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SRSG Patten Remarks for UNGA 76 side event “Raising the Bar: Working towards Comprehensive Justice in Syria”, 24 September 2021

OSRSG Sexual Violence in Conflict
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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The conflict in Syria has marched on horrifically for more than a decade with civilians bearing the brunt of the widespread and sustained violence. The horrors of sexual violence perpetrated against Syrian women and girls, as well as men and boys, is another aspect of the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war. The use of conflict-related sexual violence has changed over the course of the conflict, but patterns have been prevalent and systematic. United Nations reports have highlighted how women and girls who were raped often witnessed the killing of male relative. In detention settings, male guards routinely subjected women and girls to intimate searches, the most invasive of which amount to rape. There was also a pattern of rape and other forms of sexual violence against men and boys in detention by the Syrian Government, including acts of genital mutilation. The reports indicated the involvement of Government forces in crimes of sexual violence at checkpoints; in the context of house-to-house searches; and in detention centers.

Since 2013, and every single year thereafter, the United Nations Secretary-General in his annual reports on conflict-related sexual violence has listed parties as being “credibly suspected of committing or being responsible for patterns of rape and other forms of sexual violence […]. “However, Government forces are not the only parties responsible for sexual violence. In the vacuum created by the Syrian conflict, non-state armed groups, including violent extremist groups, have proliferated and used sexual violence as a tactic of war and terror, as we have seen most graphically with the so-called Islamic State.

There can be no lasting peace in Syria without providing justice for the sexual violence crimes committed during the conflict against women, girls, men, and boys. Syria is the ultimate test of the international community’s resolve that legal and political commitments to address sexual violence in conflict are employed in practice.

The United Nations General Assembly has boldly addressed the challenge of ensuring redress for crimes in Syria by creating the International, Independent and Impartial Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes in the Syrian Arab Republic. This Mechanism represents first and foremost the ultimate hope for individuals who have felt abandoned and are thirsty for justice as well as a potential deterrent against further abuses. It is mandated to investigate the conduct of all parties to the conflict who are responsible for serious international crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence, and sexual and gender-based violence crimes more broadly. The Mechanism has produced numerous case files, which create the foundation for justice to take root.

The Mechanism has also established important approaches and practices to investigating sexual and gender-based violence crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence. Judge Marchi-Uhel developed and implemented a policy based on lessons learned from the former International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This approach paves the way to better prosecutorial outcomes for these crimes. Indeed, experience has shown that sexual and gender-based violence crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence, do not occur in a vacuum and should be identified early whilst gathering information and evidence including on other crimes. Further, this approach spans the information and evidence gathering process to analysis and the ultimate creation of case files with charges for prosecutions. The policy requires specialized training for the Mechanism’s staff on sexual and gender-based violence that is meant to ensure that no piece of information that could be used to prosecute these crimes is overlooked by any staff member. This integrated and holistic approach is a model for other institutions tasked to investigate conflict-related sexual violence crimes whether at national, regional, or international level.

Despite the work and efforts of the Mechanism, impunity for sexual violence crimes during the conflict in Syria remains the rule rather than the exception. States have the primary obligation to protect their citizens and to prosecute crimes sexual and gender-based violence crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence; however, when States are unwilling or unable to do so the international community must ensure that sexual violence crimes do not remain unpunished. At present, we rely on third State prosecutions whether under universal or other forms of jurisdiction to prosecute the horrific sexual and gender-based violence crimes that occurred during the Syrian conflict. In this context, I am encouraged to see that we are using the full spectrum of judicial mechanisms to bring perpetrators to account. I am further encouraged that third States continue to bring prosecutions against potential perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence crimes in Syria and have established relationships with the Mechanism, because the ultimate test of any evidence gathering mechanism is whether justice is delivered for survivors and victims in a court of law.

Although third State prosecutions may be necessary, they remain limited in their ability to address the full magnitude and harm victims of serious international crimes have suffered in Syria. And although collecting evidence is the sine qua non condition for accountability, it is not sufficient to bring justice to survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Syria. What is required is the political will to create and use genuine fora to hear cases based on the evidence that the Mechanism collects and ultimately hold perpetrators to account. There is now robust practice at the national, regional, and international levels on the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence crimes in particular, and the expertise to support such endeavours. The Mechanism as led by Judge Marchi-Uhel will continue its tireless efforts on behalf of the United Nations General Assembly to collect and preserve evidence of serious international crimes in Syria and create case files that are ready for prosecutors. However, it remains for the international community to create or use existing fora to hear the evidence the Mechanism collects in the absence of genuine and impartial prosecutions with due process of law domestically. We have yet to create that for the conflict in Syria, and for its victims of conflict-related sexual violence, and we must.

Friday, 24 September 2021