Representatives Confirm Secretary-General’s Appointment of United Nations Development Programme Administrator to Second Four-Year Term
The Head of the mechanism established in 2016 to increase the prospects for justice in Syria called on representatives in the General Assembly today to set aside their political differences and instead work to ensure that the perpetrators of serious crimes committed during the decade-long conflict are held to account.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, described the conflict as “the defining crisis of our time”.
Presenting the Mechanism’s sixth report (document A/75/311), she said the sheer number of those allegedly killed, disappeared, internally displaced and forced to seek refuge in other countries represents “a new low for modern-day conflict”. Calling on Member States to approve the Mechanism’s budget by consensus, she stressed that political affiliations must not win at the cost of human dignity.
The Mechanism has adopted a flexible approach to ensure that its products can be used by a broad range of actors and adjusted easily to benefit different legal systems, she said. Noting that States are making extended use of universal and other forms of extra-territorial jurisdiction, she pointed to a recent judgement in Koblenz, Germany, where the court established that actions by Syria’s authorities against the opposition since spring 2011 constitute crimes against humanity. Also noting the integration of a gender analysis into the Mechanism’s work, she said that its victim/survivor-centred approach places the quest for justice of affected communities at the heart of its work.
During the pandemic, the Mechanism pivoted to the remote collection of information and evidence from a broad range of sources, she said. It also improved its digital evidence processing to include more video and satellite imagery and carried out a total of 130 collections in 2020. Noting that the Mechanism has 62 cooperation frameworks in place, she acknowledged that “some actors want to make their cooperation with us public while others prefer not to be mentioned.” She underscored the Mechanism’s commitment to these confidentiality and security measures.
In his opening remarks, Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) called the Mechanism — which was established by resolution 71/248 — a testament to the Assembly’s innovation and agility.
Describing a recent visit to a province in Turkey, which borders north-west Syria and is host to 450,000 Syrian refugees, he described it as “shameful” that, after 10 years, the United Nations is still advocating for humanitarian access. “The Syrian people deserve more than this,” he said. “ They deserve justice.” As the journey ahead carries the risk of re-traumatizing survivors, he commended the Mechanism for its victim/survivor-centred approach and urged Member States to ensure it is sufficiently funded.
In the debate that followed, many delegates heeded this call and voiced strong support for financing the Mechanism through assessed contributions from the United Nations regular budget. However, some delegations challenged the legitimacy of the Mechanism and expressed concern about the political motivations that led to its creation.
Among them was Syria’s representative, who called the Mechanism an illegal body established through an exclusionary process that violated the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. His country, therefore, does not recognize it The Mechanism has no mandate to enter into agreements with Member States. Criticizing the Mechanism’s reliance on information from Governments hostile to his own, he said that if special agencies of the United Nations wish to provide technical support to Syria, “you know which door to knock on”.
In a similar vein, Iran’s delegate rejected the political agenda of the Mechanism’s sponsors who have not endorsed similar efforts to address crimes against the people of Palestine and Yemen. The Mechanism violates multiple articles of the Charter and enables ambiguous activities. As such, it should not be financed by the regular budget and cannot be a legitimate source of evidence for any tribunals, he emphasized.
The representative of the Russian Federation likewise questioned the legitimacy of the Mechanism and lamented the time wasted on “another paper that we would struggle to call a report”. Calling for more transparency and substantive information, he said the report does not mention any of the cases on which the Mechanism is currently focused. “Are you hiding something from the members of the General Assembly or is there something that you were ashamed to admit?” he asked.
On that point, Canada’s delegate said the Mechanism would not be very independent or investigative if it divulged all its activities. Calling it “preposterous” to suggest that any department of justice anywhere in the world would divulge who it is investigating or how, he said the Mechanism’s work is sending out a warning to other regimes and armed groups. The pursuit of accountability is central to the United Nations founding principles and the Assembly has an obligation to act when there is paralysis in the Council. “And no one has a veto in the Assembly,” he recalled.
Some delegates described other accountability measures, with the representative of the Netherlands noting that his country, together with Canada, has taken steps to hold Syria’s Government regime directly accountable for violations of the Convention against Torture. Invoking Syria’s responsibility for non-compliance, the two countries will follow the means of dispute settlement provided in that Convention, with a view to obtaining justice for Syrian victims. The exercise of universal jurisdiction is another way of ensuring accountability, he said, pointing to domestic proceedings in Germany, and echoing the call to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Spotlighting the landmark conviction in Germany of a former official in Syria’s “regime”, the representative of the United States cited the judgement as an example of how independent documentation can support judicial processes taking place outside of Syria. She welcomed the recent decision by the OPCW Conference of the States Parties to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention until it completes the steps outlined in the OPCW Executive Council decision of 9 July 2020. “There must be consequences for the use of chemical weapons,” she affirmed.
