Briefing General Assembly on Judicial Activities, International Mechanism Head Stresses Predictable Financing Needed in Bringing Justice to Syria’s Victims
Briefing the General Assembly today, the Head of the Mechanism established to advance justice in Syria reported on that body’s continuing efforts over the past year, detailing its work with jurisdictions and investigations, but noting in light of increasing demand for its services that predictable financing through the regular budget and voluntary contributions by Member States are essential for it to continue serving the interests of victims, survivors and their families.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head 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, said that, over the past year, the Mechanism has continued to demonstrate its value as a justice facilitator.
Presenting the its ninth report (document A/77/751), she said the Mechanism has concluded 83 cooperation frameworks with Member States and other entities, is serving 15 competent jurisdictions and has supported 138 distinct national investigations. Providing examples, she noted that a March 2023 judgment in Sweden relied on one of the Mechanism’s analytical products to find a woman guilty of war crimes. In Germany, the Mechanism continues its fruitful cooperation with the federal prosecutor’s office, with recent cases including a 23 February conviction of a man for a war crime and murder and an ongoing trial in which the accused faces charges of sexual violence, torture and the killing of civilians. She also spotlighted the Mechanism’s contributions to an ongoing case and recent indictments in France.
However, while these processes and their concrete outcomes are important, she stressed: “We remain fully aware of the devastating scale of the Syrian tragedy, and the importance of continuing to insist on more comprehensive justice in the future.” The views of victims and survivors are the “north star” guiding the Mechanism’s work, as reflected in its published strategic plan for 2023-2025. To achieve this, the Mechanism has been reinforcing and diversifying its engagement with such individuals, incorporating their insights into its work and informing them about its impact as a justice facilitator. It also continues to support broader justice objectives — such as clarifying the fate of missing persons — by identifying intersections with its accountability-focused work and implemented a gender strategy in October 2022 to integrate such analysis in every aspect of its mandate. She also detailed the Mechanism’s increased engagement with civil-society actors, who are crucial sources of information and evidence.
In the absence of a competent jurisdiction seized of the entire Syrian situation, she noted that the Mechanism will continue to explore any relevant opportunities for cooperation in the justice ecosystem for Syria. Highlighting competent jurisdictions’ increasing demand for the Mechanism’s services, she welcomed the General Assembly’s 2020 decision to introduce it into the Secretariat’s regular budget. However, such demand — “a story of success, one could say” — also necessitates voluntary contributions from Member States. “As a justice facilitator, the Mechanism can only show its added value — and succeed — through cooperation,” she added, underscoring that it generates precious opportunities for inclusive justice — “a justice that too many Syrians have been awaiting for too long”.
In the ensuing debate, many delegations welcomed the Mechanism’s efforts to ensure accountability for serious international crimes. They also highlighted national prosecutions making use of evidence collected by the Mechanism, calling for increased support and predictable financing for the same.
The representative of Germany, providing an example of the Mechanism’s tangible impact, noted that, in February 2023, a court in Berlin sentenced an individual to life in prison for launching a grenade into a crowd of civilians waiting for food in Damascus in 2014. This was made possible through cooperation between the Mechanism and the federal prosecutor’s office. Underscoring that accountability is a precondition for sustainable peace and that the “voices of victims must be heard”, she urged all Member States to cooperate fully with the Mechanism and support it in whatever way they can.
Similarly, France’s representative pointed out that the Mechanism plays an essential role in collecting, preserving and analysing evidence of crimes committed in Syria. Such crimes cannot go unpunished, and all efforts must be made to provide justice to victims. Towards that end, France has implemented a judicial cooperation agreement with the Mechanism, also working with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to ensure accountability for the Syrian Government’s use of such weapons against civilians. Joining others in pointing out that the Syrian people have been suffering brutal, destructive repression for 12 years, she stressed that the fight against impunity is crucial for a political transition in accordance with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).
Many speakers also spotlighted the importance of that resolution, including the representative of Qatar who said that the best way to ensure lasting peace is a political settlement based thereon. He also emphasized the importance of truth, justice and accountability to ending serious violations of international law — regardless of the perpetrators. Thus, the Mechanism is a key international body with a clear mandate, which has made progress in several areas — including its cooperation with civil society and its awareness-raising activities. Also welcoming the Mechanism’s efforts to address the tragedy of disappeared persons in Syria, he joined others in calling on Member States to support the Mechanism through predictable funding as part of the regular budget and highlighted his country’s further, voluntary contributions.
