Toespraak minister Koenders over bewijzenbank Syrië

Toespraak van minister Koenders van Buitenlandse Zaken tijdens een internationale bijeenkomst over de oprichting van de VN-databank voor bewijsmateriaal van ernstige misdaden die in Syrië zijn gepleegd (Den Haag, 9 maart 2017). De toespraak is in het Engels.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for being here today. Thank you for joining forces to ensure justice for the Syrian people. Those of you who have been collecting evidence of the most serious crimes committed in Syria: human rights advocates, NGOs and the Commission of Inquiry. Representatives of countries that voted in favour of the UN resolution establishing the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria. The staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who are working hard to put the resolution into practice. And the experts from The Hague’s courts and tribunals, who are willing to share their expertise with the Office of the High Commissioner.

Thank you to everyone here who wants to see justice done, and who believes the Mechanism will help make that possible.

After 6 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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

For the past 6 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. And that’s why you are here today.

Human rights activists in Syria did not wait for a political solution before they started gathering evidence. Finding themselves in the middle of a warzone, they even convinced rebel commanders not to set fire to captured government buildings, as was their custom. Searching those buildings, they secured scores of documents to be used as evidence later on.

The governments of Liechtenstein and Qatar did not wait for an end to the war before proposing the Mechanism in the United Nations General Assembly. They found 103 other countries on their side. Never before has an international, impartial and independent evidence-gathering mechanism been established during an ongoing war.

We - all of us here today - must not wait either.

If we can make this Mechanism work, it will allow for swift prosecutions once the time is right. That means collecting and preserving the available evidence in one place. It means analysing information and compiling files that can one day be used to find suspects and bring them to trial.

We’re not there yet, but now is the time to commit to the Mechanism and keep up the momentum. That’s the reason for today’s conference.

It’s our duty to help the Mechanism prepare the groundwork for justice. Each of you has a role to play, whether you are an expert or you represent an NGO, a government or a prosecutor’s office. We cannot let this opportunity slip away. The Mechanism can only succeed with your help. We need you to offer your contributions, cooperation and counsel. And we need you to capitalise on its work.

To government officials let me say: convince your country to contribute. Building political support for the Mechanism was no easy thing. Now we need to raise the funds to get it - and keep it - up and running. The Netherlands announced a contribution of 1 million euros right after the vote in the General Assembly. We need 13 million dollars just to get the Mechanism through its first year.
And after that we’ll need more structural funding. I urge you to report back to your capitals on what you hear today, and ensure support for the Mechanism. We also need your help to convince the countries that couldn’t get behind the initiative back in December, so that we have even more support.

To the Syrian non-governmental organisations here today, let me say: shukran [thank you] for all the courageous work you’ve done so far to uncover evidence. The Mechanism can only be a success with your full cooperation: with the documentary, photographic and video evidence that you secure. I understand your concerns, and the sensitivities involved in your work. The Mechanism is not limited to crimes committed by one side of the conflict or to a particular type of international crime. Don’t hesitate to let the Office of the High Commissioner know what it needs to do in order to gain your trust and cooperation.

To the experts in this room I say: today and in the coming months, counsel the Office of the High Commissioner on the proper set-up for this Mechanism. The Hague brings together more expertise on justice and accountability than any other city in the world.
You have worked on the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other cases of widespread war crimes. You have the technical and legal expertise the Mechanism needs. On collecting and preserving evidence. On establishing chains of command. In short, on everything that is required to hold people to account for the most serious crimes.

And finally, I call on national prosecutors to capitalise on the evidence collected through the Mechanism. Some of the worst offenders have already left Syria. It is now up to their countries of residence to deny them the impunity they have enjoyed until now. The Mechanism will help you to find, prosecute and convict these people. It will collect and preserve evidence in accordance with the highest possible standards.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me call to mind a remark by Stephen Rapp, the former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Hague Institute for Global Justice and is here with us today.
Commenting on Syria, he said, ‘When the day of justice arrives, we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg.’

As I’ve said, we already have millions of pages and gigabytes of evidence. And millions more are waiting - hidden in suitcases and banana crates, buried in caves and pits. If we can make the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism work, we can use that evidence to build air-tight cases against those guilty of the worst crimes imaginable. If we can make the Mechanism work, justice will be one step closer.

That would not only be good news for the people in Syria. It might also show promise for other situations where impunity prevails.

With that in mind, let me close with the hope that your efforts today will help the Mechanism get off to the best possible start.

Thank you.