In other business, the Assembly confirmed the appointment of Achim Steiner (Germany) as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for a further four-year term of office, beginning on 17 June 2021.
Also speaking today were representatives of Finland (on behalf of the Nordic countries), Italy, Slovakia, Costa Rica, Turkey, Switzerland, Estonia, Liechtenstein, Belgium, Czech Republic, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Australia, Austria, China, Mexico, Ukraine, Georgia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Venezuela, France, Qatar, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Nicaragua.
An observer for the European Union also spoke.
The representatives of Syria and Turkey spoke in exercise of the right of reply.
The Assembly will meet again at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 22 April, for the high -level debate on urban safety, security and good governance.
VOLKAN BOZKIR (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, recalled that 2020 marks a decade of conflict in Syria. Describing a recent visit to the Turkish province, which borders on north-west Syria and hosts 450,000 Syrian refugees, he said that it is shameful that the international community is still advocating for cross-border humanitarian access. “The Syrian people deserve more than this — they deserve peace, they deserve the freedom to live a life of their choosing, they deserve justice”. The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, established in 2016 through resolution 71/248, is a testament to the Assembly’s innovation and agility in response to the needs of the people it serves. He commended the Mechanism for its victim- and survivor-centred approach and its close cooperation with a range of stakeholders, including the United Nations, other international organizations, States and civil society. Going forward, the Mechanism must be sufficiently funded and he requested that all Member States continue to fund its work.
Introduction of Report
CATHERINE MARCHI-UHEL, Head of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, presented the Mechanism’s sixth report (document A/75/311). Despite the outbreak of COVID-19, she said, the Mechanism has made a relatively smooth transition through the remote collection of information and evidence from a broad range of sources, including States, United Nations partners, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, individuals as well as open sources. In 2020, it conducted 130 collections and improved the efficiency of its digital evidence processing, she said, adding that increased digital storage capacities have enabled it to expand and diversify its central repository, including through more video and satellite imagery. The Mechanism has also made important strides in its analytical work, with the completion and ongoing development of evidentiary modules to assist in establishing the contextual elements necessary to charge war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Emphasizing the Mechanism’s flexible approach to ensure that its products can be used by a broad range of actors and adjusted easily to benefit different legal systems, she also highlighted its commitment to investigating a broad range of crime categories and alleged perpetrators, independent of the affiliations of individuals. While building on the work of other actors by seeking to access their underlying material and adding it to the Mechanism’s central repository, the Mechanism also makes use of its investigative capacities to fill evidentiary gaps aimed at supporting ongoing and future judicial proceedings. The Mechanism has received 112 requests for assistance from 12 competent jurisdictions, she said, noting that upon receipt of such a request, it shares its analytical work products and may also conduct additional investigations and develop specific analytical tools as part of the response.
While States and many other actors have shared material with the Mechanism based on the existing institutional set-up, she said other States have entered into informal agreements by exchanging letters. Still others have revised or are in the process of revising their national legislation to enable sharing. “Some actors want to make their cooperation with us public while others prefer not to be mentioned,” she said, pointing to the Mechanism’s commitment to these confidentiality and security measures and noting 62 cooperation frameworks. As a relatively new justice actor, the Mechanism is in a position to implement lessons learned from other accountability processes. Highlighting the Mechanism’s commitment to gender equality and the integration of a gender analysis in its work, she said that its Gender Strategy is informed by its extensive engagement with Syrian women and other civil society actors. Further, the Mechanism pays particular attention to crimes against children, as well as broader transitional justice objectives. Its victim/survivor-centred approach places the quest for justice of affected communities at the heart of its work.
Turning to the negative impact of the pandemic, the liquidity situation of the United Nations and the subsequent imposition of a spending ceiling, she said that in the last two years, the Mechanism’s budget has been voted on in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) and subsequently in the General Assembly plenary. “I hope there will be a time when the need for accountability for core crimes committed in Syria is no longer subject to political disagreement and that our budget can be approved by consensus,” she said. The conflict in Syria has been called the defining crisis of the current time because of the sheer number of those allegedly killed, disappeared, internally displaced and forced to seek refuge in other countries, representing “a new low for modern-day conflict”. Political affiliations should not matter when it comes to justice and human dignity, she emphasized, noting that the deadlock around the Syrian situation had triggered the creation of the Mechanism and led to States making extended use of universal and other forms of extra-territorial jurisdiction. Noting that these efforts have begun to result in judgements — such as the recent one in Koblenz, Germany, where the court established that actions by Syria’s authorities against the opposition since spring 2011 constitute crimes against humanity — she called on the international community to seize every opportunity for justice.
