Earlier this month, Carla Del Ponte, a co-commissioner of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the Syrian Arab Republic, resigned, frustrated by the lack of progress in promoting human rights and accountability in Syria. Del Ponte said in several media interviews that the UN Security Council has failed to act on Syria after nearly seven years of brutal conflict.
Del Ponte is correct to blame the inaction of the UN Security Council. Despite the many damning reports the COI has issued since 2011, Russia has continuously used its veto power to protect the Syrian government and block a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But the problem extends beyond the Security Council. Although the Council is indeed the strongest arm of the United Nations, with the exception of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the entire UN system has failed Syria, including the COI itself, which has led to increasing distrust of the international community among Syrians.
Del Ponte is correct to blame the Security Council, but from the outset, the United Nations allowed the Syrian government to manipulate the UN Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) by controlling humanitarian aid, including where it could be distributed and which international organizations could do so. Moreover, the United Nations allowed the Syrian government to edit the HRP planning document before its release, replacing any mention of “besieged areas” with “hard to reach areas” and eliminating most of the references to violence against civilians.
By allowing Assad to approve the organizations responsible for delivering the humanitarian aid, the United Nations awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people in President Assad’s inner circle, including those who were subject to US and EU sanctions. Needless to say, the aid has not reached the people who have needed it the most.
Del Ponte is correct to blame the Security Council, but in 2016 the UN World Health Organization (WHO) hired Shukria Mekdad as a consultant to study and assist with the mental health effects of refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in Syria. Mekdad has little expertise in mental health. Rather, her most relevant qualification is being the wife of Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, thus undermining the WHO’s important effort.
Del Ponte is correct to blame the Security Council, but UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has allowed Russia to draft Syria’s constitution rather than garnering input from Syrians. De Mistura also ignored the devastating missing persons issue that affects Syrians from throughout the country following Russian pressure.
Del Ponte is correct to blame the UN Security Council, but the COI itself has contributed to its own share of damage to Syrians. From the beginning, the COI failed to contextualize the situation in Syria and understand the initial uprising as a part of a regional wave of demands for dignity, change, and freedom.
Failing to contextualize the uprising led the COI to address Syria as simply another conflict. It used the UN’s traditional approach, including letters to the Syrian government requesting cooperation with the investigation and keeping a list of names of culpable Syrian officials in a sealed envelope in trust of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with the hopes that the mere threat of the envelope would deter Assad’s behavior.
It is obvious from even a cursory review of the COI’s recommendations in its first two reports issued in November 2011 and February 2012 that the Commission had an incredibly naïve understating of Syria, lacking any knowledge of Syria’s power structure, the depth of its inter-communal tensions, and the way in which the government had manipulated communities, inflamed sectarian tensions, and quickly formed and armed Shabiha groups.
In the second report, after more than 20 pages of analyzing the Syrian state’s responsibility for gross human rights violations committed in Syria and its failure to prosecute any perpetrator of such violations (which the COI deemed crimes against humanity), the COI report then recommended that “the only possible solution to end the violence is an inclusive dialogue leading to a negotiated settlement that effectively ensures the human rights of all people in the country.” After violently crushing peaceful demands for dignity and freedom in 2011, which the COI had detailed in its own reports, it should have been clear that the Assad government was not interested in inclusive dialogues or the human rights of its people.
Paulo Pinheiro, the head of the COI, spoke at a Brookings Institute event in March 2012 and criticized any concerted international response to the conflict other than the political dialogue the COI recommended. On the panel, Pinheiro mocked humanitarian corridors, instead emphasizing the importance of bringing together the P5 (permanent five at the UNSC), despite the fact that only a month earlier, Russia and China had issued their second veto regarding Syria. Yakin Ertkuk, a co-commissioner at the time of the Brookings event, went so far as to call the ICC “a last resort.”
In fact, it took the COI two years before it recommended a referral to the ICC, and the recommendation only happened after the High Commissioner for Human Rights himself intervened by debriefing the Security Council in January 2013 and recommending a referral.
Even after the failure of Kofi Annan’s mission and his resignation as a special envoy to Syria due to the government’s repeated disinterest in negotiations, the COI’s August 2012 report continued to recommend the rosy possibility of a negotiated settlement.
Imagine how Syrians perceived the COI when it admitted that the government had killed thousands of people and committed violations that amount to crimes against humanity, but then insisted that the only solution was a dialogue between victims and the state’s bloody security machine. The COI’s repetition of this sentiment for the first year and a half of its work gave a green light to both Assad and other parties to the conflict that they could commit atrocities without repercussions. It is no wonder that Syrians quickly lost faith in the entire UN system.
The COI has been working for nearly six years now. Despite disagreeing with its early recommendations, I would be remiss if I did not commend the COI for collecting an enormous amount of documentation, including important first-hand testimonies from victims and witnesses. The COI reports will be vital to Syria’s historical record and can contribute to future justice processes when they occur. For these reasons, we at the Syria Justice and Accountability Center have worked with the COI on several occasions and contributed our data to its investigations, and we will continue to do so in the future. But we will also continue to critique the COI’s work with the hopes that the same mistakes are not repeated, not in Syria or in any other conflict.
Even today, after the situation deteriorated in terms of the scale of human rights violations and the type of weapons used, the COI is still waiting for the government to approve its access to the country, which the government has never granted. The COI has not even tried to access areas under opposition or Kurdish control. This has been a huge lost opportunity to collect evidence on violations committed by all sides of the conflict that could contribute to a more robust historical record.
The above critique is not meant to underestimate the hard work the COI has done in documenting the atrocities in my country. But it is no wonder Del Ponte is frustrated. As a Syrian, a former prisoner, a survivor of torture, and a refugee, I have felt this frustration regarding the United Nations long before Del Ponte’s resignation.
In December 2016, the UN General Assembly established the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes in Syria. Given the deadlock in the Security Council, I consider this to be our last resort for justice and accountability, and I truly hope that it will rise to the occasion.
Mohammad Al Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and the Executive Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center
* This article appeared first in French in Le Monde