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Press conference of Ms. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011

5 September 2017

Mesdames et messieurs de la presse,

C’est aujourd’hui ma première occasion de m’entretenir avec vous depuis ma nomination par le Secrétaire général le 3 juillet dernier à la tête du Mécanisme international, impartial et indépendant chargé de faciliter les enquêtes sur les violations les plus graves du droit international commises en République arabe syrienne depuis mars 2011 et d’aider à juger les personnes qui en sont responsables.

Comme vous le savez, depuis 2011, avec l’intensification des violences en Syrie, puis le développement de la situation en un conflit armé, diverses entités, y compris des instances spécialisées des Nations Unies, la société civile et les médias, ont dénoncé la commission d’innombrables atrocités commises par les diverses parties. Les actes en question peuvent, selon les circonstances, constituer des crimes internationaux, notamment des crimes contre l’humanité et des crimes de guerre.

C’est afin d’éviter l’impunité pour ces crimes que l’Assemblée générale a, le 21 décembre 2016, créé le Mécanisme. Par la résolution 71/248, l’Assemblée générale vise à faciliter les enquêtes sur les violations les plus graves du droit international commises en République arabe syrienne depuis mars 2011 et à aider à juger les personnes qui en sont responsables. La résolution souligne l’importance de rendre justice à toutes les victimes et de prévenir de future violations, ainsi que les relations entre ce processus et celui politique engagé pour régler la crise en Syrie.

Je me sens à la fois fière et particulièrement humble d’avoir été choisie pour relever ce défi si important pour le peuple de Syrie et pour éviter que les crimes qui ont fait tant de victimes depuis plus de six ans que le conflit fait rage dans ce pays ne restent impunis.

Grace à son mandat défini par l’Assemblée générale et aux termes de référence adoptés par le Secrétaire général, le Mécanisme ouvre la voie à un nouvel instrument de justice transitionnelle. L’Assemblée générale a demandé à tous les États et à toutes les parties au conflit, ainsi qu’à la société civile, de coopérer pleinement avec le Mécanisme.

Je tiens à remercier ici le Haut-Commissaire aux droits de l’homme et sa Conseillère principale en politique juridique qui a dirigé la petite équipe connue sous le nom de ‘start-up team’ qui a précédé mon entrée en fonctions. Leur soutien et le travail remarquable accompli par cette équipe me permettent aujourd’hui de débuter les travaux du Mécanisme dans les meilleures conditions.

Si vous le permettez je vais poursuivre en anglais.

The mandate of the Mechanism is innovative in many ways, including in that the Mechanism is neither a prosecution office nor a court. Its mandate is two-fold: on the one hand, it is tasked with collecting, consolidating, preserving and analysing such information and evidence; on the other hand, with 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.

The Mechanism is starting its operations more than six years into the conflict. It is an independent entity but it does not operate in a vacuum. It should build extensively on the information and evidence already collected and continuing to be gathered by others. Therefore, establishing a relationship of trust with these stakeholders is key for the success of the Mechanism.

In line with these priorities, I am engaging with the Commission of Inquiry, a privileged interlocutor for the Mechanism. Our respective mandates are complementary. In parallel, I am also engaging with Syrian and international civil society actors. Since violent unrest erupted in March 2011 and as the country descended into armed conflict, all of these entities have been extensively documenting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, some of which may amount to international crimes, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. The material they have gathered is an integral part of what the Mechanism will seek access to, with a view to implementing its mandate.

Where appropriate, the Mechanism shall also itself gather additional material, through its own investigations including interviews, witness testimony, documentation and forensic material. This will be the case, in particular, when gaps are identified in the material collected from other entities or individuals. Experience shows that when analysing files, there is often the need to reinforce their evidentiary basis in the area of linkage between the crime itself and those who, while they may sit far from the battlefield, may be criminally responsible; and as it relates to the mental element of the crime.

States are undeniably among the entities relevant to both prongs of the Mechanism’s mandate. This is not only because they, including Syria where the alleged crimes have been and are being committed, as well as a number of other States, are likely to possess relevant information and evidence. This is also because hopefully the files or material collected and collated by the Mechanism may be used before their courts to further accountability for crimes committed in Syria. I stress that among all States, the Syrian Arab Republic has primary responsibility to undertake prompt independent, impartial, thorough and credible investigations and prosecutions of the crimes in question. In addition, other States may have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria, including based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. Indeed, to date a number of States have already undertaken efforts to investigate and prosecute such crimes.

On 10 August 2017, the Mechanism sent a note verbale to all Permanent Missions to the United Nations in Geneva in which I offered to meet with their representatives if they so wish. Several States have already responded to it and I am in contact with them. In engaging with States, I will seek to explore their willingness to provide the Mechanism with access to relevant information and evidence in their possession. I will also enquire as to whether their national laws and procedures enable their full cooperation with the Mechanism, both proactively and at the Mechanism’s request, as well as their use of the files and material prepared by the Mechanism. The Mechanism will only share its material with those States that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes and that respect international human rights law and standards. This includes the right to a fair trial, and is conditional on the death penalty not being applied to cases before their courts, where the material provided by the Mechanism may be used.

Apart from establishing and fostering these essential relationships, my short-term plan involves a number of priorities, including the recruitment of the Mechanism’s team, the adoption of the internal procedures and methods of work, and the setting up of secured ways of receiving information from entities and individuals. The Syrian conflict has been taglined as the most recorded conflict in the world. The volume and variety of potentially relevant electronic data collected by individuals, NGOs and other entities is unprecedented. Consequently, identifying and acquiring Information technology best able to safely process the sheer volume of material to be collected by the Mechanism is also among the key priorities.

Established against a background of daunting allegations of international crimes and of flagrant impunity, the Mechanism is globally raising important hopes and expectations not least on the part of Syrian victims and the civilian population at large. I am inspired by their dignity and fortitude and draw strength from their courage as I begin the difficult work ahead as Head of the Mechanism. No doubt, there will be many challenges and even obstacles on the way, but I am confident that all these hopes and expectations and even the challenges will motivate me to give the best of my abilities, integrity and energy to lead this institution and ensure that it becomes a milestone in the fight against impunity for the horrific crimes committed in Syria.

I thank you for your attention and I am available to answer questions.

Geneva, 5 September 2017