British funding for Syrian war crimes investigators

International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism collects evidence of human rights violations

A Syrian woman cries as she leaves a residential block reportedly hit by an explosives-filled barrel dropped by a government forces helicopter in 2014, in Aleppo. AFP
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The British government boosted its support on Thursday for United Nations-backed investigators that collect evidence of human rights violations committed during Syria’s devastating eight-year civil war.

Julian Braithwaite, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, signed an agreement with the head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) pledging to fund and work with the organisation.

“The IIIM is key to the efforts to hold those responsible for the crimes committed in Syria to account,” Mr Braithwaite wrote on Twitter.

What does the IIIM do?

Founded in 2016, the IIIM has a mandate to “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence” of human rights violations in the war-torn country, a statement on its website reads.

Although IIIM cannot as a body bring criminal proceedings against suspected war criminals itself, it has been set up to co-operate with prosecutors in national, regional and international courts.

IIIM head Catherine Marchi-Uhel told Reuters earlier this month that her office had received 15 requests for assistance from prosecution authorities in five countries.

It is estimated that between 370,000 and 400,000 people have been killed because of the conflict, which began in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and UN agencies. Exact figures are difficult to establish because the Syrian government have restricted access to many areas of the country.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory estimates that 112,000 civilians have died, some of whom were caught up in air strikes, bombardment of their homes and chemical weapons attacks. The UN has publicly accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against its own people on multiple occasions.

However, attempts to hold the Syrian regime to account for its crimes have been challenging because Syria is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

While it is possible for the ICC to investigate international crimes in other countries if requested by a member of the UN Security Council, US efforts to bring Syria before the court in 2014 were vetoed by Bashar Al Assad’s allies, Russia and China.

Earlier in March, victims of the Syrian government’s brutality were offered a glimmer of hope as British lawyers used a previous ICC ruling regarding Rohingya refugees who had fled to Bangladesh to file the first cases against President Assad.

The court found in September that it had jurisdiction over the case even though Myanmar is not a signatory of the ICC because the crime happened in Bangladesh, which is a member.

The lawyers are representing 28 Syrian refugees who claim to have been forced to flee to Jordan by Assad’s forces.

The legal teams have argued Jordan’s status as an ICC signatory means the court has jurisdiction over the case.