OLOF SKOOG, speaking for the European Union, noted that 10 years ago, Syrians took to the streets to demand democracy and respect of their fundamental freedoms, and the European Union will not allow their aspirations for dignity, justice and peace to be vanquished, with essential accountability for victims and a viable political solution. It is therefore necessary to end the atrocities committed during the conflict, for which the regime and its external supporters bear the main responsibility. The United Nations must dedicate the energy and resources required to ensure accountability for these crimes, a common responsibility.
Given the seriousness of crimes, he said the Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, noting that prosecutions and final judgments have been brought in several European countries against perpetrators, with the Netherlands working to hold Syria to account for torture. Additionally, the European Union will continue to apply targeted sanctions upon the individuals and entities behind the repression of the Syrian people and will not lift them unless that repression — including the disappearances — ceases. There must be no shelter for perpetrators of the most serious crimes under international law.
The representative of Syria, speaking on a point of order, reiterated that he represents Syrian Arab Republic at the United Nations. Interventions during the debate should be delivered using the proper terminology and with professionalism in referring to Member States, whose representatives must avoid using unacceptable terms.
JUKKA SALOVAARA (Finland), speaking also on behalf of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, noted the hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances and the blatant disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law over the course of the last decade in Syria. While the Assad regime and its allies bear the main responsibility, he said expert reports have demonstrated that “there are no clean hands in Syria.” Stressing the Mechanism’s mandate to collect evidence of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011, he added that “without evidence, there can be no accountability.” Expressing regret that, to date, no credible judicial processes have been initiated in Syria, he praised ongoing efforts to prosecute these crimes in a number of countries based on universal jurisdiction. He also called on the Security Council to exercise its powers under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations and to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.
He went on to stress that the Mechanism has operated in a challenging political reality since its creation, pointing to the additional difficulties posed by the pandemic and liquidity constraints on the United Nations. Welcoming the manner in which the Mechanism engages with all stakeholders, he highlighted the 60 cooperation frameworks it has established with States, international organizations and civil society actors. The growing number of requests for assistance from national jurisdictions demonstrate the growing interest of national authorities in the Mechanism and demand for the evidence it has collected. Also welcoming the Mechanism’s gender strategy and its victim/survivor-centred approach, he said the Organization’s regular budget is the best funding mechanism to ensure support for its important work.
ELIE ALTARSHA (Syria), disassociating his delegation from resolution 71/248 in a point of order, said that his country does not recognize the Mechanism, which is an illegal body established through an exclusionary process that violated the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. The Mechanism cannot be considered a subsidiary body established by the Assembly and the Secretary-General should not have decided to appoint a Head or Deputy Head to lead it. He added that the Mechanism has no legal status or legal personality, nor does it have a mandate — or the capacity — to enter into agreements with Member States. Syria also cannot accept that the Mechanism is allocated funding from the regular budget. He criticized the Mechanism’s reliance on information from Governments hostile to his own, which seek to politicize human rights and other issues as part of their interventionist policies and colonialist ambitions. Syria is proud of its national institutions, and if special agencies of the United Nations wish to provide them with technical support, “you know which door to knock on”. He went on to urge Member States to take the wise decision not to recognize the Mechanism and to disassociate themselves from it.
STEFANO STEFANILE (Italy), aligning himself with the European Union, said the decade-long crisis has severely disrupted the fabric of Syria’s society, bringing about unimaginable loss, suffering and destruction. The only way out is by implementing Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), charting a path towards a peaceful solution, starting with the organization of free and fair elections. Noting the shocking pattern of victimization of the most vulnerable, including women and children, he called for full accountability for the most serious crimes committed by any party, in particular war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is not just a moral imperative, he said, but also a deterrent to violations and a fundamental element of any reconciliation process. Expressing strong support for the Mechanism, he emphasized the need for a regular United Nations financial endowment in order to effectively plan and advance its work.
MICHAL MLYNÁR (Slovakia) said the Mechanism helps to strengthen the rule of law and due process. Regarding the use of evidence it gathers, all potential jurisdictional grounds, including universal jurisdiction, must be taken into account. To benefit from its full potential, States must help it carry out its mandate, he said, adding that Slovakia supports the Secretary-General’s recommendation that the Mechanism enjoy full access to materials held by the Organization concerning crimes committed in Syria. In the same vein, States must ensure that their national authorities cooperate smoothly with the Mechanism. He added that Slovakia has supported the inclusion of the Mechanism in the regular budget and that it will continue to do so.
