(New York) – Justice for Syrian victims and accountability for those who have committed grave abuses should be on the agenda at United Nations-mediated peace talks in Geneva. The Syrian government and major Syrian opposition groups will meet in Geneva on March 15, 2016, at UN-brokered talks as the conflict in Syria turns five years old.

Relatives mourn as a man carries the body of a dead boy in a blanket at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Sheikh Khodr area in Aleppo on September 30, 2014.

“While it is urgent to stop the killing and ensure aid delivery, any resolution to the conflict that is going to last must also ensure justice for Syria’s victims,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “There should be no immunity for anyone linked to serious crimes, and after five years of devastating conflict, there should be no deal that ignores the victims.”

While it is urgent to stop the killing and ensure aid delivery, any resolution to the conflict that’s going to last must also ensure justice for Syria’s victims.

Nadim Houry

Deputy Middle East Director

According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent Syrian research organization, the death toll from the conflict reached 470,000 Syrians as of February 2016. The spread and intensification of fighting has led to a dire humanitarian crisis, with 6.6 million internally displaced people and 4.6 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Human Rights Watch urged the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a group of countries co-chaired by the United States and Russia working to find a solution for the Syria crisis, and the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, to ensure that the talks include substantive discussions on ways to end rampant human rights abuses and ensure justice for the victims.

Proposals to grant immunity to anyone implicated in serious crimes should be rejected. The parties should also make a commitment to review and amend any provision in Syrian law that grants immunity to security forces or any other public official for serious crimes. The parties should also ensure that the country’s criminal justice system is equipped to address serious crimes, alongside other judicial mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the UN Security Council to give the ICC a mandate in Syria.

Broader truth-telling mechanisms, reparations, and vetting to bar rights abusers from official positions will also be needed as part of the process, Human Rights Watch said. As a minimum element of any transitional process in Syria, individuals against whom there is credible evidence of involvement in torture or other serious crimes should not have positions of authority in the security forces. Any agreement should also include a commitment by the negotiating parties to a national commission with a mandate to reveal the fate of the disappeared and to investigate torture, executions, and other major human rights violations. The commission should complement the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry and include both Syrian and international members.

Over the last five years, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented and condemned widespread violations by Syrian government security forces and officials, including extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings of civilians, enforced disappearances, use of torture, use of incendiary and chemical weapons, use of cluster munitions, and arbitrary detentions. Human Rights Watch has concluded that government forces have committed war crimes and 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.

International efforts to ensure credible justice for these and other ongoing grave human rights crimes in Syria have proved elusive. In May 2014, Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution that would have referred the situation in Syria to the ICC. Over 100 nongovernmental organizations urged the Security Council to approve the resolution, more than 60 countries co-sponsored it, and 13 of the council’s 15 members voted for it.

In December 2015, the Security Council adopted resolution 2254, endorsing a road map for a peace process in Syria and tasked the UN with facilitating talks between the government and opposition. While the resolution highlighted the need for all parties to end attacks on civilians, allow access to aid groups, and develop a political process to resolve the crisis, it did not include an explicit reference to justice.

As Syrian families wait to find out the fate of relatives who disappeared, the Syrian government should grant international monitors immediate, unrestricted access to all of its detention facilities and release all arbitrarily detained and political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said. Russia and Iran, as the main backers of the government, have a particular responsibility to press Syria for immediate and unhindered access for recognized international monitors to detention sites.

While a cessation of hostilities negotiated on February 12 has reduced the daily toll of casualties and put access to humanitarian aid at the forefront of negotiations, violations of the cessation still makes it difficult for nongovernmental groups to deliver aid to besieged areas. The Syrian government has also hindered the process of delivering aid to besieged areas by delaying permission for the UN and other aid organizations to enter besieged towns to deliver lifesaving aid, aid agencies have reported.

“Syria’s inferno began five years ago after security forces shot at protesters and tortured children in Daraa,” Houry said. “For this conflict to end, Syria’s victims need to feel that the root causes have been addressed.”