Frustration Over a War and Its Crimes9 August 2017 | 14:12 | The New York Times
“I am frustrated. I give up,” she told a Swiss newspaper. Everyone in the Syrian civil strife was on the “bad side,” she said, the murderous Assad regime and the “extremists and terrorists” fighting it, and the United Nations Security Council has failed to act on the reports on war crimes and crimes against humanity her panel produced.
Ms. del Ponte knows the bad side. After making her name as a mafia-busting attorney general in her native Switzerland, she was appointed prosecutor for the war-crimes courts, for the former Yugoslavia and then for Rwanda. The crimes she has investigated over the past five years on what is formally known as the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, she said, were worse than anything she had seen in Rwanda or Yugoslavia.
It is impossible not to share her frustration. The Syrian war has taken over 400,000 lives and displaced millions of people since erupting in 2011; all sides have committed innumerable war crimes, including murder, torture and rape; civilian populations have been massacred by barrel bombs, gassed and deliberately denied food and health services; the Islamic State has spread unspeakable terror in areas it conquered.
But the Security Council’s inaction has not been for lack of trying. It is because Russia, often joined by China, has obstinately propped up President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, using its veto eight times in the Council so far to block measures against him. The latest veto came on April 12, blocking a resolution introduced by the United States, France and Britain demanding that Mr. Assad cooperate with an investigation into a deadly gas attack.
With Security Council action blocked, the General Assembly, where there is no veto, voted in December to set up another body, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, charged with building cases for any court that might have jurisdiction. A French judge experienced in war-crimes tribunals, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, was named its head and began work on Tuesday.
With General Assembly backing, the new body presumably has more clout than Ms. del Ponte’s, which was set up by the Human Rights Council, and its drill includes building actual cases against specific individuals. It will have access to the first panel’s voluminous findings, most of which have not been made public.
It is up to the International Criminal Court to make use of the evidence from either body. But because the court cannot take action on its own against a nonmember like Syria (the United States has also refused to join), cases must be referred by the Security Council, and Russia and China have blocked that idea.
This is deeply frustrating for victims of atrocities and for investigators. But international organizations and international justice are inherently dependent on the political will of those involved, and the Syrian conflict is an infernal tangle of political goals, ideologies and actors. Scores of armed groups are at war, backed variously by Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Trump administration has yet to formulate a coherent strategy for Syria, though the C.I.A. recently abandoned efforts to train some opposition groups.
Against these odds, the panel on which Ms. del Ponte worked and the new body might appear almost quixotic. Fighting in some areas of Syria is abating, in part through agreements reached between President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia in July. But that is still a long way from peace, and it leaves in place those most responsible for war crimes, like Mr. Assad. The only hope for a real end to the carnage is to keep seeking a diplomatic solution.
The investigations of atrocities also need to continue. The remaining members of Ms. del Ponte’s commission, Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil and Karen Koning AbuZayd of the United States, said they have an obligation to keep working on behalf of the victims. There must be a reckoning.
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