Arria-formula Meeting: Accountability in Syria
On Monday (29 November), Security Council members will convene an in-person Arria-formula meeting on “Accountability in the Syrian Arab Republic”. The meeting is being co-hosted by Estonia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, jointly with non-Council members Belgium, Canada, Germany, Georgia, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, and Turkey. Ambassador Sven Jürgenson (Estonia) is expected to chair the meeting. In addition to Security Council members, other UN member states are expected to speak at the meeting. Anticipated briefers are: Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM); Claus Kress, Professor of Criminal Law and Public International Law, University of Cologne; Omar Alshogre, Syrian refugee and human rights activist; and Waad Al-Kateab, Syrian journalist and film director.
The meeting will take place in the ECOSOC Chamber and will be broadcast live on UNTV at 3:00 pm EST.
According to a concept note circulated by Estonia, the meeting aims to highlight the prevailing impunity in Syria for past and continuing crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Stressing that victims and their families deserve justice, the concept note says that the international community must step up its efforts to prevent “heinous crimes” in Syria and hold the perpetrators accountable. The concept note also observes that the Council has a key role to play in promoting impartial and comprehensive accountability in Syria.
The meeting will provide an opportunity to hear about the situation in Syria from the perspective of those working on addressing the accountability gap, including Syrian civil society. Council members and other UN member states are expected to reiterate the role of the Council and the international community more broadly in promoting accountability for the crimes committed in Syria.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM), is likely to provide an update on the work of the Geneva-based mechanism, including the progress made on collecting and documenting evidence, while also stressing the immediate and urgent need for justice.
Claus Kress, Professor of Criminal Law and Public International Law, might speak about the legal proceedings in Koblenz, Germany, where a former Syrian official was convicted of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” earlier this year. According to the concept note, this was the first ruling on “state-sponsored torture” committed by the Syrian government.
Omar Alshogre, a former detainee who spent three years in Syrian prisons, is expected to describe the situation of thousands of arbitrarily detained civilians who remain incarcerated. Focusing on the need for all parties, particularly the Syrian government, to unilaterally release detainees, Alshogre may refer to measures taken by some member states to promote accountability in Syria, including US sanctions under the “Caesar Act”.
Waad Al-Kateab, a Syrian Emmy award-winning filmmaker and the director of the Oscar-nominated movie, For Sama, will most likely speak about attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria, including the bombardment of schools and hospitals, as well as the dire conditions of displaced people. She is expected to highlight the threats facing medical and health workers in Syria.
Council members are divided in their views on accountability in Syria. They are likely to reiterate opposing positions on Monday. While the Council has many tools related to accountability at its disposal—such as imposing an arms embargo or targeted sanctions or referring Syria to the ICC—P5 divisions have made it difficult for the Council to take decisive action. Since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, 16 draft resolutions have been vetoed on Syria, including one draft in 2014 that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC.
In addition to the Council, other UN organs and national actors have attempted to promote accountability in Syria. Some Council members and UN member states are expected to reiterate their support for the UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria (COI) and the IIIM during the meeting. The COI was established by the Human Rights Council in 2011 to investigate human rights violations in the country. On 25 October 2021, addressing the Third Committee of the General Assembly, the Chair of the COI, Paulo Pinheiro, warned the international community that while some might be thinking the conflict in Syria is ending, the facts on the ground painted another picture. The IIIM was established through General Assembly resolution 71/248 in 2016. According to this resolution, the IIIM is mandated to:
collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses and 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.
Several members who have consistently expressed support for the IIIM are likely to emphasise their position that the IIIM’s work is credible and that those responsible for war crimes need to be held accountable. Other members may express a different view; in this respect, Russia has questioned the accuracy and legitimacy of the IIIM’s work, while China has argued that the mechanism is controversial, noting that it was established without Syria’s consent.
Council members and other member states might also recall the findings of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) regarding attacks on civilian infrastructure in Syria. The BoI, which was established by the Secretary-General on 1 August 2019, investigated attacks on seven civilian structures declared in the deconfliction mechanism list of northwest Syria. On 6 April 2020, the Secretary-General released the BoI’s findings. Its report concluded that it was “highly probable” that the government of Syria and/or its allies had carried out airstrikes on five of the seven investigated sites. One attack was attributed to the armed opposition or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The Board was unable to attribute responsibility in respect of one of the seven sites.
There may be references in the meeting to the recent resolution adopted in the General Assembly regarding the human rights situation in Syria. On 17 November, the Third Committee of the General Assembly, with 95 votes in favour, 13 against and 66 abstentions, adopted a decision on the human rights situation in Syria. Among the various points, the decision requested the Secretary-General to “conduct a study on how to bolster efforts… to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in the Syrian Arab Republic, identify human remains and provide support to their families, in consultation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and based on the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, with the full and meaningful participation of victims, survivors and their families”.
European member states participating in the meeting may refer to the ongoing legal proceedings that they have initiated against Syria. Germany might refer to a second judgement that is expected to be issued in Koblenz in the coming months regarding a former Syrian official in Germany. France and Sweden may also provide updates about the ongoing investigations in their national courts, while the Netherlands may discuss its case against Syria at the ICJ.
Among other topics, participants may also refer to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the persisting plight of missing persons and arbitrarily detained civilians, and attacks on schools and medical centres.