One of the defining aspects of Syria’s civil war has been the unspeakable atrocities committed against civilians. Barrel bombs, chemical weapons attacks, forced disappearances and torture have been inflicted on Syrian civilians for over a decade. As of 2021, human rights monitors believe that over 100,000 Syrians remain forcibly disappeared and nearly 15,000 have been tortured to death at the hands of regime forces. As we approach the 12-year anniversary of the conflict, there is still little justice for Syrians or accountability for the Assad regime, extremist groups and other parties to the conflict that have committed these atrocities.
In 2016, the U.N. General Assembly established the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM), after vetoes in the U.N. Security Council prevented referral of the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court. IIIM Head Catherine Marchi-Uhel discusses the obstacles to this work, the progress made to date and what lessons it can provide for delivering accountability and justice in other conflicts.
The Event Extra podcast offers one-on-one interviews with some of the policymakers, practitioners and leaders who spoke at U.S. Institute of Peace events. Each episode highlights their ideas on areas of conflict and how to achieve peace.
Adam Gallagher: Welcome, let me introduce us. You're Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, or the IIIM for Syria. And I'm Adam Gallagher, managing editor for usip.org. One of the defining aspects of Syria's civil war has been the unspeakable atrocities committed against civilians. In the early days of the conflict stories emerged of teenage protesters, mutilated corpses being dumped on the stoops of their families' home by regime forces, barrel bombs, chemical weapons attacks, forced disappearances and torture have been inflicted on Syrian civilians for over a decade. As of 2021 human rights monitors believe that over 100,000 Syrians remained forcibly displaced, disappeared rather, and nearly 15,000 have been tortured to death at the hands of regime forces. As we approach the 12-year anniversary of the conflict with the Assad regime firmly in power, there is still little justice for Syrians or accountability for the Assad regime, extremist groups and other parties to the conflict that have committed these atrocities. The IIIM was created as a justice facilitator in 2016 after vetoes in the U.N. Security Council prevented referral of the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court. Thanks for joining us today. Catherine. I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about the unprecedented nature of the IIIM's mission as a justice facilitator, and then talk about some of the major challenges and obstacles you face in your work.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel: Thanks, Adam. Well, as you as you said, we've been created as a justice facilitator in a in a quite unique situation in a way where a very large documentation of atrocity crimes and other human rights violation had been undertaken by a number of different entities, including U.N. entities like the commission of inquiry for Syria, but also, you know, Syrian citizens themselves, states, other organizations, international organization, and what was lacking in the context of the veto that you you spoke to, was an entity that would try to centralize and preserve the material accumulated, but would also start the analytical work that is required, with a view to to be able to prosecute those those crimes, potentially, at some stage in an international criminal court setting, but at least at the moment, in terms of an entity capable of facilitating justice before a number of national courts that are undertaken to investigate, investigate those crimes.
Adam Gallagher: So can you tell us a little bit about the progress that the IIIM has helped made in delivering justice and accountability for Syrians today?
Catherine Marchi-Uhel: Well, the first, the first, progress really is the having this central repository, not only a resource that exists and is preserved for future accountability, but that is made searchable, were using technology to make searchable certain aspects of the repository, which are more difficult to search, ranging from documents, which are not always in a good quality, the way they've been collected, etc., makes it difficult to apply, you know, automatic search. So we developed tools for that. We have large amounts of video material and images, which again, are not necessarily the most easy type of records to search, when you're looking for specific information, you have this volume, and you need to identify the relevant pieces. So again, technology can can help including artificial artificial intelligence and assisted techniques. But we we wouldn't be, I would say, in a good way in a good progress on the mandate, if we only had constituted a central repository. What's really important in terms of progress is the fact that we've developed relationships with now 15 jurisdictions, and we have received an important amount of requests for assistance from this jurisdiction, we've been able to respond to those requests. So, so far 230 requests for assistance from these 15 jurisdictions. And just to give you an idea of the the volume of investigations that are related to these, it's 188 distinct investigations.
