A Step Forward: the UN & Justice for Syria

A Step Forward: the UN & Justice for Syria

JURIST Guest Columnist David M. Crane, founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa, discusses the UN’s recent action that will allow for independent justice-seeking organizations to hold accountable parties committing international crimes in Syria…

On Wednesday 21 December, 105 member states of the United Nations General Assembly took an important step forward in seeking justice for the people of Syria. The action-taking was a resolution that paves the way for an independent organization to begin collecting, cataloging and analyzing data and other criminal information coming out of Syria into proper evidence to be used someday by a local, regional or international prosecutor someday to hold accountable all parties committing international crimes in Syria from March 2011 to the present.

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011 there have been dozens of efforts by various nongovernmental organizations to collect data on the crimes being committed in Syria. Though laudable in their efforts, this massive amount of data is useless in a court of law. It is unreliable and not authenticated with no chains of custody or other safeguards. Essentially almost all of the data being collected regarding crimes in Syria is tainted and inadmissible.

Three organizations did begin to emerge that were working in tangent to correct this problem. The Syrian Accountability Center which I founded in March of 2011 to create a trial package for a future local, regional or international prosecutor. It is designed along the same methods I used to investigate and indict President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity in West Africa. Additionally, two other organizations are doing important work, the Coalition for International Justice and Accountability and the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center. The heads of these three organizations met and briefed various UN ambassadors on the evidence challenges in November. It was there I urged the creation of the accountability center concept.

As we began to consider various mechanisms to cure this problem, an accountability center became apparent, a center run by experienced international criminal law professionals who could take this mass of data already collected, and still coming out of Syria, and turning it into that evidence necessary to hold accountable those parties committing crimes in violation of Syrian and international law.

The international community has spent millions of dollars supporting efforts to build data bases by organizations who in large measure do not have the experience to build a criminal case. The accountability center concept was designed to fix this problem. Throughout the Fall of 2016, we carefully planned a campaign to garner the support necessary to succeed in creating the accountability center. Under the leadership of Ambassadors Christian Weneweser of Lichtenstein [PDF] and Alya Althani of Qatar [PDF] various paths were considered from the Security Council, the General Assembly, and possibly a regional organization such as the European Union or the Arab League. The General Assembly was the most realistic pathway to success.

Past attempts to consider accountability solutions have failed in the Security Council due to the intransigence of Russia. Even the issuance of the Caesar Report, which I co-authored, in 2014 that confirmed horrific crimes against the Syrian people by Assad and his henchmen did not move Russia nor China to support a French resolution [PDF] calling for accountability. This stalemate in the Security Council has frozen any action until now.

Our intent in proposing the accountability center concept in September was to create an efficient capability that over the next several years the international community can rest assured that all of the terabytes of data collected will be converted to proper evidence that can be used in a court of law. Additionally, the United Nations had to be seen to be doing something on behalf of the international community. Perhaps this is that “something.” It certainly is an important step forward.

David M. Crane was the founding Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa, called the Special Court for Sierra Leone (now residual). He is also founder of the Syrian Accountability Project, and the I Am Syria Campaign. Crane currently is a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law.

Suggested citation: David M. Crane, A Step Forward: the UN & Justice for Syria, JURIST – Professional Commentary, January 4, 2017, http://jurist.org/dateline/2017/04/david-crane-a-step-forward.php.

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