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(New York) –France’s steps at the UN Security Council toward an ICC referral for Syria give momentum to international efforts to ensure justice there, Human Rights Watch said today.

Security Council members and other countries alike should express support for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). They should impress on reluctant Council members, in particular Russia and China, the urgency of taking up the issue of accountability for crimes committed by all sides.

“For victims in Syria who have known nothing but suffering, despair and abandonment, the ICC would open up the hope of justice and redress,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “It would also send a warning to those responsible for grave crimes on all sides that their day in court may be coming.”

On April 15, 2014, France will convene an “Arria-formula” meeting, an informal, confidential gathering of Security Council members, to consider a January report by a team of legal and forensic experts financed by Qatar about the alleged torture and execution of detainees by the Syrian government. Members are also to discuss ways to ensure justice for crimes in Syria. France officially transmitted the report to Security Council members on April 2.

Human Rights Watch has documented the Syrian government’s extensive use of torture in facilities across the country by speaking to survivors and defectors, visiting former detention centers and seeing first-hand the torture devices and chambers. On the basis of its investigations, Human Rights Watch has concluded that government and pro-government forces have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes. While Human Rights Watch has not had the opportunity to authenticate the images of abuse featured in the Security Council report, its findings suggest that torture and death in custody in Syrian government facilities are widespread.

Human Rights Watch has also documented war crimes and crimes against humanity by some non-state armed groups, including the indiscriminate use of car bombs and mortars, kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial executions.

The April 15 meeting is a timely opportunity for Security Council members to raise the importance of accountability for crimes committed in Syria and voice their strong support for an ICC role, Human Rights Watch said. Of the UN body’s 15 members, 11 are ICC states parties. A referral would give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate grave abuses committed by all sides to the Syria conflict.

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, the treaty establishing the ICC. As a result, the ICC can only obtain jurisdiction over crimes there if the Security Council refers the situation in Syria to the court. The Security Council has made similar referrals twice, for the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005 and Libya in 2011. Russia and China both supported the Libya referral in a unanimous Security Council vote.

The ICC is a permanent international court with a mandate to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity when national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so. The court was created to address exactly the type of situation that exists in Syria today, Human Rights Watch said.

Nine of the current Security Council members have in the past publicly expressed support for referring Syria to the ICC: France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Chile, Lithuania, and Nigeria. The United States and China have remained silent on the court’s involvement. On January 15, 2013, Russia described the effort to seek an ICC referral as “ill-timed and counterproductive.” All three of these countries, as permanent Security Council members, have the power to veto resolutions.

The latest report from the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry, published on March 5, found that all sides to the Syria conflict continued to commit serious crimes under international law and held that the Security Council was failing to take action to end the state of impunity. The commission, which has published seven in-depth reports since its establishment in August 2011, recommended that the Security Council give the ICC a mandate to investigate abuses in Syria.

The UN high commissioner for human rights has also, on multiple occasions, recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to the ICC, most recently during a briefing with the Security Council on April 8. Similarly, 64 countries around the world have voiced their support for the court’s involvement in Syria.
Other countries, particularly Arab countries that have repeatedly expressed concern over the killings in Syria, should join the mounting calls for accountability,

Human Rights Watch said. They should support a referral to the ICC as the forum most capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting those bearing the greatest responsibility for abuses in Syria.

“A referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC would not make up for the Russia-induced complacency of the Security Council so far, but it could mark a turning point in addressing the revolting abuses that have marked the Syrian conflict,” Dicker said. “Russia would be hard-pressed to explain why it wouldn’t want the ICC to go after atrocities committed by government forces and radical rebels alike.”

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