The fight against impunity: a prerequisite for peace in Syria


France is committed to ensuring crimes committed in Syria do not go unpunished. This is a matter of conscience and consideration for the countless victims of the violence. And it is also a matter of justice and accountability, so that Syria can rebuild, socially and politically.

France supports the various mechanisms put in place to ensure the perpetrators of human rights and international law violations in Syria are brought to trial.

It is also our responsibility to fight impunity with regard to the crimes committed in Syria. It is a matter of principle and justice. It is also a prerequisite for long-term peace, in a Syrian society that has been torn apart by nearly ten years of conflict.

Op-ed by 14 European Foreign Ministers, February 2020

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, chaired by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, is mandated to document crimes committed in Syria, regardless of the perpetrators. It was established through a resolution of the Human Rights Council in August 2011, and has since been renewed annually.

Because of the Syrian regime’s refusal to grant access, the Commission has to carry out its investigations and interviews with victims outside Syria, largely in neighbouring countries. Its periodic reports cover all violations and crimes committed in Syria, reporting crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM)

The IIIM, or 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 in full, was created in 2016 through a resolution of the UN General Assembly, co-sponsored by France.

The role of the Mechanism is to collect evidence of the most serious violations. This evidence is gathered for use in judicial proceedings. The resolution mandates the IIIM “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses”. Despite being unable to access Syrian territory because of the regime’s refusal to cooperate, the IIIM has collected almost a million exhibits. It works closely with a network of Syrian NGOs, which collect evidence on the ground and provide exhibits for records.

The IIIM’s mandate is wider than that of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic created by the HRC. In addition to establishing facts and identifying perpetrators, it does genuine work to collect, sort and analyse evidence for the preparation of records for future judicial proceedings. By exchanging evidence with judicial authorities (for the moment, national judicial authorities exercising universal or practically universal jurisdiction over serious crimes), the IIIM facilitates such proceedings. As of 13 May 2020, the Mechanism had received 61 requests from courts in 11 States.

The work of French courts

National courts also contribute to fighting impunity, in large part thanks to the practically universal jurisdiction they have for the most serious international crimes.

In September 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs referred a case to the Public Prosecutor, enabling the Paris Prosecutor’s Office to open a preliminary investigation into “crimes against humanity” attributed to the Syrian regime. This investigation notably drew on the tens of thousands of photos of remains taken in military hospitals between 2011 and 2013 by “Caesar”, a Syrian former military photographer.

The National Counterterrorism Prosecutor’s Office has a unit dedicated to crimes against humanity, genocides and war crimes, and is prosecuting crimes committed in Syria.

The fight against impunity for the use of chemical weapons

One of the most tragic aspects of the Syrian conflict is the repeated use of chemical weapons since 2012. In the vast majority of cases, these are attacks by the regime on its people. Successive international mechanisms have helped confirm the use of these banned weapons and identify those responsible. On 8 April 2020, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported, on the basis of an independent, impartial, robust and rigorous investigation, that Syrian Arab Air Force units were responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Ltamenah (24, 25 and 30 March 2017). These investigations have been hampered by the Syrian regime’s systematic refusal to provide information and grant investigators access to its territory.

France is also active within the OPCW and contributes financially to its Syria-related activities.

In January 2018, France launched the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. This Partnership, stemming from an intergovernmental initiative involving 40 States and the European Union, works to fight impunity for the use of chemical weapons across the world.

Within this cooperation forum, participating States have made considerable commitments to collecting and sharing evidence, so as to support judicial proceedings. The aim is also to foster cooperation between States and international mechanisms such as the IIIM, and to name sanctioned individuals and entities. The Partnership’s latest meeting in November 2019 identified legal means of fighting impunity for the use of chemical weapons, including universal jurisdiction and administrative sanctions.

This work produced a guidance document, published on the Partnership’s website, presenting and summarizing these legal tools and helping States to implement them. On 24 April 2020, the partnership also published a statement in response to the published conclusions of the first IIT report.

France also defends the action of the UN Security Council on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

See the website of the Partnership

Why is the International Criminal Court (ICC) not addressing the situation in Syria?

Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC. As such, only in the event of a referral by the UN Security Council can the Court be competent for crimes committed in Syrian territory. In 2014, France sponsored a Security Council resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC, but it was not adopted.

Updated: June 2020