David M. Crane Assists the UN in Setting Up an Independent Justice Mechanism for Syria

Following his work helping to draft a United Nations resolution “to establish a special team to ‘collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence’ as well as to prepare cases on war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the conflict in Syria,” INSCT Affiliated Faculty Member David Crane, Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law, is now assisting the UN in setting up the independent justice mechanism required by the resolution, which was passed on Dec. 21, 2016.

“This is an important political step by the Secretary-General. It procedurally steps around the grid-locked UN Security Council to set up an office that will eventually lead to accountability for the crimes against the Syrian people.”

According to the UN News Centre, the independent justice mechanism will be established in phases, and UN Secretary-General Antonió Guterres will announce the mechanism’s head by the end of February 2017. Meanwhile, Crane has been asked by Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad of Jordan, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, to help draft the mechanism’s “Terms of Reference,” to define the purpose, scope, and structure of the mechanism.

One important phase toward setting up the mechanism—formally called the “International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes Under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic Since March 2011”—was passed on Jan. 26, 2016. As reported by UN News Centre, “The United Nations … announced that the mechanism will be headed by a senior judge or prosecutor with extensive criminal investigations and prosecutions experience.” The mechanism’s head will be assisted by a deputy and a secretariat.

The UN New Centre notes that the mechanism will begin with two purposes: “collecting, consolidating, preserving, and analyzing evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses” and “preparing files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes, in accordance with international law.” The UN also announced that the mechanism will cooperate with, but will be separate from, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

“For the first time the United Nations has set up a permanent office to officially begin the process of collecting data concerning the civil war in Syria and to turn it into evidence for a future local, regional, or international prosecutor,” says Crane. “This is an important political step by the Secretary-General. It procedurally steps around the grid-locked UN Security Council to set up an office that will eventually lead to accountability for the crimes against the Syrian people.”

The mechanism will build on information from Syria already being collected by various justice and human rights groups, including the Syrian Accountability Project (SAP), a group led by Crane and staffed by students at SU Law. Many TV images, photographs, news reports, and social media posts from Syria appear to show a wide variety of war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as torture, chemical attacks, sexual violence, attacks on civilians, siege, denial of humanitarian aid, and more. Not all these documentary or eye-witness accounts can be used in a court, but to find evidence that can be, all accounts must be carefully collected, filed, and analyzed. The UN’s independent justice mechanism has the potential to expedite and standardize this effort.