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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Press Conference on Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, 16 October 2012

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law had escalated dramatically in the last months, Paulo Pinheiro, chair of an independent commission of inquiry on Syria, told reporters at Headquarters today.

According to the 1,100 interviews collected by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law were rapidly expanding, Mr. Pinheiro said. The Commission, begun in August 2011 to establish the facts and circumstances of crimes being committed, and, where possible, to identify those responsible, had conducted interviews with people who had fled the violence.

To date, he noted that the Commission had recorded accounts of murder, arbitrary detention, sexual violence and torture, committed by both parties to the conflict — the Syrian Government forces and the Free Syrian Army. However, gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law were more prevalent on the part of the Government. “We’re not seeing that the scale and the gravity is the same,” he remarked.

Joined by Commission member Karen AbuZayd, Mr. Pinheiro said that the Security Council had recently extended the Inquiry’s mandate for a period of six months, and that two additional commissioners, Carla del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn, had been appointed.

Included in the report’s key findings were accounts and information of the presence of “foreign, militant, radical Islamists, or Jihadists” in Syria. However, Mr. Pinherio said, the number of those outside forces was relatively low — only several hundred. Still, their presence was contributing to the radicalization of the conflict and was particularly dangerous in an “already very volatile” environment. While those actors were fighting against the Government forces, he added, they were not necessarily doing so with the same agenda as the Free Syrian Army.

“There is no military solution for the crisis”, he said, referring to the Commission’s report recommendations that the best way to protect human rights in Syria was to end the violence. Emphasizing that a political solution was imperative, he stressed the Commission’s view that the mission of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, would contribute to creating an environment conducive to talks and negotiations towards such a solution.

Ms. AbuZayd said that at the core of the report was the plight of the 1.2 million internally displaced people and the 2.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Syria. The growing number of refugees outside the country was also a concern. Since June, the number of refugees has increased from 100,000 to 350,000 and was still growing. There were also shortages in fuel, water, electricity and other basic needs.

“The economy is going very much downhill rather quickly”, she added, citing an inflation rate of 50 per cent and decline of about 30 per cent in the value of the Syrian pound. Hospitals and schools were being attacked, occupied or used to house internally displaced persons. Many people, afraid to go to the main hospitals for fear that Government forces would come to find them, were, instead, going to underground clinics that were often targets of attacks, as well.

Responding to questions about available evidence of crimes committed and about how that information would be used to hold people accountable, Mr. Pinheiro said “we are not a war crimes tribunal” or a prosecutorial body of any sort. The release of names undermined the fundamental right to the presumption of innocence. It was important to respect due process of law. “This is very complex because there is no credible, accountable mechanism” before which individuals who had been named could address allegations, he said.

The Commission’s job was to “document, to register and to monitor”, he informed correspondents. As part of its mandate, the Commission currently maintained two lists of perpetrators and two lists of units where violations had been committed. “But we don’t have any responsibility in terms of criminal investigation or trial of these individuals”, he said, adding that, as Syria was not party to the Rome Statute, the Security Council was the only body with the competence to do so.

In response to a question about communication between the Commission and armed groups such as foreign militants, Mr. Pinheiro said that the main obstacle was a lack of access into Syria itself. The Commission was, therefore, compelled to conduct its investigation from neighbouring countries, basing its work on the 1,100 interviews collected and from some phone or Skype conversations. Ms. AbuZayd added that the Commission’s information on the armed groups came from the refugee population, who had “told the tales” of persecution.

Asked about the two new members of the Commission, Mr. Pinheiro said that both had much experience in investigations in difficult contexts. “We are happy that we have two more heads thinking,” he said. However, the Commission’s methodology would not change.

On the question of where the foreign militants were coming from, he said that “what we know from interviews is that those combatants are coming from around 11 countries, and not only neighbouring countries”. That matter, however, was not the focus of the Commission’s work. Similarly, on the flow of funds and arms that were allegedly coming in from various countries, Mr. Pinheiro pointed out that the focus of the report was not on that issue and that no specific information was available.

In response to a question regarding last week’s meeting with the Security Council, he said that it had been an excellent occasion to share the Commission’s methodology and to establish “what we are doing”. No other body was engaged in the type of work that the Commission was doing, he stressed, adding that “the best thing that [Member States] can do is invest in our investigative capacity”.

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