The fight against impunity: a prerequisite for peace in Syria


Over the ten years of war in Syria, the Syrian people have been victim of large-scale violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. A number of these violations constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Syrian regime and Daesh are responsible for most of these atrocities.
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 international crimes and international law violations in Syria are brought to trial, including members of Daesh.

We will not remain silent in the face of the atrocities that have taken place in Syria, for which the regime and its external supporters bear the main responsibility. Many of these crimes, including the ones committed by Daesh and other armed groups, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is everyone’s responsibility to fight impunity and demand accountability for the crimes committed in Syria regardless of the perpetrator.

Op-ed by 18 European Foreign Ministers, April 2021

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 (HRC) 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 full name of the IIIM is the Impartial and Independent International Mechanism. It is tasked with facilitating investigations of the gravest violations of international law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 and helping prosecute the perpetrators. It was created in 2016 through a resolution of the UN General Assembly, co-sponsored by France.

The IIIM’s role is to collect evidence of the most serious violations committed in Syria. This evidence is gathered for use in regional, national or international 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”. Without being able to access Syria – since the regime refuses to cooperate – the IIIM’s work is solely based on evidence collected from or in third countries, mainly provided by judicial authorities. The IIIM works closely with a network of Syrian NGOs, which collect evidence on the ground and provide exhibits for records. The IIIM has collected nearly one million pieces of evidence.

Because it was created by a UN resolution, 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 some have for the most serious international crimes. In 2012, France gave itself the means to pursue perpetrators of these crimes by creating, within the Paris Court of Justice, a specialized unit in charge of fighting crimes against humanity and war crimes. This unit is now part of the specialized National Counterterrorism Prosecutor’s Office. This Office currently deals with cases relating to crimes committed in Syria.

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” committed by the Syrian regime. This investigation 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. Several judicial proceedings have resulted from this investigation and are ongoing.

In Germany, courts are also working on this priority. In February 2021, the Court of Koblenz sentenced a former member of Syrian Secret Services to four and a half years in prison for crimes against humanity. It was the first decision of this type to be handed down.

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 confirmed the use of these banned weapons and identified those responsible.
In addition to its actions in support of the various international mechanisms, France defends the Security Council’s efforts to fight the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

France’s action alongside the OPCW

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 were hampered by the Syrian regime’s systematic refusal to provide information and grant investigators access to its territory.

In July 2020, in reaction to the conclusions of this IIT report, the OPCW Executive Council adopted the Decision Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic put forward by France on behalf of 40 delegations. This decision called on the Syrian regime to comply with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). No response has been provided by the Syrian regime, as the OPCW Director-General confirmed in his report on the implementation of this Decision published in October 2020. The 25th Conference of the States Parties to the CWC adjudicated on this basis.

On 12 April 2021, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) released its second report. This new report, the result of independent and impartial work, identifies perpetrators of chemical weapons use in an attack on the city of Saraqib in Syria on 4 February 2018. On this occasion, the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs recalled in a statement that France considers “the Syrian regime’s undocumented and irrefutable use of these weapons is unacceptable. We reiterate our strong condemnation of any use of chemical weapons anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances.”

On 21 April 2021, the 25th Conference of States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) adopted the decision "Addressing the Possession and Use of Chemical Weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic”, put forward by France on behalf of 46 delegations.

The Conference’s decision, taken on the basis of the Executive Council recommendations of July 2020 and Article XII of the Convention, suspends Syria’s voting rights and prevents it from standing for election to the Executive Council and subsidiary bodies of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). If it is to restore these rights, Syria must comply with its international obligations under the CWC.

On this occasion, the Spokesperson of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs underscored in a statementthat “in adopting this decision, the States Parties to the OPCW recall that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable anywhere, at any time, by anyone, under any circumstances and that repeated violations of the Convention will not go unpunished. This is a first step in the fight against impunity”.

France is active within the OPCW and contributes financially to its Syria-related activities. In 2021, a new voluntary contribution of €1 million to the CWC Special Fund for the missions in Syria was announced by the Permanent Representative of France to the OPCW. This was announced at the 96th session of the OPCW Executive Council in March 2021, bringing the total amount of French voluntary contributions since 2016 for OPCW activities in Syria to nearly €2.5 million.

The International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons

In January 2018, France launched the International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons. This Partnership is the fruit of an intergovernmental initiative including 40 States and the European Union and is working 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. Its aim is also to foster cooperation between States and international mechanisms such as the IIIM, and to disclose the names of sanctioned individuals and entities.

In 2019, the Partnership identified universal jurisdiction and administrative sanctions as the legal means of fighting impunity for the use of chemical weapons. These legal tools are presented and summarized in a policy paper, published on the Partnership’s website, in order to help States willing to implement them. On 24 April 2020, the Partnership also published a statement in response to the published conclusions of the first IIT report.

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.

April 2021