As the 300-member United Nations unarmed observer mission in Syria suspends its work because of intensifying violence in the country, Britain and Switzerland are beginning efforts to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, announced recently that his office is preparing a case against the Syrian government for crimes against humanity.
In New York, the Swiss mission has been circulating a letter, dated June 8 and signed by Paul Seger, the Swiss permanent representative, to all 121 states parties to the court in The Hague, seeking backing for a referral to the court. The letter was obtained by PassBlue through confidential sources.
Syria is not a member of the court, so one way to begin an investigation into crimes there is through a referral from the Security Council.
The Swiss letter is accompanied with a draft letter to Li Baodong, the Chinese ambassador to the UN and current monthly president of the council. It says, in part, “We are firm in the belief that an international investigation must urgently be carried out to establish the facts” found in the UN’s independent commission of inquiry last fall — documenting patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, torture (including sexual violence) and violations of children’s right — and “that the United Nations must do its part to ensure that those responsible, no matter their association, are held to account before a court of law.”
The letter from the Swiss asks recipients for “views on this initiative” with the “hope to get broadest possible support in order to transmit the letter on behalf of as many delegations as possible.”
It goes on: “The Council may not be ready, at this point of time, to decide on such a referral. But we believe that we owe it to the victims of the crimes committed in Syria and to ourselves as States Parties and supporters of the ICC to send a strong message to the Council.” It adds that Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, based in Geneva, has already called for such a referral and that “we cannot stand by idly while gross and systematic violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed and continue to be committed in Syria.”
The letter, it continues, “will be an expression of our determination to do everything in our power to ensure that the authors of such atrocities shall not go unpunished.” Numerous delegations have affirmed their willingness to co-sponsor the letter, it said, and the letter will be sent only “if we can generate a critical mass of cross-regional support.”
After the massacre was discovered in Houla, where more than 100 people, many of them children, were said to be killed by Syrian forces or their mercenaries, the chorus demanding an International Criminal Court investigation grew demonstrably louder. Besides the British foreign ministry’s announcement, Pillay said that the massacre may have constituted crimes against humanity, and the Human Rights Council, also in Geneva, voted overwhelmingly in favor last week to call for an independent investigation into the murders.
The government in Damascus concluded that the massacre and others since then were committed by terrorists and rebel forces.
In Syria on Saturday, Gen. Robert Mood, the chief military observer and head of the UN mission there, said in a press conference in Damascus that in the last 10 days violence “has been intensifying, again willingly by the both parties, with losses on both sides and significant risks to our observers. The Syrian population, civilians, are suffering and in some locations, civilians have been trapped by ongoing operations.”
And in other related news, Hervé Ladsous, the chief of the UN peacekeeping operations, called the Syrian conflict a “civil war,” the first time a UN official has made such a declaration, but the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, then released a statement saying the “UN secretariat will not characterize the conflict in Syria.” Under the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross makes such determinations on internal conflicts and internal armed conflicts, or civil wars.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.