Bert Koenders is the former Dutch minister of foreign affairs. At a specially-convened meeting in The Hague, bringing together experts to discuss a new UN-backed justice mechanism for Syria’s victims, he paid tribute to all those who have so far gathered evidence of war crimes.
“After six years of conflict in Syria, the evidence of war crimes, human rights violations and crimes against humanity is overwhelming. The use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, forced evacuations, unlawful executions, abductions and indiscriminate violence: it all continues to this day, supported by a culture of impunity.
Some of the perpetrators are proudly posting evidence on social media. Other culprits, most notably the Syrian regime, are covering up their crimes – for instance by issuing death certificates specifying that victims died of heart attacks.
Syrians are taking enormous risks to bring the truth to light. There was the military-police officer who fled the country with flash drives hidden in his socks containing over 28 thousand photos of deaths in government custody. The civil servant who escaped Syria with over a thousand pages taped to his body – documents showing top-level orders for the indiscriminate use of violence. The grassroots investigators who smuggled evidence out of the country, passing up to a dozen checkpoints with proof of war crimes hidden in banana crates.
They all risked their lives. And many others are still doing so every day. If someone gets caught, it doesn’t matter much whose hands they fall into. If you’re carrying classified documents every armed group will believe you work for the enemy: you’re either a spy and a thief, or you’re trying to escape.
These brave people know that their actions won’t save a single victim. The crimes documented by the evidence they carry have already happened. They put themselves in harm’s way for a different reason: because they believe that one day justice will prevail.
Thanks to their efforts we now have millions of pages and gigabytes of evidence. And we have the many witness statements collected by the Commission of Inquiry and the Joint Investigative Mechanism. The truth is impossible to ignore…
“For the past six years, international diplomacy has failed the Syrian people. I have met with refugees, journalists and the White Helmets, and I keep telling them: you haven’t been forgotten. Many have lost faith in the international community and I fully understand why.
I want to see the perpetrators of the most serious crimes brought here to The Hague, to face justice. Ever since the start of the war, the Netherlands has been pressing for accountability by all the parties to the conflict. But we have to be realistic: a political solution still eludes Syria, and accountability is out of reach for now.
Achieving justice may take longer than we would like, but we must be patient. Patience, however, is not the same thing as inaction. If justice is our goal, then we cannot sit back and wait until the war comes to an end.”
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