Opening the event, EU Ambassador Carl Hallergard, Deputy Head of the EU Delegation to the UN in Geneva, paid tribute to the millions of Syrians who, for the past 9 years, have endured enormous suffering as victims of systematic human rights violations. Over 10 million people had to flee their homes, more than 500,000 people have died, the number of enforced disappeared nears 80,000 according to some conservative figures. "Syrians deserve peace - and accountability is key to achieving peace in Syria," underlined Ambassador Hallergard. Joined by the German Ambassador Hans-Peter Jugel, Italian Ambassador Marie Sol Fulci, and Ambassador and Special Envoy for Syria Emiel de Bont from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, all stressed the EU's and European Member States' unwavering commitment to fighting impunity for human rights violations. Over 130 participants connected to the webinar to echo their support that accountability is a shared goal for the international community and for Syrians.
"We cannot build peace in Syria without accountability."
Giving a voice to civil society, three former detainees and human rights activists told their personal stories of having been held in detention in Syria. Noura Jizawi, survivor of detention and founder of Start Point, Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian lawyer imprisoned in Syria 2012-2015 and founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and Anwar Al Bunni, Syrian human rights lawyer, former political prisoner and founder of the Syrian Human Rights Association - as survivors, they stressed the need for the international community to continue their efforts to push for accountability as the right way to ensure long lasting peace.
"This is probably the most extensively documented war in the history of humankind."
Thanks to the evidence collected by independent entities, justice systems in some European States have evoked universal jurisdiction and taken steps to prosecute suspects of international crimes. The EU has been actively supporting various mechanisms of accountability and evidence collection, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (CoI), the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria (IIIM), and Syrian NGOs. Hanny Megally from the CoI shared how the Commission has documented violations and abuses for almost 9 years in pursuit of accountability. Likewise, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the first Head of the IIIM on Syria, and Ambassador Edmond Mulet, Head of the Independent Panel to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) - United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), recalled the bodies' work to independently collect evidence of war crimes, focusing particularly on accountability for the use of chemical weapons. The bodies have pioneered the collection and documentation of human rights violations, which has led to prosecution in a number of cases in European countries. All experts called for stronger support by the international community to collect and preserve evidence.
"To be detained in Syria is to be missing."
One particular aspect of human rights violations that stood out was the agreement by all speakers that missing persons is a particularly gruesome burden to many Syrian families, not knowing what happened to missing family members because of limited or no access to detention centers. Accountability and bringing to justice perpetrators of arbitrary detention has a broader value in meaning than just punishment, but can serve as a deterrent against future crimes, both in Syria and elsewhere. Speakers urged to continue to call for the release of detainees and for unrestricted access to all detainees by family members and independent bodies.
"The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind fine. One day, justice will prevail."
Impunity cannot prevail because it fosters division and tensions, and undermines peaceful co-existence. We need justice for peace in Syria – and accountability is key to give victims' families and survivors of all crimes hope for the future.
In support of Syria and the region, the EU will organise the IV Brussels conference on 29 and 30 June.