Costa Rica’s delegate, noting the efforts of local courts in Sweden, Germany and France, said that recent indictments in the latter demonstrate the Mechanism’s increased investigative capacity to support judicial work and structural investigations. Underscoring that victims and survivors of crimes committed in Syria must receive truth and justice, she welcomed secure, predictable financial support for the Mechanism and urged all Member States to deepen their proactive cooperation with the same. She also highlighted the importance of applying a gender perspective in the practice of international humanitarian law, welcoming the Mechanism’s gender strategy, which lays the foundation for a non-discriminatory approach in all aspects of investigation and analysis.
The United States’ representative echoed that, stating that the Mechanism’s focus on inclusive justice is essential. Recognizing that the suffering endured by women is distinct from that faced by men, she stressed that this reality must be “reckoned with”. Syria cannot achieve reconciliation while criminals continue their abuses with impunity. Therefore, accountability requires dedicated effort, she said, welcoming the Mechanism’s work to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Also spotlighting the Mechanism’s contributions to recent indictments in France, she said that her country is open to similar action with the recent passage of the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act. This will allow the domestic judicial system to prosecute war crimes committed anywhere, regardless of the nationality of the victim or offender, if the latter is present on United States territory.
Speakers also took the floor to reject the Mechanism as an illegitimate entity, with several pointing out that the General Assembly acted outside its competency — concomitantly encroaching on that of the Security Council — when it established the Mechanism. Some delegates stressed that United Nations resources should not be used to violate sovereignty in this manner, underlining the Charter of the United Nations’ principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs.
Iran’s representative said that the responsibility to investigate and prosecute crimes rests with States, in accordance with their domestic legal systems. The Mechanism — which has not been established or mandated by a competent body — is not allowed to intervene in domestic legal proceedings or interfere with the jurisdiction of the concerned State. It continues to exist in violation of fundamental principles of law — particularly those of sovereign equality and non-intervention — and, further, its reports withhold necessary information under the pretext of confidentiality. As such, he reiterated his country’s consistent, principled position of rejecting the Mechanism.
The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea echoed that position, underscoring that the Mechanism is a clear violation of the Charter and the basic principles of international relations. Joining others in stressing that the General Assembly has no mandate to establish an investigative organ, he said the Mechanism’s creation is “nothing but a typical example” of politicization, double standards and selectivity with regards to human rights. He called on the United Nations to support political settlement in Syria, rather than subjecting that country’s Government to political pressure from certain Western countries.
Along those lines, China’s representative stressed that the international community should promote political settlement of the Syrian issue. The future of Syria must be decided by Syria’s people and, in addressing impunity, the judicial sovereignty of the country concerned must be respected. Further, actions taken within the United Nations framework should help maintain unity among Member States, as politicizing discussions on accountability will only prolong the suffering caused by this crisis. Stating that the establishment of the Mechanism was “full of controversies” — done without consulting or seeking the support of the country concerned — he said his country does not support including the Mechanism’s work in the regular budget.
The representative of the Russian Federation, in that vein, noted that, while the Mechanism’s report lacks any information regarding what it actually does, it is financed by the regular budget. Western countries forced this funding despite many delegations’ objections, and now, reading through this lengthy document, such delegations are “forced to guess where these funds are going”. Underlining the illegitimacy of the Mechanism, he said that it and all outcomes of its work are null and void. It is a political instrument of the West, whose only purpose is to pressure the Syrian Government. He underscored that such a Government is capable of rendering justice itself by prosecuting perpetrators without external interference.
Syria’s representative, meanwhile, emphasized that his country has its own legal and judicial bodies, which have always proven “more than capable” of delivering justice and supporting reconciliation. Rejecting the Mechanism as illegitimate, he stressed that it would have been better for the Organization to provide support to national efforts, particularly in the area of capacity-building. He stated that his Government has not asked for any technical or legal assistance from the United Nations to establish the Mechanism, nor was it consulted on this matter. It is clear what Western countries are trying to achieve through the Mechanism, he stressed, as its purpose is “to target the Syrian State and nothing more” and abuse international justice as a tool of political pressure.
Also speaking today were representatives of Estonia (also speaking for Latvia and Lithuania), Finland (also speaking for Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), Australia, Canada, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Japan, Italy, Ireland, Albania, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Mexico, Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, Cuba, Türkiye, United Kingdom, Malta, Ukraine, Netherlands and Georgia, along with a representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer.
The representative of the Russian Federation spoke in exercise of the right of reply.