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Update: On January 15, the number of signatories reached 58.

(New York) – A letter sent to the United Nations Security Council on behalf of 57 states calling for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) gives momentum to international efforts to stop grave abuses committed there. More countries should join the call and impress on reluctant Council members the urgency of taking up the issue of accountability.

The letter– sent by Switzerland on January 14, 2013, and signed by states including France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Botswana, Tunisia, Japan, and Costa Rica – points to a pervasive climate of impunity in Syria and concludes that the Security Council must therefore act to fill this accountability gap. Signatories hail from all regions of world and represent a significant cross-section of UN member states, Human Rights Watch said.

“With UN estimates putting the death toll over 60,000 in Syria, this justice initiative should jolt the Security Council into action,” said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Russia and China have paralyzed the Council for too long and need to hear the demand for justice from countries around the world.”

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. Therefore, the ICC could only obtain jurisdiction over crimes in Syria if the Security Council refers the situation there to the court. The Council’s referral authority significantly extends accountability for grave international crimes for which there would otherwise be no justice, Human Rights Watch said. The Council has referred situations only twice, in regards to the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005 and Libya in 2011. The body, however, has failed to act on other key occasions where there was strong evidence of widespread and serious international crimes and little prospect of local accountability, such as during the deadly conflict in Sri Lanka.

The Security Council has been deadlocked on Syria for nearly two years. Russia and China have used their veto powers to block three resolutions condemning violations there.

“A referral would be unbiased and give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed by the government and the opposition,” Jarrah said. “It would strip all sides of their sense of impunity and send a clear message that abuses could land them in a prison cell in The Hague.”

Of the 57 countries who signed the letter, all European Union member states are included with the notable exception of Sweden. Despite strong calls for accountability in Syria by the League of Arab States, including a reference to international criminal justice in a July 2012 resolution, Tunisia and Libya are the only member states to sign the letter delivered by Switzerland. In an interview with CNN on January 6, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy supported calls by Syrians for international justice, but Egypt has not yet signed the letter. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Egyptian Foreign Minister on January 13, 2013, urging Egypt to join the appeal. Of the seven ICC states parties currently sitting on the Security Council, all except Argentina and Guatemala have signed the letter.

Human Rights Watch urged other states, particularly Arab states who have repeatedly voiced concern over the killings in Syria, to join the mounting calls for accountability by supporting a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria.

Some governments have held back adding their signature to the letter reportedly due to concerns that the pursuit of justice would be an obstacle to any peace deal and that involving the ICC would cut off potential exit routes for President Bashar al-Assad and other senior Syrian officials.

However, the appeal to the Security Council comes directly on the heels of a recent speech by al-Assad, in which he made no indication of plans to leave Syria.

“Assad is not talking about escape routes but instead vowing to ‘live and die in Syria’” Jarrah said. “On the other hand, an ICC referral could put other actors on notice that they could be held responsible for crimes and help deter future abuses.”

The record from other conflicts such as those in the Balkans confirms that criminal indictments of senior political, military, and rebel leaders can actually strengthen peace efforts by delegitimizing and marginalizing those who stand in the way of the conflict’s resolution, Human Rights Watch said. Further, the failure to hold perpetrators of the most serious international crimes to account can fuel future abuses.

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented and condemned widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killingsof civilians, enforced disappearances, use of torture, use of incendiary weapons, use of cluster munitions, and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has concluded that government forces have committed crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Watch has also documented extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces, torture and mistreatment in opposition-run detention facilities, and use of child soldiers by opposition forces.

The need for accountability in Syria has been underlined by different corners of the international community. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has, on multiple occasions, recommended that the Council refer the situation to the court. At a UN Human Rights Council session in June 2012, the Maldives delivered a statement on behalf of 23 countries supporting the High Commissioner’s call for a referral. Moreover, in conclusions adopted in December 2012, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council called on the Security Council to urgently address the situation in Syria, including the issue of an ICC referral.


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