By Arvind Narrain
The UN Special Procedures which includes Independent Experts, Special Rapporteurs, Working Groups and Commissions of Inquiry play an important role in producing credible analytical reports regarding various kinds of human rights violations around the globe.
The output of the Special Procedures does not always get the attention that it deserves. Some of the best reports produced by the Special Procedures are examples of credible international fact finding reports that not only have a strong factual analysis of human rights violations, but also generate new perspectives and frameworks within which human rights can be understood.
The Commission of Inquiry on Syria is one example of sustained fact finding over five years which has generated new perspectives and frameworks within which human rights can be understood. The Commission of Inquiry was constituted by a resolution of the Human Rights Council with a mandate to ‘investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law’, to ‘establish the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations’ and ‘to identify those responsible’ for such violations in Syria since ‘March 2011’. Since its inception, the Commission on Syria has made over 25 public interventions including regular reports, oral updates, press releases and thematic reports.
A look at the conflict through the output of the Commission of Inquiry allows us to understand a key function which the Human Rights Council discharges i.e. the setting up of international fact finding bodies which can produce reports and analysis which can both mould public opinion and become invaluable resources when the question of justice and accountability for the crimes committed in Syria finally arises.
The trajectory of the Syrian conflict is from a peaceful uprising in 2011 to a brutal armed conflict between multiple forces representing diverse tendencies. By 2013 the Commission was documenting not only violations by state actors but also by armed groups such as the ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra which were perpetrating violations as brutal as those by the regime.
The brutal violations documented by the Commission includes mass disappearances, mass detention, sexual violence on women and men, attacks on medical facilities and sieges of entire residential areas of cities which are deemed to host enemy populations. The Reports are horrifying in the brutal details and they painstakingly document how civilians have not been spared by all combatants and how women and children have been specifically targeted. All sides to the conflict are guilty of these crimes that the report characterizes as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This article will analyse three important issues on which the documentation of the Commission is deepening a new normative understanding, namely, the policy of enforced disappearances, sexual violence as a continuum and genocide.