UN has list of top Syrian leaders for crimes probe

The Associated Press reports: The United Nations has a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity carried out by security forces in Syria’s crackdown on an uprising, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said Thursday.

The U.N. experts indicated the list goes as high as President Bashar Assad.

Thousands of Syrians have died in the violence since March and the panel, citing what it called a reliable source, said at least 500 children are among the dead.

“A reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations,” said the report by the U.N.-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

It said the panel gave the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of these people for future investigations. It doesn’t say who these investigating authorities might be, but the U.N.’s top human rights official has previously called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The panel led by Brazilian professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said its list also identifies some armed opposition cells thought to have committed gross abuses.

Experts say the list is likely to be more of a deterrent against further abuses than a direct threat to the Assad regime. Syria isn’t a member of the ICC so its jurisdiction doesn’t apply there, and Russia would likely block any moves in the U.N. Security Council to refer the country to the Hague-based tribunal.

But Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, said anyone on the U.N. list might still be arrested and prosecuted if they traveled from Syria to a country that has signed up to the international court.

“Personally, if I were on that list I would worry,” he said.

As pressure mounts for some kind of tangible response from the international community to the carnage in Syria, there is an escalating risk that politicians eager to be seen as powerful actors rather than passive witnesses, will support measures whose only virtue is that they are something rather than nothing.

Marc Lynch, in reference to the AP report above, tweets: “This is the kind of international human rights pressure I had in mind in my report” — this being his report.

How exactly does this kind of pressure work? Will those who believe they face war crimes charges decide that now’s the time to flee and spend the rest of their lives as fugitives, or perhaps be able to make plea bargains by helping convict their superiors? Or will they on the contrary feel even more convinced that in defending the regime they are fighting for their lives? That, it seems to me, is the much more predictable effect.

Unwinding this civil war depends on constructing a plausible scenario in which both sides can conceive of a tolerable way of surviving. No one is going to choose to spend the rest of their life in prison.

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