Adam Gallagher: Can you talk a little bit more about how the IIIM has worked, both in a sort of bottom up nature with civil society, but then also with states as well?
Catherine Marchi-Uhel: So relationship with civil society is extremely important, as you've understood, we are formally required to gather documentation that has been put together and sometimes exfiltrated, sometimes obtained from outside of Syria. And we, we cannot do this part of our job without having a relationship of trust with the Syrian civil society organization, and other civil society organizations that are involved in that work. From the point of view of engagement, it's, it's been very clear to me from the outset, and it was what they were expecting that it had to be a two way engagement. We couldn't be just asking them to share the materials with us, or to share relevant information about the context with us and say, well, that doesn't work the other side, we have to reach a point where, particularly with those who are working very, I mean, really, very regularly with us, where, for instance, we indeed, to the extent possible can share with them feedback on the use that we're making of the material they share with us. And that requires to work also with the recipient jurisdiction to obtain permission to share that kind of information.
Adam Gallagher: Yeah, I mean, the scope of what you're doing at the IIIM is so vast, and I think, you know, transitioning into thinking about well, how the IIIM can be a model or an experience that other for other conflicts where justice and accountability is lacking. I'm wondering if you can talk about what lessons that you've learned from the IIIM and that the international community should learn that can then be used in other conflict settings?
Catherine Marchi-Uhel: Yes. So probably, I should say that while we were quite unique, in our kind, when we were established, there have been other continuity mechanisms established after that, probably the the one that is the closest in terms of of mandate is the Myanmar mechanism. We were established by the General Assembly, the Myanmar mechanism was established by the Human Rights Council. But in terms of type of mandate, there are a lot of similarities and differences as well, of course, there are other contributing mechanism in situ in the countries where crimes alleged, have taken place. And here we're talking, I'm thinking particularly of U.N. mechanisms established by the Security Council. So, you know, I am not going to present the the mechanism as a model, I think it's clearly not for me to say but but we've learned lessons, that's clear, right? We've learned lessons that we have shared with a number of interlocutors on how to potentially speed up the face of establishment once the mandate is created. Because we were the first of this kind, we had to develop a number of processes we had to engage, including within the U.N. to identify ways in, particularly in the area of technology, where we were going to equip the mechanism with the type of systems and technologies that it needed. We developed what I think is quite, I wouldn't say and unique but quite a milestone for us. We developed this concept of victim centered approach, what does it mean in the context of mechanisms like ours, I'm not pretending for instance, that the courts, including international courts don't have a victim centered approach. But they have one that is really tailored to the type of work they do. We're not a court. So we had to invent a form of form of engagement with victims and survivors of very different communities, which makes it more complicated. In the case of Syria, we had to develop pillars of that approach, I mean, ways to, to consult those, those communities. And this is something we've started doing but which of course, needs to continue to develop, we had to look at how to make our approach inclusive, inclusive, inclusive in the in the sense of serving inclusive justice. And for that we developed various strategies. We very recently launched our gender strategy which is really looking at how to make sure that certain an important part of the population of victims and survivors is not omitted from the accountability process, by way of dedicated approach is to collect information about the various the male and female boys and girls that are affected by crimes and understand the role that structural structural elements including gender play in the in the development and the forms of violence, and the various impact of violence on the victims. And this is just a very small aspect of that. We are developing similarly, a strategy to make sure that crimes against and affecting children and youth are well represented in the work that we do. And these two aspects are directly influencing and taking form in the type of work that we do. If we collect relevant evidence of those crimes, when we share materials with the courts, the courts benefit from that.
Adam Gallagher: Thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate the time and good luck moving forward in the essential work you're doing.
Catherine Marchi-Uhel: Thank you for your interest in our work.
Watch the original event Delivering Justice for Syria: Assessing the Progress of the IIIM.