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At the UN, governments and civil society meet to build a foundation for justice in Syria

IIIM Head Catherine Marchi-Uhel speaks to attendees at a UN panel to discuss support for the Mechanism | Photo from UN Web TV

On September 21, proponents of the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to investigate serious crimes in Syria gathered on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting to discuss developments in the effort to end impunity in Syria and to galvanize international support for the Mechanism. In attendance were representatives from UN Member States, Syrian civil society, and the new IIIM Head Catherine Marchi-Uhel. The speakers emphasized the urgent need for States to lend national support to the IIIM, underscored the Mechanism’s responsibility to foster relations with civil society organizations and the Syrian public, and urged increased General Assembly leadership in the creation and funding of human rights mechanisms and tribunals. SJAC reiterates its support for the Mechanism and its leadership while calling upon all parties to continue supporting its mission financially, politically, and through cooperation between their judicial systems and IIIM investigators.

The meeting afforded State representatives a platform to pledge or reaffirm financial contributions to the IIIM. While early estimates set the IIIM’s annual operating cost at $13 million, expenditures are now expected to be higher. Over 30 countries have already pledged contributions, but funding still falls short of the $13 million threshold. And as representatives from Liechtenstein and The Netherlands noted, the IIIM still has not garnered contributions for its second year of operations (during the event the Dutch Foreign Minister was the first to pledge funds for year two). Until the UN integrates IIIM funding into its regular operational budget, the Mechanism will be financed entirely by Member States’ voluntary contributions. UN regular budget financing is critical to the long-term survival of the Mechanism and should be approved expeditiously.

The meeting also highlighted the need for individual States to adjust their national codes in order to facilitate close cooperation with the IIIM. Because the IIIM does not have any prosecutorial powers on its own, its investigators must submit case files to prosecutors in national jurisdictions. Thus, States may need to adopt certain legal or procedural measures to ensure they can contribute data to the Mechanism and accept cases prepared by the IIIM in their respective jurisdictions. In the past, several states adopted such measures in order to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Liechtenstein was the first State to announce it would adjust its national codes in preparation for work with the IIIM. Others must follow in order to guarantee that the Mechanism’s material is most efficiently and effectively utilized.

Speakers at the event also called on the IIIM to substantively engage with Syrians throughout the course of its work. IIIM Head Marchi-Uhel made explicit her intention to continually engage with civil society organizations, recognizing that the onus is on the Mechanism to gain their full trust and cooperation. Civil society assistance is crucial to realizing the Mechanism’s mandate given the large scale of evidentiary material these groups have collected throughout the course of the Syrian conflict, and Marchi-Uhel’s promise of engagement is a welcome commitment.

Additionally, as SJAC Executive Director Mohammad Al Abdallah emphasized, the IIIM must partner and invest in relations with the Syrian public. Syrians remain widely disheartened by the international community and justice-related efforts given seven years of missteps and unfulfilled promises. Some Syrians also still have understandable misconceptions about the mandate of the IIIM, conflating it with the Commission of Inquiry. As a result, there is frustration that the IIIM is another UN entity tasked for only inquiry, not action. Likewise, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s dismissal of justice during Syrian peace talks has led Syrians to question the international community’s commitment to accountability. During the event, Al Abdallah expressed hope that the IIIM would succeed where De Mistura is failing in the effort to end the culture of impunity in Syria. But for the IIIM to counter these narratives and gain the trust and cooperation of Syrians, it is vital to conduct outreach to civil society, the public, and victims, in particular those victims who reside as refugees in countries that could accept cases from IIIM investigators.

The General Assembly’s overwhelming support for the Mechanism’s establishment despite inaction and deadlock on the part of the Security Council was unprecedented. However, the General Assembly’s work is not over. The September meeting demonstrated that Member States, civil society groups, and leaders of the IIIM have together made significant strides, but the IIIM needs sustained support and resources. SJAC continues to express its full commitment to the Mechanism and strongly encourages all proponents to continue cooperating in any way possible to further justice for Syria.

To watch the UN event, please click here. Video footage is available in both English and Arabic.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].