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(New York) – Fifty-eight countries issued a statement and letter on May 19, 2014, calling on the United Nations Security Council to adopt a French-proposed resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The countries also urged other UN members to officially endorse the resolution.

On May 12, France circulated a Security Council resolution that would give the ICC a mandate over crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria. The war in Syria has been characterized by impunity for abuses by all parties to the conflict. The resolution was opened for co-sponsorship to the wider UN membership on May 15. The Security Council is set to vote on the resolution on May 22.

On May 15, over 100 nongovernmental organizations from around the world issued a statement urging the Security Council to approve the French-proposed resolution. 

“The movement for justice for victims in Syria is gaining unprecedented momentum,” said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “By officially co-sponsoring the resolution for an ICC referral, countries will be taking a critically important stand for accountability for serious crimes by all sides.”

A broad majority of the 15 Security Council members have publicly backed a role for the ICC in Syria: France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, South Korea, Chile, Lithuania, and Nigeria. To be adopted, a Security Council resolution requires nine affirmative votes, but any of the five permanent members have veto power. Russia, one of the five, expressed objections to such a measure on January 15, 2013, describing efforts to seek a referral as “ill-timed and counterproductive.” The Russian UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the media in two recent statements that Russia’s position had not changed and that the bid to involve the court was not a “good idea.” China, another permanent member, has publicly remained silent on the issue.

Security Council members and other countries that have repeatedly expressed concern over abuses in Syria should co-sponsor the resolution as an expression of support for justice for grave crimes, Human Rights Watch said. They should also press Russia and China not to veto a resolution on accountability for violations by all sides.

The French-proposed resolution includes – as a concession to the United States, diplomats have reported – a provision that would exempt the nationals of non-ICC states parties from the court’s jurisdiction should they participate in operations in Syria mandated by the UN Security Council. The resolution would also impose the entire financial burden of a Syria investigation on ICC states parties, barring any UN funding for prosecutions that result from the Security Council referral. Human Rights Watch regrets both provisions, but believes the resolution as a whole would still advance the cause of justice in Syria.

The UN high commissioner for human rights has on multiple occasions recommended a Security Council referral to the ICC, most recently during a briefing with the Security Council on April 8.

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, or Syria voluntarily accepts ICC jurisdiction. A referral would give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate serious violations of international law by all sides to the Syria conflict. The Security Council has made similar referrals twice previously, for the Darfur region of Sudan in 2005 and for Libya in 2011. In both cases, no permanent member used its veto power to block the resolutions.

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