Today, the UN Secretary-General appointed Catherine Marchi-Uhel to head a new UN team tasked with investigating serious crimes committed in Syria since 2011. For victims who have known nothing but suffering, despair and abandonment, the creation of this team represents a small step in the difficult struggle for justice, redress and an end to impunity that has marked the bloody conflict.

The General Assembly voted on a draft resolution establishing an investigative mechanism in Syria on December 21, 2016. The text was adopted by a vote of 105 countries in favor. 

© 2016 United Nations

The UN General Assembly created the team, formally referred to as the “International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism,” in an unprecedented resolution passed last December in response to Russia’s relentless obstruction on Syria at the Security Council, where it has used its veto eight times since 2011 to block council action on the Syrian conflict. The team will work to gather, preserve and analyze potential evidence for use in courts that may have a mandate over these crimes now or in the future. Similar to a prosecutor’s office, the team will also prepare files on specific individuals to facilitate criminal proceedings.

Marchi-Uhel’s appointment is part of a push to bring justice to victims in Syria despite the blockages that exist. She has extensive international criminal law experience and was previously head of chambers at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, among other posts. Marchi-Uhel will undoubtedly face challenges ahead, including developing strong cases, building bridges with victims, collaborating with other documentation groups, as well as ensuring financial and diplomatic support from states. The UN team’s estimated cost for the first year is about $13-million; as of June, it had received pledges of a little more than $6-million from 26 countries. It’s essential for all UN member states to help close the funding gap. The team is expected to have a staff of 50 when it reaches its full size.

The creation of the team, along with other documentation efforts, are a critical part of the long march to justice for Syria’s victims after years of unchecked atrocities. Several countries, including Sweden, Germany, and France, are already in the process of investigating some individuals alleged to have committed serious crimes such as torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. The UN team under the leadership of Marchi-Uhel can further contribute to these efforts. Their work should help to ensure that the horrendous atrocities committed in Syria over the past six years cannot be swept away with a veto.