MARITZA CHAN VALVERDE (Costa Rica) said crimes and foreign occupation of Syria persist alongside one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Yet, deadlock in the Security Council continues as well. “Children dodge bombs more than balls on the playground,” she stressed. However, the creation of the Mechanism has been a game-changer, sending an unequivocable message to perpetrators on all sides that the international community will not stand idly by in the face of such crimes. The Mechanism must refine its strategies on gender crimes and those against children, taking a victim-centered approach, which is crucial for full accountability. Reiterating a call that relevant Joint Investigative Mechanism materials be processed expeditiously and shared with the Mechanism, she opposed any effort to weaken it through United Nations budgetary measures. She urged the Council to swiftly refer the case of Syria to the International Criminal Court.
LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States), noting the unimaginable suffering endured by the Syrian people — from torture to attacks on hospitals and health care facilities, to cutting off humanitarian aid — said the inability to even imagine such conditions is why the Mechanism’s work is necessary. Building on the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic — created by the Human Rights Council — in documenting the Assad regime’s responsibility for mass atrocities, the Mechanism ensures that the evidence is available for everyone to see. Expressing strong support for funding the Mechanism through assessed contributions from the United Nations regular budget, she urged all Member States to continue to support this essential and appropriate arrangement. It is crucial to ensure that the Mechanism’s work is on firm financial footing, she said, also voicing strong support for the Mechanism’s information being made available to assist in new prosecutions where jurisdictions exist. The recent conviction in Germany of Eyad al-Gharib, a former official in Syria’s regime, for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity demonstrates the valuable role of independent documentation in facilitating justice processes outside of Syria.
Highlighting the Mechanism’s commitment to partnering with Syrian human rights groups and including the perspectives of Syrian women and girls in its work, she said these efforts to build trusted relationships with civil society and victims’ groups is a key component of its success. The United States will continue to support the provision of legal and psychosocial social services to survivors of torture and former political prisoners, as well as their families. Even in the face of the overwhelming evidence documented by the Mechanism, she said the Russian Federation continues to defend the Assad regime and attack the integrity of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Welcoming the recent decision by the OPCW Conference of the States Parties to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges under the Chemical Weapons Convention until it completes the steps set out in the body’s Executive Council decision of 9 July 2020, she stressed: “There must be consequences for the use of chemical weapons.” She also voiced concern that certain members of the Security Council have prevented that body from ensuring accountability for the Syrian people, stressing that every Syrian should have the opportunity to seek justice.
FERIDUN HADI SINIRLIOĞLU (Turkey) said Syrians have endured unimaginable suffering under the Assad regime, including bombing, gassing, sexual abuse, children impressed as soldiers, and millions internally displaced and driven out as refugees. Turkey hosts 4 million refugees and collectively addresses the needs of 9 million Syrians. The Assad regime’s well-documented track record of chemical attacks is still growing, with Syria’s air force using chlorine gas, and the regime responsible for at least eight chemical weapons attacks against its own population. It is high time to mobilize the international community to hold it to account, he stressed.
While the international community faces a collective legal and moral obligation to protect civilians and hold perpetrators to account, he said that work is also necessary for any reconciliation efforts to succeed. A new Syria can only be built on a sound basis of closure and the feeling that justice will be served. Noting the deepening cooperation between the Mechanism and the OPCW, he called for similar cooperation between the Mechanism and the legitimate Syrian opposition. Stressing that impunity must not take root in a post-crisis Syria, he cited the recent landmark sentencing of a former Syrian intelligence agent as a step in right direction, but the road forward is long and arduous. The Assembly has heard lies, fabrications and delusional comments from Syria’s representative, he said, noting that the face behind these remarks may change but the content, which is criminal, will not.
PASCALE CHRISTINE BAERISWYL (Switzerland) congratulated the Mechanism for its unwavering commitment, despite challenges posed by the pandemic. Its work contributes to accountability, without which there can be no lasting peace in Syria. Underscoring the crucial role of civil society in documenting crimes committed, she said that Switzerland and the Netherlands are attempting, through the Lausanne process [involving Iran, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States], to facilitate more cooperation and the exchange of information between the Mechanism and non-governmental organizations. She called on Member States to collaborate closely with the Mechanism and welcomed its inclusion in the United Nations regular budget, thus ensuring sustained funding for its work.
GERT AUVÄÄRT (Estonia), recalling 2011 when peaceful protestors took to the streets across Syria demanding basic human rights only to be met with a violent crackdown by the Syrian regime, said the situation remains desolate, with additional challenges due to the pandemic. Pointing to the overcrowded camps for refugees and internally displaced persons, and the weakening of an already crippled health system, he called for renewing the cross-border aid mechanism in the summer. The only solution to the situation is a political one, in line with Council resolution 2254 (2015), he said, adding that peace will remain elusive without justice. Welcoming steps taken to uphold accountability in Germany in February, he noted that for the first time, a Syrian regime official was convicted of crimes against humanity. Further, the Netherlands and Canada have invoked Syria’s responsibility for human rights violations under the United Nations Convention against Torture, he said, voicing regret that the Security Council is collectively failing to do anything impactful towards ending the conflict.
