General Assembly: 65th plenary meeting, 76th session
Production Date
Video Length
Speaker Name
Geographic Subject
Corporate Name
General Assembly: 65th plenary meeting, 76th session.

The Head of the mechanism established to advance justice in Syria told the General Assembly today that the response to atrocities in the country’s crisis has been inadequate, noting that the mechanism’s relevance depends on addressing those crimes and ensuring accountability.

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011, stressed that the atrocities in Syria are among the most “barbaric since the end of World War Two”.

Presenting the eighth report of the Mechanism (document A/76/690), she recalled that the instrument, created by the Assembly in December 2016, is neither a court nor a tribunal. Instead, it is mandated to particularly assist competent jurisdictions in their pursuit of justice, in particular national courts with jurisdiction for such crimes, and will assist national, regional and international courts or tribunals that may become seized of the Syrian situation in the future.

Citing grave violations of international humanitarian law, she stressed that “the ripple effect of pervasive impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity can be clearly seen today.” Law has a deterrent effect only if those in power believe that they may have to explain their actions in front of a court of justice. “It is hard to dispute that, notwithstanding the tireless efforts of many States and individuals, the response to the Syrian crisis has been inadequate,” she said. However, there is still an opportunity to work towards a future for Syria based on justice and the rule of law.

She noted that the Mechanism is currently cooperating with 13 different jurisdictions and has received more than 180 requests for assistance relating to over 150 distinct investigations. A German court in Koblenz made headlines when it established that crimes against humanity were committed as part of a systematic attack against the civilian population by Syrian forces between April 2011 and September 2012 — with evidence contributed by the Mechanism. The relevance of the Assembly, and the legitimacy of the international system, will not only be judged by the last 11 years of atrocities in Syria, but by whether existing efforts can be built upon to pursue comprehensive accountability. “We must close this chapter and lay the foundation for a future Syria based on the rule of law,” she said.

In the ensuing debate, many delegates affirmed support for the Mechanism as a necessary instrument and potential game-changer in the grinding Syrian conflict.

Turkey’s representative said that for more than a decade, Syria’s people have experienced unimaginable loss under the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more gassed, tortured, disappeared, denied food and sexually abused. Millions have been displaced internally or sought refuge in other States, while chemical weapons have been used as part of the regime’s war on its own people. He urged for the Mechanism to receive adequate funding from the United Nations regular budget. With the Syrian Interim Government and opposition coalition — the legitimate representatives — in close cooperation with the Mechanism, he said: “We cannot change the past, but we can take action today” to uphold the rights and dignity of the country’s people.

The representative of the United States stressed that the Russian Federation has fuelled and perpetuated the war in Syria through reckless and barbaric attacks impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure — and is now using similar tactics in its unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine. “Based on information currently available, we assess that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine”, he said, and used similar tactics in Grozny and in Aleppo. Against this backdrop, it is predictable that the Russian Federation continues to challenge the validity of the Mechanism and its important work. Moscow cannot hide the truth, so it seeks instead to distort it. “It will not succeed because of the bravery of the Syrian people,” he stated.

The delegate of the Netherlands recalled the historic conviction in Germany in January of a senior official of the Government of President Al-Assad for crimes against humanity. That verdict serves as a starting point for future cases. Stressing that the road to justice begins with the truth, she said truth can only be found through independent fact-finding and evidence gathering, often by brave people on the ground who are prepared to risk everything, like Ayham Ghazoul — who was tortured to death — and his colleagues at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, who have faced arbitrary detention and torture and still continue to investigate and preserve evidence of human rights violations.

A number of representatives, however, forcefully opposed the very existence of the Mechanism, stating it marks a major overreach beyond appropriate United Nations bodies and an unacceptable precedent.

Syria’s delegate stressed that his delegation’s participation in today’s debate should not be construed as recognition of the Mechanism, its mandate or credibility. He condemned the grave falsities under which it was established, noting that it is neither legal nor legitimate and contravenes Articles 10, 11, 17 and 22 of the Charter of the United Nations — a clear politicization and evidence of blackmail efforts by certain countries. Syria did not request any technical or legal assistance from the United Nations, he said, further noting the Assembly breached the mandate of the Security Council by establishing a legal entity in clear violation the Charter. All information and evidence documented by the Mechanism are false, he stressed — some of which was even gathered from open sources or terrorist organizations, including the so-called “White Helmets”. Calling for accountability for those with illegal military forces in Syria, who support terrorist militias or exercise economic terrorism through unilateral coercive measures, he demanded: “Don’t these actions rise to the level of crimes against humanity?”

In a similar vein, Iran’s delegate said that for decades, the Middle East has been “one of the most active hotspots for geopolitical games”, its people suffering from sanctions, war, foreign occupation and terrorism under geopolitical rivalries and expansionist policies. Expressing regret over the politicization of justice, the weaponization of human rights and the misuse of United Nations bodies, he noted the human dignity and rights of people in the Middle East and Africa are not considered as important as those experiencing recent events in Eastern Europe. The work and outcome of the Mechanism have unfortunately been conducted in confidentiality, which seriously undermines United Nations transparency and accountability.

Cuba’s representative echoed those sentiments, noting the Mechanism has no precedent in the history of the United Nations and deliberately undermines the primary responsibility held by Syria’s judicial system to investigate and try crimes committed on that country’s territory. That violation of the norms and principles of international law sets a dangerous precedent. The Mechanism has no legal foundation, and its creation strays outside the authorization bestowed on the Assembly by Articles 10, 12 and 22 of the Charter of the United Nations. Calling it a subsidiary body of the Assembly means that it and its personnel enjoy inappropriate legal characteristics and immunities. He stressed that mechanisms of this type must not be financed by Member States’ assessed contributions, particularly if they do not enjoy the consent of the country concerned.

The representative of Ukraine connected the Syrian crisis with the Russian Federation’s current aggression against his country, calling it a repeat out of Moscow’s playbook. He noted Ukraine will continue to support the Mechanism and a sustainable political solution of the conflict in Syria and recalled that the political transition should be implemented in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) and the 2012 Geneva communiqué.

The Russian Federation’s delegate, however, said the Mechanism’s creation is a gross violation of the norms and principles of international law with the General Assembly acting ultra vires, making its conclusions and alleged evidence unusable in national or international criminal proceedings. The Mechanism was created for the West’s geopolitical ambitions but “functions using our money”, he stated, and does not disclose sources of evidence.

Also speaking were the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Guatemala, as well as the representatives of Finland (speaking on behalf of the Nordic Countries), Croatia, Canada, Costa Rica, Germany, Australia, Qatar, Liechtenstein, Czech Republic, Italy, Malta, Switzerland, Estonia, Luxembourg, New Zealand, France, Albania, Austria, Japan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Belgium, Slovakia, China, Venezuela, Mexico, Ireland, Georgia and United Kingdom.

The representative of the European Union also spoke.

The representatives of Syria, Iran, Russian Federation and Ukraine spoke in exercise of the right of reply.

In other business, the Assembly took up the draft resolution “Doha Programme of Action for the Least Developed Countries” (document A/76/L.47).

The representative of Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, introducing that text, stressed that sustainable, inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require immediate, concerted action and a new generation of revived global partnership. The Doha Programme of Action is a step in that direction, and its full implementation will help least-developed countries address the ongoing pandemic and its negative socioeconomic impacts, return to the path of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, tackle climate change and progress towards sustainable, irreversible graduation.

The Assembly then adopted the resolution without a vote.

The representatives of Malawi (speaking on behalf of the Group of Least Developed Countries), China and the Russian Federation spoke in explanation of position after adoption.