UN Gathers ‘Unprecedented’ Amount of Data in Syria War Crime Probe

Eastern Ghouta
Photo: AFP

U.N. investigators said on Tuesday they had begun sifting through “unprecedented” amounts of information related to horrific crimes committed in Syria’s seven-year war.

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the French judge leading the new U.N. push to bring Syria’s war criminals to justice, said “overwhelming” amounts of data were flooding in and it would be impossible for investigators to probe all of the crimes.

“We are faced with unprecedented volumes of information,” she told reporters in Geneva, adding that her team was setting up IT systems capable of managing the vast amounts of data.

The so-called “International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism” was created in 2016 to compile prosecutorial files that could be used by any jurisdiction — domestic or international — capable of acting against the perpetrators of major crimes in Syria.

Ms. Marchi-Uhel, who was appointed last July and who published her first report this week, said the team, which is due to swell to 60 people, was still at the data gathering and sorting stage. But she said it was already clear it was “not going to be in a position to investigate each and every crime. That would be an impossible task.”

The team had recently reached an agreement to access most of the information gathered by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that has been reporting on atrocities in the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people since 2011.

It also wants to cooperate with many non-governmental organisations that have been compiling documentation of crimes, she said, stressing that the mechanism would re-evaluate and re-analyse all data and draw its own conclusions.

‘High-Level Perpetrators’

“Exercising our discretion when selecting cases is going to be a crucial aspect of the work,” Ms. Marchi-Uhel said, adding that investigators would rely on multiple criteria to determine which cases to focus on.

Obviously the gravity of the crime would be important, but the French judge pointed out that there are widespread allegations of “war crimes, crimes against humanity or even possibly genocide,” so “you can’t just take gravity … as a sole criteria.”

The team would focus on cases where it is possible to “establish responsibility of high-level perpetrators,” and cases involving sexual and gender-based crimes as well as violations against children, she said.

“We are looking for individual criminal responsibility,” Ms. Marchi-Uhel added, acknowledging that the options for prosecuting perpetrators in Syria’s conflict were currently slim.

The U.N. Security Council has ignored repeated calls to refer the Syria case to the International Criminal Court, with using Syria’s domestic courts not an option. But Ms. Marchi-Uhel said there a need to start the long process of preparing for prosecution to ensure suspects can go to trial as soon as a solution is possible.

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