GEORG HELMUT ERNST SPARBER (Liechtenstein) said that his delegation had the honour in 2016 to introduce the draft resolution that led to the Assembly’s establishment of the Mechanism, which embodies a high level of professionalism, technical expertise and commitment commensurate with its task. Its creation was driven by the horror of daily atrocities in Syria, collective shame and frustration over inaction by the Security Council and a firm belief that accountability is not only necessary, but also possible. It was a pioneering effort “and a journey into uncharted territory”, but the Mechanism quickly established itself as a successful model of accountability work, achieving results and enjoying solid and growing political support, as expressed through its funding from the regular budget. Liechtenstein is encouraged to see the Mechanism deepen its cooperation with the OPCW and looks forward to seeing it gain access to materials from the OPCW-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism. Despite its successes, the Mechanism is only a partial answer to the enormous accountability challenge posed by the conflict, he said, thanking those States which have undertaken criminal proceedings in their national courts on the basis of universal jurisdiction. Noting that two permanent Security Council members are blocking a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, he said: “The creation of the [Mechanism] is an important expression of the crucial importance of this Assembly where meaningful action in the Security Council is not forthcoming.”
PHILIPPE KRIDELKA (Belgium), aligning himself with the European Union, said the Mechanism’s mandate remains relevant, as parties to the conflict have repeatedly violated international law and human rights law, resulting in hundreds of thousands of victims. The one constant in the tragedy is there can be no lasting peace without justice for victims, he said, pointing to the recent conviction in a national court under the principle of international jurisdiction. As the Mechanism’s mandate requires the cooperation of all Member States, the United Nations system and civil society, he noted Belgium’s $1.6 million contribution to its operation. Welcoming the Mechanism’s many contacts with Syrian civil society, he expressed hope that it will soon have access to evidence from the Joint Investigative Mechanism.
MARIE CHATARDOVÁ (Czech Republic), aligning with the statement by the European Union, congratulated the Mechanism for the progress made in its mandate. Its clear focus on collection and consolidation of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and the human rights abuses is crucial for upholding criminal justice standards. Also welcoming the Mechanism’s adoption of targeted strategies with a focus on sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against children, she recalled that the Czech Republic had co-sponsored the Assembly resolution that set up the Mechanism in December 2016. Since then, the Czech Republic has voluntarily contributed to the Mechanism’s budget in order to ensure the continuity of its work. “We will contribute again this year,” she said, stressing that predictable, sustainable and impartial funding of the Mechanism through the regular budget is essential for its future. Noting that violations of international law in Syria remain systemic, she said such impunity, including for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and especially related to the use of chemical weapons, is unacceptable.
NAM HYOK KIM (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) said that by establishing the Mechanism, the Assembly set a precedent for approving an illegal and abnormal practice within the framework of the United Nations. The Mechanism is interfering in Syria’s internal affairs while anchoring its activities on fabricated information and false testimonies from countries and individuals that oppose Syria. Its establishment is a typical example of politicization and double standards in addressing human rights issues. Rather, the United Nations should promote a Syria-led political process and preserve its impartiality, objectivity and credibility. It should not be subjected to political and financial pressures by certain countries, he added.
FIONA WEBSTER (Australia) said hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and an untold number have suffered unimaginable abuses and unspeakable crimes during the 10-year conflict in Syria, with millions unable to escape the ravages of war. There must be no illusion about the weight of the international community’s responsibility. While some may discredit the Mechanism, she said the principles of accountability and justice must be upheld. As the pursuit of justice must not come at expense of the victims, she expressed support for the inclusion of gendered perspectives and a focus on crimes against children. Those who want to live in a world of principles and justice must support its function and mandate.
LAURA KATHOLNIG (Austria), associating herself with the European Union, commended the progress made by the Mechanism, especially given the restrictions it faces due to the pandemic. Austria provided substantial financial support to the Mechanism before its full funding, she noted, adding that as an organ created by the General Assembly, its inclusion in the regular budget was overdue. Further, Austria has passed new legislation that provides for cooperation with and legal assistance to the Mechanism through the country’s judicial authorities. “For international and national justice to succeed, we need evidence,” she said. While the Mechanism is not a court or tribunal, its establishment was an important step towards justice for serious crimes committed in Syria. Also calling for the establishment of a tribunal in the region to ensure accountability for the most serious crimes, she said this should go hand-in-hand with capacity-building for national justice to ensure due process at the national and local levels.
