What's In Blue

Posted Thu 19 Feb 2015

Arria-Formula Meeting with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Tomorrow morning (20 February), Security Council members are set to meet with the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in a closed Arria-formula format session arranged by the UK. A closed format was chosen to allow for a frank exchange of views between Council members and the commissioners.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, will brief on the forthcoming periodic report to the Human Rights Council, expected to be publicly released later that afternoon. This will be the fifth Arria-formula meeting with the Commission of Inquiry, but the first that involves the participation of all four commissioners. Pinheiro will be accompanied by Karen Koning Abu Zayd, Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn.

As with previous Arria-formula meetings with the Commission of Inquiry, tomorrow’s session was arranged to keep the accountability track central in Council members’ consideration of Syria. Regular interaction with the Commission of Inquiry played an important role in convincing an overwhelming majority of Council members that a referral of the situation to the ICC was a necessary course of action for the Council to take, especially after the collapse of the Geneva political process in early 2014. Despite the 22 May 2014 joint veto cast by China and Russia that blocked the ICC referral, the commissioners are likely to reiterate the importance of an ICC referral or an ad hoc international tribunal to address the ongoing and widespread impunity for atrocities committed in Syria. Several Council members are expected to emphasise the importance of the Commission’s work in collecting a body of evidence that can be used in the future, even though there is no immediate path to a judicial mechanism.

The Commission of Inquiry has said that the inability of the Council to refer Syria to the ICC has contributed to the environment of impunity in which the Syrian government operates. In this context, the commissioners are expected to put forward other options to pursue justice, such as universal jurisdiction or national prosecution of returning foreign terrorist fighters. Council members will also likely express interest in further information regarding the confidential list of alleged perpetrators that the Commission has previously transmitted to the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Commission is expected to provide an updated list when they update the Human Rights Council in March.
The Commission’s list of alleged perpetrators is a sensitive issue given Russia’s support of the government and the speculation among Council members that such a list might include President Bashar al-Assad. In December 2013, then High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that the Commission had produced massive evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity and indicated responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state.

Council members will be interested in more details about the Commission of Inquiry’s work on Syria that has, since September 2011, collated more than 3,500 testimonies that has enabled the Commission to identify alleged perpetrators. Their investigations have reinforced that the main causes of civilian casualties are due to deliberate targeting of civilians, indiscriminate attacks, attacks on protected objects—such as schools, hospitals and mosques—and the punitive imposition of sieges and blockades. The scale of government violations continues to outpace that of the opposition with widespread reports of aerial bombardment, deaths, sexual violence and torture in government detention centers and extra-judicial killings, beatings and enforced disappearances.

Council members may want more information on the government’s detention practices in light of today’s remarks by High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urging Syrian authorities to release all those who have been held by government forces and its militias for years without due process, in terrible conditions and in facilities where reports indicate torture is widespread and systematic.

Council members also expect Pinheiro will reflect on current conflict trends as well as provide a retrospective look at how the situation in Syria moved from civil unrest in March 2011 to a brutal civil war by February 2012. Past reports have described the government’s shift away from ground operations by its infantry early in the conflict toward a consistent strategy of siege and starvation tactics of rebel-held zones and constant aerial and ground bombardment targeting highly populated areas, such as bakery lines, transportation hubs, apartment buildings, markets and aid distributions. The use of chemical weapons is also expected to be highlighted as well as the government’s increasing reliance on external non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias, to help it carry out its military operations. Meanwhile, armed opposition groups carry out indiscriminate attacks with mortars, rockets and car bombs. They have also tortured and killed those they suspect of being government agents, taken hostages for ransom and besieged villages, albeit on a significantly smaller scale than the government. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has carried out public executions and amputations to instill fear and submission on the civilian population in districts it controls and has subjected women and girls to sexual enslavement and forced marriage.

Looking ahead, Council members may be interested to hear more from the Commission regarding its findings that humanitarian aid has been instrumentalised for military gain in light of Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s announcement that the government had signaled its willingness to agree to a six-week freeze of hostilities in Aleppo and would allow a humanitarian surge into a single district of the city. Such an exchange would also be useful ahead of next week’s 26 February briefing to the Council by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos and High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres on the humanitarian situation.

Finally, establishing human rights focused interactions of this kind regarding the situations in the CAR, DPRK and Syria have been useful in transmitting information that might otherwise not be available to the Council. It seems possible that the increasing acceptance of these interactions might open up space for the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly focusing on Gaza following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge last summer, to interact with Security Council members when its findings are released in March.

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