After nine years of chronicling war crimes and horrendous suffering in Syria, UN investigators voice frustration and sadness, but also determination to continue documenting violations and hope that one day justice will be served.
The UN Commission of Inquiry for Syria was set up a few months after the country’s bloody conflict ignited on March 15, 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
The UN Human Rights Council mandated the investigators to probe “all alleged violations of international human rights law”, and urged them, when possible, to identify suspected perpetrators to ensure they could later be held accountable.
The task did not appear so daunting at first, when many expected the conflict would be short-lived.
“I thought maybe I would have to give a year or maybe a little more,” said Karen Koning AbuZayd — who along with Brazilian commission chair Paulo Pinheiro is the only original commission member still on the team.
“Certainly I had no idea we would still be going on,” the US citizen and former top UN official told AFP in a recent interview.
– Sense of obligation –
Nearly nine years later, after more than 380,000 people have been killed and millions of Syrians have been displaced, the investigators this week presented their 19th report to the Human Rights Council.
They have never been permitted into Syria, but base their findings largely on interviews with victims and witnesses.
Over the years, the commission has repeatedly accused the various sides in the increasingly complex conflict of war crimes and, in some cases, of crimes against humanity.
But their endless calls for a halt to hostilities and for all sides to respect and protect civilians have largely gone unheeded.
“Of course it is very frustrating,” Hanny Megally told AFP, adding that when he joined the commission in 2017 he “was hoping this conflict would come to an end sooner”.
But the Egyptian academic said the three current commissioners “felt there is an obligation” to continue documenting abuses and recommending ways to lessen the civilian suffering on the ground.
Pointing out that Syrian families and rights groups were continuing their struggle to end the bloodshed, to find the missing and ensure justice, he insisted that “we can’t give up if they continue”.
He said it was particularly difficult to witness the situation in Syria’s war-ravaged northwest, where close to one million people have been displaced since December by a Russian-backed regime offensive on the Idlib region.
– ‘Bad guys are winning’ –
Megally said there were now around 1.5 million people stranded near the border with Turkey in desperate conditions, with reports of young children freezing to death.
“For me, that is worst… Those senseless deaths that could have been prevented, I think are quite shocking,” he said, slamming the international community for not doing more to help.
Koning AbuZayd, who spent much time in Syria before the conflict and made many friends there in her former capacity as head of the UN agency that services Palestinian refugees, said watching the country descend into carnage had been “painful, personally.”
“It is just so sad,” she said.
“The bad guys are winning. They have the power and the weapons and the ordinary people are the ones who are suffering.”
The commissioners have for years been drafting a secret list of people and groups allegedly responsible for a vast array of violations.
Megally said the hope in the beginning was that “having a list and talking about potential prosecution before the International Criminal Court would be a deterrent”.
But repeated calls for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC has fallen on deaf ears in a hopelessly deadlocked UN Security Council.
Instead, the commissioners have turned their attention to working with countries willing to try suspected Syrian war criminals in their jurisdictions, and have received over 200 requests for assistance with such cases to date.
Megally said one goal now was to publicise those cases and let perpetrators know: “There will be accountability.”
– ‘Everyone is traumatised’ –
The work of documenting horrifying abuses, including bombings of schools and hospitals, torture of detainees and sexual violence, is meanwhile gruelling.
“I think everyone is traumatised,” Megally said.
While the three commissioners work on a voluntary, part-time basis, they are backed up by a team of around 30 investigators, analysts and other experts who follow the situation around the clock.
Koning AbuZayd said some team members had quit over the years, but others have been there since the beginning.
“I don’t know how they tolerate it, because it is day and night.”
The commissioners themselves have found different ways to handle the strain.
Koning AbuZayd swims every morning and spends time with her grandchildren, while Megally likes to cook “to try to get away from all”.
“There is a satisfaction in doing that because you can start something and see it finished and feel you have accomplished something,” he said.
That, Megally said, is a welcome change from the Syria probe, which “is going on and on, and it’s often difficult to see the result”.