JISHENG XING (China) said the international community should draw profound lessons from the crisis in Syria and support a Syrian-owned, Syrian-led solution. He advocated compliance with international humanitarian law and opposed any violation of international humanitarian law and human rights, adding that in addressing impunity, the judicial sovereignty of concerned States must be respected, in line with the goal of achieving a political settlement. Action within the United Nations should aim to preserve unity among Member States while also helping the Syrian parties to resolve their differences. He recalled that the establishment of the Mechanism was controversial, stressing that China does not support including its work in the regular budget and that the future of Syria must be decided by the Syrian people on their own.
NATALIA JIMÉNEZ ALEGRÍA (Mexico) said the human toll of a decade of suffering in Syria highlights the need to pursue justice for victims. Noting the Council’s failure to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court, she expressed regret that the veto had prevented it. The veto is not a privilege but rather a heavy responsibility borne by permanent Council members, and it should not be used in such a context. Despite adversity, however, the Mechanism is receiving requests from more jurisdictions. Similarly, she said the judgment against a former Syrian official in a German court and proceedings in the national jurisdictions of the Netherlands and France confirm the Mechanism’s efficacy. In that vein, it is crucial to close the justice gaps that exist for victims.
YURIY VITRENKO (Ukraine), aligning with the statement delivered by the European Union, noted the continuing war being waged by Syria’s regime against its own people, with direct support from its Russian ally. There is no room for impunity for such heinous crimes, he said, stressing that bringing the perpetrators to account and ensuring justice for the victims are important steps for reconciliation and sustainable peace. Recalling that the Assembly one day ago discussed reform of the Security Council and restricted use of the veto, he said Syria’s allies are abusing their powers. “My own country, Ukraine, is a victim of Russia’s veto obsession,” he said, echoing the call to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Noting that the Mechanism has made meaningful headway in implementing its mandate despite the pandemic, he likewise expressed support for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry and the OPCW.
GIORGI MIKELADZE (Georgia) said the Assembly’s establishment of the Mechanism demonstrates the positive role it can play on issues when the Council is blocked from acting. He expressed full support for the Mechanism and welcomed its growing cooperation with national proceedings and investigations. Its creation represents a collective commitment by Member States to fight impunity, which must remain a priority. He called on the regime in Syria to cooperate fully with the Mechanism, including by providing it with relevant information and documents.
CRAIG JOHN HAWKE (New Zealand) noted that as the humanitarian crisis in Syria continues on an unthinkable scale, the Mechanism’s mandate to assist in investigating and prosecuting the most horrific crimes is critical. Victims and survivors have a right to justice and accountability, and this is an important precursor to any sustainable peace. The Mechanism continues to make progress towards fulfilling its mandate, notwithstanding the challenges posed by the pandemic and the United Nations liquidity situation. The substantial increase in requests for assistance received by the Mechanism from competent jurisdictions is a testament to its work — and to its promise as an enabler of justice. He commended its use of an automated review of evidentiary material, and welcomed its development of strategies on gender, victims and survivors, and crimes against children.
MARK ZELLENRATH (Netherlands), endorsing the statement by the European Union, said that over the past decade, Syrians have been tortured, murdered, forcibly disappeared and subjected to chemical weapon attacks. “We cannot turn a blind eye on a decade of grave human rights violations,” he said, stressing that the Mechanism has proven to be a unique international criminal justice entity to ensure that such crimes will not be forgotten. The collection, consolidation, preservation and analysis of evidence are indispensable steps in the fight against impunity, he noted, adding that the Mechanism’s strong focus on independence and impartiality is vital to maintaining the trust and confidence of the international community. The Netherlands, together with Canada, has taken further steps to hold Syria and the Assad regime directly accountable for its violations of the Convention against Torture. Invoking Syria’s responsibility for non-compliance, the Netherlands and Canada will follow the means of dispute settlement provided in that Convention, with a view to obtaining justice for Syrian victims. Also pointing to domestic proceedings in Germany, France and Sweden based on an exercise of universal jurisdiction, he reiterated the call to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
CHANAKA LIAM WICKREMASINGHE (United Kingdom), emphasizing his country’s full support for the Mechanism, said that securing accountability must be the highest priority of the United Nations and the international community. Now in its eleventh year, the crisis in Syria is among the most terrible human disasters of the twenty-first century, with mounting evidence of atrocities committed by the regime, including the repeated use of chemical weapons. The Mechanism’s latest report is a testament to its resolve to secure accountability, he said, adding that more information sharing through the Mechanism will strengthen collective efforts in that regard. He went on to note the Mechanism’s targeted responses for women and children and its survivor-based approach, as outlined in the report.
