, Marchi-Uhel said that the international community needed to be creative to find new strategies to supplement the Rome Statue system: there was a need to think outside the international justice box. This is why, in 2016, the UNGA decided to create the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) to collect and analyse evidence of international crimes committed in Syria (see the IIIM official website here). Not a court or tribunal, it is “a building block for comprehensive justice” and can “turn limitations into opportunities”. This was definitely a smart move, as the call for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did not seem to have resonated any more than previous attempts made through the UNSC.

As Human Rights Watch underlined in a report published last year [p. 59], the IIIM could be an essential source of information for domestic prosecutor, especially since part of its mandate is “to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes, in accordance with international law.” Its terms of reference further indicate that “[t]he Mechanism may share information either at the request of national, regional or international courts or tribunals or on its own initiative” and that it “[…] shall adopt procedures and methods of work further regulating the sharing of information to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, duly considering the requirement pertaining to the security of information.” According to Ms. Marchi-Uhel, 13 requests for assistance have been submitted to date by state prosecution services.

As expected, the IIIM has reported that is has gathered an “overwhelming”– yet devastating – amount of information and evidence. The IIIM’s first report seems to indicate that managing all of it will constitute their main challenge[1]:

[…] In particular, the volume of videos and other images — as well as the role played by social media — is unprecedented in any other accountability process with respect to international crimes to date. The standard tasks of classifying relevant material, demonstrating authenticity, presenting the complexity of collected material in innovative visual ways and managing the association of evidence with other corroborating material become amplified by volume and by the diversity of the collection methods and organizations involved. This means that the Mechanism must devise creative new strategies for handling that reality, which makes its IT systems and expertise crucial […].  

At the side-event held today, Ms. Marchi-Uhel explained the IIIM evidence management system, essential to ensure the evidence is used in the most useful, impactful way possible: easily searchable, with appropriate metadata available, linking translations of various documents, identifying duplicated documents, etc.

(Continued Below)

This blogpost and the author’s attendance to the 17th Assembly of States Parties are supported by the Canadian Partnership for InternationalJustice and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. 


[1] Report of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, UN Doc A/72/764, para. 72.

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