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Remarks at an Informal Meeting on “Syria: War Crimes and the Pursuit of Justice”
April 15, 2016

U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations

New York City
April 14, 2016


Thank you all for your powerful presentations. Thank you, Ambassador al-Thani, for organizing this event and thanks to all of the cosponsors who are a part of it. The briefings were extraordinary, powerful, pragmatic, idealistic, and grounded in the tremendous suffering of the Syrian people, above all. And we thank you for the life changing work – really the three of you do every day on behalf of the Syrian people, in your case, Ms. Pillay, on behalf of people all around the world.

It is extremely important to talk about justice today. I was struck listening to Mazen about his humility, he did not really go into many of the details of his own experience. As many of you know, he was imprisoned unjustly for more than three years by the Syrian regime and subjected to some of the most horrific conditions imaginable. And yet, when he gets out of prison after suffering in that way, his first task has been to try to bring some measure of relief to people who themselves remain in those cells where he labored over such a long period of time. And that’s very typical of him and his life’s work, and the contribution he has made from the beginning of his professional life to his community, to his neighbors, and to peace and democracy in his country.

I want to begin by recognizing three other courageous individuals who need no introduction to the Syrians who have spoken, but I think just saying a word about their stories is in keeping with Sima’s summons to us to remember the individuals who we’re actually talking about here in this context.

Razan Zaitouneh, a friend of Mazen’s and a widely respected leader of Syria’s civil society. On December 9th, 2013, she and four other human rights defenders were abducted from their offices in Duma by a group of armed men. Her 39th birthday will be in two weeks.

Khalil Ma’atouq, a 56-year-old lawyer from Al Meshayrfeh village in Homs governorate. Khalil had spent years defending activists and prisoners of conscience before he and a friend were arrested on October 2nd, 2012 at a checkpoint in Damascus.

And Basel Khartabeil, a 34-year-old human rights activist and a brilliant computer engineer, who had sought to promote open access to the internet. On March 15th, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the first anti-government protests and two weeks before he was supposed to get married, he was arrested outside his office in Damascus. There are rumors that he has been sentenced to death.

We, unfortunately, today don’t know the whereabouts, the conditions, or the future of any one of these three individuals. We know only that, like Mazen, they were unjustly detained, and we know that they should be released immediately.

I raise their stories first and foremost to urge their release and to urge those countries who have influence over this brutal regime to use that influence on behalf of individuals who will only make Syria better, and who only want to improve the dignity and the security of their communities. But I also raise these three individuals’ names and describe their detentions or abductions because I think that they speak to the cause of this panel, the cause of justice.

First, they remind us that when the war is finally over – and it will end, even if some days a settlement seems very elusive – Syria will be home to literally millions of victims like those described by Sima and Mazen, victims like Razan, Khalil, Basel, and their families. The last five years have brought a catalogue of cruelty that few could have dreamed up, even if they were writing the worst horror movie imaginable – even you, Madam Pillay, having presided over so many important trials in the Rwanda tribunal – some creativity in the savagery that has been introduced to the Syrian theater. Illegal detentions, often involving torture, rape, murder; chemical weapon attacks against civilians; bombs landing on schools, hospitals, and civilian neighborhoods; sieges of entire cities; starving people to death willfully when you have the power with a pen – a pen stroke – to allow food to people you know are going to die if they don’t get food, and you just simply don’t sign the form. The Assad regime is the leading perpetrator of these crimes by a long shot, but ISIL and other armed groups, of course, are responsible for their share of atrocities.

Syria’s future recovery will require coming to terms with these horrors. Mazen, I thought the way you put it was brilliant: that people say those who want accountability want revenge, but the opposite is true. That people who want accountability want to protect the Syrian people from revenge. They want individual responsibility so as to end a culture of collective responsibility and to end a culture of impunity.

The Syrian people will be the best placed to choose the right balance of justice, accountability, and reconciliation processes – and you, and Madam Pillay, and people who’ve worked on international justice, the conversations you’re having, the thinking you are doing is going to prove useful someday. The documentation, the secure storage, the analysis, the reporting on the atrocities, the work of the commission of inquiry – the many, many reports that they have done. Such information can be used to support future prosecution – whether at the international level or eventually, again though it seems far-fetched now, in credible domestic courts.

I thought Sima made a very important point about how hard it is to motivate people to do this work around documentation five years in. And because they have not seen a formal accountability process set up, they haven’t seen the payoff from what is maybe the most excruciating work that you can do. I mean, imagine what it’s like to go into your community and capture these stories and interview people who’ve lost everything that matters to them. And so to do that and not see any return on that can be extremely demoralizing, and I can imagine your respective job of trying to encourage this work is very, very challenging. But this documentation is its own form of accountability; it is the evidence that belies the lies told by the regime and the militias and the perpetrators of these atrocities, and it is also the foundation for what will happen.

And even if you don’t yet have a lot to point to in the way of people being held accountable for the horrors that they have inflicted on your people, there are other trials that you can point to. You can point to the recent conviction of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who thought that he would be immune and inoculated. He had an attitude much like that you’ve encountered on the streets of Syria. The trial of the former Chadian dictator Habre, where his victims who never thought that they would ever be able to confront him in a courtroom, able to do so all these years later.

So justice can be painstakingly slow, the victims and the potential witnesses can feel rightly desperate and demoralized and feel like the international community has let them down. But it is our job to take what you all have begun and turn it into something real for people who deserve justice, who want reconciliation but need accountability as a foundation for that reconciliation. And I think this session is just a chance for us to remind the perpetrators who are strutting around Syria today, feeling as if they have that impunity, that their actions have not gone unseen and they will not go unpunished. What these individuals do to their communities, to the people in their custody, to Razan and Khalil, to Mazen back in the day – recent day – they will answer for those actions. And the stories will be told, and if we fulfill our responsibilities – as we must – justice will be done. Thank you.