MOHAMMAD GHORBANPOUR NAJAFABADI (Iran) condemned violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law in Syria, drawing attention to foreign terrorist fighters and those who have equipped or assisted them. All those who have interfered in the war-ravaged country or worked for regime change must be brought to justice, he said, denouncing unlawful and inhumane coercive measures against Syria. Rejecting any politically motivated resolution that ignores the principle of sovereignty, he said the “so-called Mechanism” was established through an exclusionary and non-transparent process without Syria’s involvement. This violates multiple articles of the Charter of the United Nations, enabling ambiguous activities that should not be financed by its budget. The Mechanism has manifestly exceeded its mandate and its findings are therefore void of legality. Its sponsors have not endorsed similar efforts related to crimes against the people of Palestine and Yemen, a clear manifestation of a political agenda under the guise of human rights. As long as the Mechanism disregards the Charter and international law, it cannot be a legitimate source of evidence for any tribunals.
EVGENY A. SKACHKOV (Russian Federation) said that the so-called Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Investigate International Crimes in Syria was created through an illegitimate decision. It will never be able to prove its legitimacy and the same goes for its creative output, he said, voicing regret that the General Assembly is now forced to waste time and resources discussing “another paper that we would struggle to call a report”. A report must contain substantive information, he said, adding that this document is completely divorced from reality. Pointing to information in the report regarding the Mechanism’s activities, he asked for more transparency and accountability. Posing a question to the Mechanism’s leadership, he asked: “Are you hiding something from the members of the General Assembly or is there something that you were ashamed to admit?” Further, the report does not contain information about the cases on which the Mechanism is currently focused.
Calling for more information about the unlawful acts, suspects and national jurisdictions the Mechanism is referring to, he said the report only says that much information is being collected and that the amount of information is growing without end, thanks to cooperation with some wide range of actors. “We are told nothing about the sources of this so-called evidence, the procedure used to collect and process it and who exactly the Mechanism is cooperating with,” he said. Noting that the Mechanism conducted 130 collections in 2020, he asked why the Assembly has not been informed of the States on whose territories these missions are operating. If this is a reference to Syria’s territory, he asked about the rationale behind these decisions and about the status these missions have. The Russian Federation sees no possibility of cooperating with the Mechanism, he stressed, adding that evidence collected by this illegitimate entity could never be used in any national or international criminal proceedings.
ROBERT KEITH RAE (Canada), to comments by his counterpart from the Russian Federation, said the Mechanism would not be very independent or investigative if it divulged all of its activities. It is preposterous to suggest that any department of justice anywhere in the world would divulge who it is investigating or how it is doing so. Expressing strong support for the Mechanism, he said the Assembly has an obligation to act when there is paralysis in the Council, “and no one has a veto in the Assembly”. By carrying out its work, the Mechanism is sending out a warning to other regimes and armed groups about harming their civilian populations. He went on to say that today’s debate revealed a clear division among Member States about what is central to the role of the United Nations and what is not. Some say that the principle of sovereignty is central, and that is important, but so too is the role of international law. Sovereignty does not mean no accountability, nor does it mean that a Government can kill its citizens at will. Was it not for the pursuit of accountability, the United Nations would never have been formed, he said, adding that the rule of law and accountability are central to the Charter, the institutions created in San Francisco in 1945 “and where we need to go”.
JHON GUERRA SANSONETTI (Venezuela) said his delegation voted against resolution 71/248, which led to the irregular formation of a Mechanism that contradicts the Charter of the United Nations and international norms. By its creation, the Assembly was forced to usurp the powers of the Council, the only organ empowered in this context. The Mechanism violates the primary role of sovereign States. Its evidence, therefore, lacks validity or legal standing for prosecutions against Syria, whose own organs have the capacity to pursue crimes. He opposed all attempts to finance its “pursuit of destabilization” through the regular United Nations budget. Condemning the selective approach to human rights by Western countries, and their use of economic terrorism to strangle Syria’s regime, he said the Mechanism was flawed from the outset, as its funding through voluntary contributions is neither impartial nor relevant. Its reports lack methodological rigour and sometimes refer to secondary and even tertiary sources. He urged Member States to bring an end to “divisionist” approaches, which compromise the impartiality of the United Nations, and instead support a Syrian led-political process.
DIARRA DIME LABILLE (France), noting that after years of conflict, Syria is ravaged, with half of the population displaced and millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance, pointed to the resurgence of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) in regime-controlled areas. Chemical weapon attacks have been perpetrated on several occasions by the regime, and acts that could constitute war crimes are being committed daily by all parties, in particular by Syria’s regime. Calling for progress on the question of persons detained by the regime, she stressed the need to bring justice to all victims of the conflict. The Mechanism constitutes a fundamental milestone, she said, recalling that France has supported its work since its creation. Pointing out that the Mechanism plays a dual role as a central repository of evidence and as a facilitator of justice in support of investigations, she welcomed the systematic mainstreaming of gender in all its efforts.
