Wednesday August 09, 2017

Investigator Carla del Ponte quits UN Syrian war crimes panel, says it's 'going nowhere'

Carla del Ponte, Member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Carla del Ponte, Member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Listen 6:37

In 2012, the former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte joined the UN commission of inquiry investigating human rights abuses in Syria.

She was a significant addition — having risen to prominence for her work investigating war crimes and abuses in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
 
Now, she's a significant subtraction. This week, Del Ponte resigned from the commission — saying the investigative panel was, quote, "going nowhere."

Carla del Ponte spoke with As it Happens guest host Rosemary Barton from Geneva, Switzerland.

Here is some of their conversation.

'It is a protest on my side, because the commission becomes an alibi for the international community, for the Security Council: doing nothing, but doing something.' - Former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte

Tell us why you've resigned from this UN panel investigating potential war crimes in Syria.

Shortly, I can tell you that I resigned because the commission has done the work [it] was entitled to do through the mandate of the council of human rights: the initial investigation of violation of human rights, commission of crimes against humanity, and war crimes in the armed conflict in Syria.

But further — nothing happened. Myself and the other commissioner tried to persuade the Security Council to institute an international tribunal, or defer to the permanent court. But the Security Council has done nothing.

And this is because the Security Council — whenever it tries to do anything on Syria — is perpetually blocked by Russia or China.

Yes, particularly the veto right of Russia, yes. And so it is a protest on my side, because the commission becomes an alibi for the international community, for the Security Council: doing nothing, but doing something. It was a great work that was done from the commission. But it's not enough. It must be further investigated, collect further evidence, and so on.

Switzerland UN Syria War Crimes

(Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Tell people what kinds of evidence you have seen that would support a war crimes prosecution.

I will stay hours here to explain you that. During the conflict, the killing of civilians, the torture of civilians, and so on: that is the crime base. But after, you must identify the perpetrators. And you must collect evidence of the guilt of the perpetrators — through witness investigation, documents, and so on.

You are known for the work that you did as a prosecutor for crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda — very different kinds of conflicts. And of course, the conflict in Syria is ongoing. How is it different than what you've done before?

'It will be great if my provocation will cause a positive reaction. But who knows? It is for my conscience that I quit, because I cannot stay further in this commission.'  -Carla del Ponte

My personal opinion is that the crimes that are committed in Syria are more cruel, more ferocious.

For example, the torture [of] the detainees — they are doing the sort of tortures that I never saw. Or the killing of children. That is incredible. Or torture of children, and the killing of women. No respect for human life. That is what I never saw in other cases. It is incredible. And tragic for Syria.  

Would you say that it is worse than Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia?

Yes. It is. In my view, it is. 

Given that, and given all your experience — and given that the people of Syria feel abandoned, do you not feel that it is perhaps the wrong thing to do, to walk away from this?

'I want to have the instruments to be able to obtain justice, not just to sit in an office and make a list of crimes. I want to go back as a prosecutor.' - Carla del Ponte

I hope not. I hope not — particulary for the Syrians, because I hope they will understand that this commission, [which has] done good work at the beginning, in the first years, but now nothing is doing further, to obtain justice for the victims.

That's the reason why. I'm ready to go back to the tribunal to be a prosecutor, but not to stay in the commission looking at how the international community is doing nothing to obtain justice.   

Do you really think that by leaving, it will have any impact — given how long this conflict has gone on, and how difficult it seems to be for the world to solve?

es, it's true — it will be great if my provocation will cause a positive reaction. But who knows? It is for my conscience that I quit, because I cannot stay further in this commission. 

What do you think is going to happen in Syria?

Syria must try to achieve peace.  [Syrian UN envoy Steffan] de Mistura is doing great work in the negotiation. In the former Yugoslavia it was the United States that acted as a primus to obtain peace. Here, it must be Russia. So we will see. We hope that with time, finally peace for the poor Syrians, civilians.

"Only with justice can you obtain a real peace. Syria is today a total impunity. What a pity." - Carla del Ponte

The problem with Syria — certainly you seem to have suggested this — is that there are no good guys there. So how difficult will prosecution be?

The only real problem for a Syria tribunal is that there will be so many cases — seven years of crimes, and different parties involved.

Don't forget that the Yugoslavia tribunal, after one year — and the conflict was ongoing — the Security Council adopted the resolution for an international tribunal. That was fantastic, because only with justice can you obtain a real peace. Syria is today a total impunity. What a pity.

I'm ready to go back, but I want to have the instruments to be able to obtain justice, not just to sit in an office and make a list of crimes. I want to go back as a prosecutor.

The transcript of this interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to the full interview with Carla del Ponte.