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UN Finally Authorizes Investigation of War Crimes in Syria

The United Nations General Assembly voted Thursday by an overwhelming majority to investigate charges of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the Syrian Civil War.

The step came five years after the UN first began gathering evidence that war crimes including intentionally killing civilians, using child soldiers, rape, torture, and pillaging had all been committed in Syria during the war. 

The resolution, drafted by Lichtenstein, calls for a team to "collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence" of war crimes that can be used by future courts authorized to prosecute potential cases. 

During the vote, 105 member states voted for the measure, 15 voted against it, and 52 abstained. 

"We have postponed any meaningful action on accountability too often and for too long,” Liechtenstein's UN Ambassador Christian Wenaweser told the General Assembly. "[This has sent] the signal that committing war crimes and crimes against humanity is a strategy that is condoned and has no consequences."

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Syria, however, voiced its opposition to the investigation.

"The establishment of such a mechanism is a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of a UN member state," said Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Jaafari. 

The Syrian civil war has dragged on for nearly six years. Around 400,000 people have been killed during the war, more than 11 million people have been displaced, more than 4 million of whom have fled the country, and the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed by bombs.

Throughout this mayhem, war crimes have been routinely committed.  

Examples of war crimes include “intentionally killing civilians or prisoners, torture, destroying civilian property, taking hostages, perfidy, rape, using child soldiers, pillaging, declaring that no quarter will be given, and using weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.”

In 2011, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria began investigating possible war crimes and has amassed extensive evidence that all of the above examples have been committed in the country.

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Ever since the Assad regime tortured protesters in 2011, the government has shown almost no regard for international norms of war. Rebel groups, especially ISIS, have also routinely committed war crimes.

Other teams such as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability have spent the last several years not just documenting war crimes, but definitively tying crimes to specific individuals at specific times by gathering information from government insiders and those on the frontlines of the Syrian civil war. The group’s emphasis on obtaining original documents is useful because wars devastate a country’s civic society. In the aftermath, it can be hard to distinguish between true and false information and, oftentimes, parties guilty of crimes take advantage of the chaos to destroy evidence against them.  

Official attempts at investigating war crimes are bolstered by citizen journalism. The steady flow of evidence emerging daily on social media — cell phone images and videos of aid envoys destroyed by aerial attacks, chemical weapons dropped on community centers, hospitals bombarded, children slaughtered, people brutally tortured, and so on — is impossible to ignore.  

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It’s unknown whether a war crimes case will ever make it to an international court, and it’s unlikely that any charges will ever be carried out. In 2014, China and Russia vetoed an attempt to refer the Syrian civil war to the International Criminal Court, and it’s likely that they will stymie future attempts. 

Bashar Al-Assad, the architect of the war who has sanctioned countless war crimes, will likely remain in power for the foreseeable future, facing no legal consequences. 

The UN has repeatedly failed to broker a ceasefire and an end to the war in Syria. These failures have damaged the organization’s credibility, since it’s primary function is to prevent war. 

While the new resolution to systematically gather evidence of war crimes may never lead to a prosecution, it could support other ways of punishing the Syrian government. It will also provide a record of the atrocities of the war and will remind people of all the horrors that occurred over the past six years.