Noting that the current public health context and the tight budget complicate the Mechanism’s work, she highlighted the volume and diversity of evidence that must be organized. Despite that, the Mechanism has made progress by developing remote working methods and strategically allocating its limited resources. France will continue to mobilize with its partners to ensure that the Mechanism’s financing is kept within the United Nations regular budget in accordance with recommendations by the Secretary-General, she said, adding that the fight against impunity is an essential condition for lasting peace in Syria. Applauding the courage of Syrian civil society actors, she also highlighted the important role of the Independent Commission of Inquiry and the OPCW.
ALYA AHMED SAIF AL-THANI (Qatar), noting her country’s key role alongside Liechtenstein in establishing the Mechanism, said that accountability is key for ensuring peace. Atrocities in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians, are well documented and they are continuing, as is the gathering of evidence. Praising the Mechanism for pursuing its work despite the difficult circumstances imposed by the pandemic, she emphasized the importance of ensuring that it receives sufficient and predictable funding from the regular budget, thus strengthening its credibility and independence. Qatar will continue to support all efforts to end the crisis through an objective political process based on the Geneva Declaration and Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). At the same time, she condemned all violence against civilians and all flagrant violations of international law and international humanitarian law.
ROSA AMELIA GUERRA TAMAYO (Cuba) said her delegation was among those that voted against the resolution founding the Mechanism, and it will never support anything that contravenes the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference. The Mechanism has no precedent in the history of the United Nations, and is an affront to international law, flagrantly overlooking the primary responsibility of a sovereign State to investigate and prosecute crimes on its own territory. The Mechanism is clearly illegal, characterized as a subsidiary United Nations organ, giving it legal prerogatives. It has functions similar to those of a prosecutorial body, with the aim of sharing information with international and regional courts. However, one body cannot be “judge and jury”. Mechanisms of this kind should not be financed with the dues of Member States, as this unjustly singles out a sovereign Member State.
ABDALLAH Y. AL-MOUALLIMI (Saudi Arabia), stressing that peace cannot exist without justice and accountability, commended the Mechanism for its professionalism and integrity in collecting information and evidence under difficult circumstances. Voicing concern that human rights around the world have been affected by terrorism and repression, he called for increased transparency on the path to justice. Stressing the importance of protecting civilians, and above all, children in armed conflict, he drew attention to Saudi Arabia’s participation in international frameworks strengthening such protections. Highlighting the impact of COVID-19 in Syria, he said the latest reports mention increased death rates and burials, meaning that cases of COVID-19 are much higher than the official figures. Saudi Arabia supports all efforts to bring an end to the tragedy in Syria, he said, calling for a resumption of work by the Constitutional Committee and noting Saudi Arabia’s hosting of two conferences, which led to the establishment of the Syrian Negotiations Commission.
DENNYS GABRIEL MONTENEGRO BORGE (Nicaragua) said that his country does not recognize the Mechanism, whose report ignored the progress made on human rights in Syria under exceptional circumstances. The Mechanism is a misnomer and the United Nations must preserve its credibility and independence without being subjected to political or financial pressures by Governments. Syria and its national institutions are fully capable of achieving justice and assuring accountability without external interference, he said, adding that the international community must be wise and constructive and oppose any attempt to isolate Syria or to impose unilateral coercive measures on it. He went on to say that international and regional efforts should focus on resolving the crisis and ensuring that the Syrian people can rebuild their country and live in peace.
Right of Reply
The representative of Syria, speaking in exercise of the right of reply, said many statements today centred on adherence to high principles of justice and ensuring that evidence collected is applicable in court. These statements were ultimately meaningless. If the Mechanism found that Syria had “done no wrong”, he wondered whether its findings would have been welcomed and accepted, including by Canada’s representative. Regarding the alleged use of chemical weapons, he said some European States “covered up” unprofessional work by the OPCW Investigation and Identification Team. To comments by Turkey’s delegate on terrorist acts, he asked rhetorically who had allowed the terrorists to enter Syria. In fact, Turkey opened its borders to more than 170 terrorist fighters, and further, occupied Syria for 400 years.
The representative of Turkey said she does not consider the representative of Syria to be speaking for his people, and therefore, will not honor his delusions by responding.
In other business, the Assembly — in response to a request by the Secretary-General, following consultations with the Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — confirmed the appointment of Achim Steiner (Germany) as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme for a further four-year term of office, beginning on 17 June 2021.