60th Plenary Meeting - General Assembly 75th Session

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21-Apr-2021 03:10:06
Head of International Mechanism on Syria presents sixth report, as delegates in General Assembly air concerns over basis for its creation.

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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.

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