How the Security Council could help Syrians

By José Luis Díaz, Amnesty International’s representative to the UN in New York

The UN Security Council is once again faced with competing visions of what needs to be done in Syria.

This does not bode well if the last time the council found itself in this position back in April is anything to go by. Then a compromise deal was thrashed out which has proved largely toothless.

Since then, well over 4,000 people have been killed, thousands more remain in detention, where torture is rife, and the number of internally displaced persons and refugees mounts by the day.

So, there is much pessimism about the prospects for a new resolution this week. But if the divided Council could overcome its political differences, it could take sensible and concrete measures to help reduce the violations in Syria.

UN mission mandateThe Council could begin by agreeing to strengthen the mandate of the UN mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to allow it to investigate human rights violations fully.

Under its current configuration, it has been difficult for UNSMIS to even monitor the distinct human rights elements of Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.

As a result, the human rights situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate – with mass killings in Houla, and Qubair – because the perpetrators believe that they can act with impunity.

Human rights investigationThe resolution renewing UNSMIS needs to explicitly include a strong and adequately staffed human rights component, giving the mission a clear mandate to visit sites of alleged violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This would not only give the required attention to all human rights issues underpinning the six point plan, it would help provide a measure of protection for Syria’s civilian population by acting as the impartial “eyes and ears” of the international community.

The potential of the mission to play this role was seen in the aftermath of Houla, when UNSMIS observations served as a credible source of information for the international community, bypassing contradictory reports and escalating accusations from either party to the conflict.

But UNSMIS faced considerable difficulty in accessing Houla and has still not fully reported its findings.

The mission has also found it difficult to establish all the facts surrounding the recent attack on Treimseh (or Tremseh), being able only to confirm fighting, the use of heavy weaponry and helicopters by Syrian forces and the identity of some of those who were killed.

To be successful, dedicated human rights monitors would need clear agreement from Syrian authorities that they would have unfettered access to the whole country, as well as adequate protection and support – both internationally and locally. Monitors would also need both a rapid reaction capability to investigate specific incidents and a permanent presence in a few cities outside Damascus.

If perpetrators believe their abuses could be witnessed in real time by independent observers, this could act as an effective deterrent.

Detention centresThe UN mission should also be mandated to visit detention centres, something which UNSMIS has been virtually unable to do within the framework of its current set-up.

Twenty-three-year-old student Anas al-Shoghre, who is believed to have been held in secret detention since his arrest on 14 May 2011, apparently after for calling for and leading protests in Banias, is just one of thousands detained across the country – many held incommunicado in unknown locations. Reports suggest that he is in poor health and may have been subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.

Anas’s family are desperate for information about his whereabouts and safety, but until independent observers can enter Syria’s network of detention centres – official and unofficial — to check who is held, and report on the use of torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and systematic torture will continue to plague Syria.

AccountabilityFinally, we look to the Security Council to shoulder its responsibility and refer the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Amnesty International, like the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry, considers that there is a reliable body of evidence that crimes against humanity, war crimes and gross human rights violations have been and continue to be committed in Syria.

The case of construction workers Yousef, Bilal and Talal Haj Hussein, killed during a raid on their village of Sermin in March this year, is instructive.

The brothers, all in their twenties, who had been active in demonstrations but whose family say were not fighters, were taken from their house in the early morning by soldiers, before being shot in the head in the street outside the house. The soldiers then set fire to their bodies and left them to burn.

The Hussein family is still waiting for someone to deliver them justice, truth and reparation.

Such crimes demand that the international community takes responsibility, as it is presently impossible to prosecute them in Syria.

Abuses committed by armed opposition groups, such as the torture and killing of captured soldiers and members of shabiha, must be investigated as part of this process, with a view to prosecution of anyone found responsible for such crimes.

A referral to the ICC would send a message to all parties to the conflict in Syria that those who order or commit crimes under international law will be brought to justice.If the Council demanded that the Syrian authorities provided the Commission of Inquiry immediate entry and access to all areas of Syria, that in itself could help pave the way to future possible prosecutions.

Security Council members must show their true coloursA genuine commitment to justice, accountability, human rights and the protection of civilians should prevail over political differences between members over on how the conflict in Syria developed.

The outcome of discussions in the Security Council this week will show to what extent its members share this commitment.

Read more:

Syria: UN must be given immediate access to investigate reports of Treimseh killings (News story, 13 July 2012)Syria: Open letter to UN Security Council Ambassadors: Strengthening the mandate of the UN Mission in Syria (Open letter, 11 July 2012)
Syria: Fresh evidence of armed forces’ ongoing crimes against humanity (News story, 14 June 2012)
Deadly Reprisals (Report, 14 June 2012)