The Short and the Long View: Documentation for Accountability

Recent days have seen a flurry of activities that have the potential to drive forward accountability in Syria. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2118 requiring the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program, and there is renewed interest in the possibility for a Geneva II. But the efforts currently underway are unlikely to meet many Syrians’ hopes of accountability anytime soon, an unfortunate reality that underscores the importance of documentation in light of continuing urgent violations.

On September 27, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2118, mandating the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. An advance UN team is already in Damascus discussing with Syrian officials how they can carry out the destruction of the weapons. Their mission is supported, at least in word, by Syrian President al-Assad, who spoke about the Chemical Weapons Convention in an interview with Italy’s RAI News 24 TV, “Of course we have to comply. This is our history to comply with every treaty we sign.” Importantly, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed the resolution’s passage as “the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time”, but said, even amid that important step, “we must never forget that the catalogue of horrors in Syria continues with bombs and tanks, grenades and guns”.  He said the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was “not a license to kill with conventional weapons.”

Resolution 2118 also calls for “the convening, as soon as possible, of an international conference on Syria to implement the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012. Among other things, the communiqué prioritizes the need for accountability and national reconciliation. Any transition, the document states, requires that “[a]ccountability for acts committed during the present conflict must be addressed.” The communique further notes that, ”[t]here also needs to be a comprehensive package for transitional justice, including compensation or rehabilitation for victims of the present conflict, steps towards national reconciliation and forgiveness.”

But the prospects of any Geneva II meeting in the immediate future are highly uncertain. While both the Syrian government and the head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) have stated they would be willing to attend talks, the SNC has said that the agreed goal of the talks must be “the establishment of a transitional government with full executive powers,” essentially making Assad’s departure a precondition. At the same time, the Syrian government objects to the inclusion of certain groups in talks and defends Assad’s right to seek election in 2014.

While it’s certainly heartening that internationally-backed resolutions and hopes for negotiations are moving forward, they offer little immediate prospects for the accountability that the Syrian people deserve. Violence in Syria is continuing, and documentation of the conflict continues to bring new information to light. Some of the most recent reports have included an analysis by the Violations Documentation Center alleging that the Syrian government is digging mass graves and another one by Human Rights Watch accusing the Syrian government used “fuel-air explosive bombs” on a secondary school in Raqqa.

Such documentation is critical for accountability efforts. While meaningful negotiations may seem distant, collecting documentation today ensures the efficacy of future accountability efforts by providing information, establishing facts, and building a clearer account of events. These documentary resources will strengthen the foundations of any truth seeking commissions and prosecutorial process to come.

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