Up to half a million people have died in Syria since 2011, but not a single person has been brought to trial. With the departure this week of Carla Del Ponte from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, it is possible that they never will.
Del Ponte began her mission in September 2012, and has finally given up and declared her failure. Despite her vast experience in investigating war crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, she was defeated by Syria. It is, she said, the worst war she has seen.
Despite this failure, we cannot but thank her and the international team for their efforts. There were no trials, but not because there are no criminals and no evidence. Crimes were committed against the Syrian people that would not have happened had it not been for the evil of some world powers and the complacency of others.
The war in Syria is not like the one in Yugoslavia, where people fought each other after the collapse of a regime, or in Rwanda, where tribes fought each other. In Syria, a regime is committing crimes against its own civilian population. It shelled neighborhoods with barrel bombs and artillery simply because of the weakness of its forces and defection of its soldiers. It could not have fought otherwise.
What makes Syria similar to Bosnia is the targeting of civilians in order to displace them and eliminate the possibility of the establishment of an authority on any liberated ground. The difference between the two tragedies is that in Syria the crime was committed by a regime that still stands and very few sides jumped to the aid of those who were targeted.
Del Ponte also explained her resignation by saying Syria was now bereft of forces for good, and only evildoers are left to fight each other. There are war criminals on both sides, she said. This is partially true, especially during the last phase, but it does not give an international organization an excuse to abandon its duty. Instead of withdrawing, why does it not prosecute all the perpetrators of war crimes, from the government to the opposition?
Such trials would need no further evidence, because there is already evidence aplenty. “If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities,” an international report compiled three years ago, contained 28,000 photographs that shocked the world.
The UN’s top investigator has quit and justice seems elusive, but anyone who agrees to ‘forgive and forget’ has blood on their hands.
None of the victims was killed on the battlefield, but rather in the basements of regime prisons. All the photographs were taken by the regime itself. The crimes were documented to show that its workers, from torturers to wardens, were fulfilling their duties. The photographs were leaked by people who could not remain silent. These are internationally recognized documents. They were verified by international organizations, some of which are even affiliated with the UN itself.
There are enough documented and proven crimes to convict the Syrian regime. There is also evidence to convict some of the extremist opposition groups. They, too, deserve to be held accountable.
There is no excuse for failing to put war criminals on trial. That the opposition is no longer any better than the regime does not justify turning a blind eye and shirking one’s responsibilities.
Those who speak confidently and gladly of a political solution, an end to the war and burying the past are delusional in believing that millions of Syrians could return to their homes and forget, as if the crimes of the past six-and-a-half years and the half a million dead were just a television series that they can shut off and then go to sleep.
Several people in our world will not be able to close their eyes. What happened cannot be forgiven because governments chose to forget and forgive and opted to reward the murderers with power and privileges.
Whoever signs their name on such a wrongful and unjust deal will have it covered in blood like the regimes in Damascus, Tehran and their allies.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya News Channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.