Hague Institute Photo

Pursuing Accountability in Syria

Hague Institute Photo

On 1 October 2015, The Hague Institute for Global Justice hosted a panel discussion entitled “Pursuing Accountability in Syria.” The discussion took place under the Chatham House Rule.

Numerous reports about the Syrian conflict, such as those based on the 55,000 photographs provided by the Syrian defector Caesar, indicate that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law, war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture.

In the absence of a UNSC referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), or criminal investigations at the national or regional level, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) is collecting information that could eventually be used to  hold perpetrators of IHL violations accountable. The private actions of the CIJA amidst the ongoing conflict in Syria  represent a departure from the practice of conducting international criminal investigations under the aegis of public institutions. The panel addressed many aspects of this new and innovative model of private criminal investigations in the midst of ongoing conflict, including challenges, accomplishments, advantages, and  the future of CIJA.

After welcoming remarks by the President of the Institute, Dr. Abi Williams, the panel was opened for discussion by the moderator, H.E. Ms. Anniken Krutnes, Norwegian Ambassador to the Netherlands.

Panelists included:

  • Dr. William Wiley, Director and Founder of CIJA
  • Stephen Rapp, Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues at the State Department
  • Mr. James A. Goldston, Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative

The experts noted that the CIJA was created in response to the lack of effective action at the international level to secure accountability for international crimes that may have been committed during the Syrian conflict . They elaborated on the advantages and disadvantages of the CIJA in comparison with public institutions. On the one hand, the CIJA has a large number of highly skilled experts with significant experience in building international criminal cases; the capacity to take calculated risks; the ability to engage in the midst of an armed conflict; and minimal bureaucracy.

While the CIJA initially faced challenges securing adequate funding from donors, it can now operate effectively. On the other hand, the CJIA is faced with questions regarding its legitimacy, accountability and oversight, transparency, and quality control. The risks to which its staff and victims and witnesses are exposed are also cause for concern.

The panelists pointed out that the CIJA originated from a request for capacity-building by training Syrian human rights activists. The CIJA or a related body would be even more useful if it could contribute to creating a domestic institution for criminal investigations in the future. This would further the long-term goal of ensuring adequate investigative capacity at the domestic level.

The Q&A session with the audience generated additional insights into several pertinent issues, such as the desirability and legitimacy of private  criminal investigations. The nature of the relationship between CIJA and public institutions such as the ICC was addressed  as well. It remains to be seen whether the information collected by the CIJA will actually be used by international or domestic courts. This could occur via an Advisory Opinion of  the International Court of Justice; the International Criminal Court, if it is granted jurisdiction in future; or national courts that are initiating criminal proceedings  to try perpetrators of international crimes in Syria under universal jurisdiction, such as in France.

The panelists emphasized that the CIJA is not meant to replace, but rather complement, public institutions involved in criminal investigations. It therefore seeks to cooperate with the ICC as well as national and regional  institutions that seek to address the challenge of impunity worldwide. According to the panelists, in the case of Syria, there is an abundance of evidence concerning international crimes. The CIJA’s efforts to gather and preserve  relevant information will give prosecutors a significant head-start during any future criminal cases.

The Hague Institute for Global Justice works on these issues through its Fact-finding project, which is concerned with  quality control of criminal investigations and documentation efforts by organizations such as commissions of inquiry. We make practical use of this policy-relevant research through our complementarity capacity-building efforts and by developing standards for fact-finders, including civil society organizations that intend to assist criminal investigations.  On Monday 12 October, the Institute will co-organize a closed expert roundtable on fact-finding with the Public International Law and Policy Group.

“Mass atrocities are being committed in Syria, with a quarter million killed and half the population displaced,” said Stephen Rapp. “But judicial accountability for these crimes is blocked internationally in the UN Security Council and domestically by the Syrian government. The best we can do now for the victims is to document the responsibility for these crimes for the day that justice will finally be possible.”

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