Week in Review: The high price of impunity in Syria and CAR

Week in Review: The high price of impunity in Syria and CAR©Flickr
Syrian refugees in Iraq, 2013
2 min 11Approximate reading time

This week was marked by the resignation of Swiss war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte from the UN commission investigating crimes in Syria.

“This commission does absolutely nothing," explained Del Ponte, accusing UN Security Council members of “not wanting to establish justice”. Russia, ally of Damascus has ever since the commission’s creation six years ago vetoed referring Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Damascus has never authorized the Commission, which has produced numerous reports, to go to Syria. “Believe me, I have never seen such horrible crimes as are being committed in Syria,” added Del Ponte, who has also worked on Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.

Her resignation, announced by Swiss media on the margins of the film festival in Locarno in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland from which she hails, has been confirmed by the UN. It vowed at the same time that the work would continue “as an important and integral part of the accountability process". 

This spectacular resignation, in character for Del Ponte, shows the limits of this type of investigation commission, writes JusticeInfo’s editorial advisor Pierre Hazan. “It is clear that the Commission’s work documenting the Syrian people’s suffering has not provoked any reaction from the warring parties or from world powers to stop this endless tragedy, he says.” 

This commission nevertheless continues to document the crimes committed in Syria, and even if its work appears vain today, it could one day help bring those suspected of war crimes to justice.  

Justice also appears to have failed in the Central African Republic (CAR), which is the subject of alarmist warnings. According to American NGO Enough Project, which has produced a report mapping 14 militia groups and four politico-military groups in the country, “these groups have flourished, imposing a de facto partition and engaging in economic predation as part of their central strategy”. A senior UN official meanwhile warned of possible genocide in the CAR. "The early warning signs of genocide are there," said UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien. “"We must act now, not pare down the UN's effort, and pray we don't live to regret it."

It is true that recent clashes in the CAR have been increasingly marked by violence between Christian and Muslim communities, but “genocide” is a legal concept to be used with caution. “Genocide is a precise concept,” explains Didier Niewiadowski, jurist and former advisor to the French embassy in Bangui, in an interview with JusticeInfo. “Is there currently a plan to systematically eliminate an ethnic or religious group, regardless of age or gender? The answer is no. On the other hand, we should be concerned about rising numbers of massacres of civilians in the extreme east and northwest of the country, which often have an inter-communal character.” He nevertheless agrees with the UN that “the risk of a national explosion has never been so high”. But is the international community ready to listen to these warnings, take strong action against the armed groups and neighbouring countries supporting them, and pressure President Touadera’s weak, corrupt government, to fulfil its role? For this to happen, Didier Niewadowski lists three things that are needed as a priority: real political will on the part of Central Africans to end the crisis, coordination between UN peacekeeping missions in central Africa, and an end to the impunity which is driving the crisis. This shows once again that for national reconciliation to work, a work of justice is required.