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Op-Ed: On HR 75, impunity is a pandemic—the UN should step up

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 75, Syrian human rights activist and legal researcher Mansour al-Omari calls on the United Nations to take action against a “pandemic” of impunity, including appointing a Special Rapporteur on Impunity for international crimes.

10 December 2023

Each year on December 10, Human Rights Day is celebrated around the world on December 10 to commemorate the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This year, the UDHR—described by the United Nations as “one of the world’s most groundbreaking global pledges”—turns 75

The UN is marking the day with a milestone celebration titled Human Rights 75 (HR 75). One of the UN’s goals on HR 75 is to “inspire people to create a movement of shared humanity while empowering them to fight for their rights and take action.” It is a goal for which many Syrians, and their partners, have been paving the way for years. 

As members of Syrian civil society, we have been fighting locally and internationally for our own and everyone’s fundamental rights stipulated in the UDHR. These include: 

  • Article 3: The right to life, liberty and security against extermination and enforced disappearance
  • Article 5: The right to not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Article 7: The principle that all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law
  • Article 9: The right to not be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

Article 8 of the UDHR states: “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

In Syria, the government has desecrated national law, breached every inch of it, and applied it in a blatantly selective manner, in contravention of the rule of law and most basic pillars of legality, not to mention UDHR Articles 7 and 8. Distorting national law, the Assad regime has tailored it to protect perpetrators and grant them absolute impunity for the most heinous crimes.

These practices placed countless Syrians outside their national law, depriving them of its protections and fundamental rights, and sent them into exile, sailing worldwide in pursuit of a system of law to embrace and to apply. After tremendous efforts, endless sacrifices and numerous disappointments, Syrians found their calling in the universality of international law, universal jurisdiction of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Syrian efforts, alongside international partners, have breathed new life into international law and the use of universal jurisdiction.

More than a decade of mass atrocities has created an intimate relationship between Syrians—as well as other victims of states’ mass atrocities—and international law. Today, international law is Syrians’ lost national law. It is the last resort for many victims around the world. 

Today, on HR 75, it is more necessary than ever to develop a global strategy, including appointing a UN Special Rapporteur on Impunity, to promote international law and combat the impunity gap for international crimes that are spreading like wildfire. This strategy is required by the principles enshrined in the UDHR. 

The rising numbers of victims of mass atrocities around the world, should horrify us all into action. Impunity is a global pandemic that cuts across international boundaries. In Syria, Israel, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced because of mass atrocities committed with absolute impunity. Millions continue to suffer the consequences of these crimes.

Perpetrators, whether governments or non-state armed groups, have long enjoyed impunity, mimicking each other’s criminal strategies and methods to bypass sanctions and punishments. 

Fighting impunity is enshrined in the UDHR

In November 2020, then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on accountability mechanisms and the global fight against impunity. She emphasized, “the rule of law and accountability are indispensable foundations for the effective protection of human rights” through deterring and preventing violations, and effectively confronting and addressing them when they do occur.

Accountability is a process, one that holds the perpetrators responsible for their crimes through imposing sanctions or punishments. Impunity or lack of punishment disables the whole legal system by nullifying an indispensable legal principle: deterrence. 

Impunity leads to the very concerns raised in the UDHR Preamble, which warns that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” declaring “if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

A common perception that perpetrators will be punished deters future crimes and saves lives. Deterrence can be direct and indirect. For example, punishing an individual, a government or an armed group will make them less likely to commit another crime for fear of another, or worse, punishment. Also, when individuals, governments and armed groups know that others have been punished, they become less likely to commit crimes because of fear of the certainty of being punished.

When victims see a perpetrator punished, they feel the criminal procedure is working. Holding perpetrators accountable prevents likely future crime by solidifying faith in justice mechanisms and preempting revenge.

The fight against impunity helps survivors and victims’ families in their journey to recover from the harms they have suffered. Impunity is an obstacle to recovery. A high percentage of survivors show an elevated mental vulnerability caused by impunity.

The UN’s role in fighting impunity

In the context of fulfilling the pledges stipulated in the UDHR, the UN can and should demonstrate a concrete response to the spread of mass atrocities by developing an effective strategy to combat impunity for international crimes.

The UN must play a leading role in combating impunity. Tackling impunity does not only mean punishing perpetrators. It also works towards fulfilling the fundamental rights stated in the UDHR, saves lives and protects the vulnerable, including children and women, who are likely to suffer most from mass atrocities. 

Appointing a special rapporteur with sufficient resources to research the issue of global impunity for international crimes is a first step. Creating an expert working group is another necessary step. UN experts can conduct a detailed examination of the causes and consequences of impunity. They should evaluate current response measures and develop new tools, including promoting national investigations and prosecutions into international crimes.

The UN should create a global forum for sharing best practices in combating impunity, including successful methods of enforcing international criminal law.

Combating impunity, includes blocking attempts to normalize political relations with perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. It also includes scrutiny and close monitoring of any humanitarian funds provided in areas controlled by perpetrators, to guarantee those funds do not contribute to further mass atrocities.

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