Side event to the UNHRC 39th Session – Civil Society Organisations and Criminal Accountability for Atrocity Crimes

On 11 September 2018, the International Bar Association’s Human rights Institute (IBAHRI) and the IBA War Crimes Committee (IBA WCC) held a side event to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council 39th session in Geneva, titled Civil Society Organisations and Criminal Accountability for Atrocity Crimes. A high-level panel discussion, it focused on the role of civil society organisations in combating impunity by bringing to justice individuals who have committed atrocious crimes. With the support of the Government of Canada, the talk took place in Palais de Nations.

Below, is footage of the event, a listing of participants and the running order.

The panel:

  • Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG, Co-Chair of the IBAHRI, and former Chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea (CoIDPRK)
  • Catherine Marchi-Uhel, Head of the UN International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committee in the Syrian Arab Republic (IIIM)
  • Wendy Betts, Director, eyeWitness to Atrocities;
  • Natacha Bracq, Programme Lawyer, IBAHRI;
  • Mazen Darwish, Syrian lawyer; President, Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM);
  • Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA WCC; Executive Director, Oxford Program on International Peace and Security, (Moderator).

The event commenced with a pre-recorded video from Justice Kirby. His remarks focused on his work with the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and highlighted the importance of civil society organisations, including the IBA, in ‘speaking up for the voiceless’ and collecting evidence.

Referring to Commissions of Inquiry and civil society organisations, Justice Kirby stated: ‘The world comes together to gather the testimony, to record it, to ensure that it is available to future generations […], but also for the organisations which will ultimately give redress. […] We make sure that there will be accountability for the wrongs that have happened in this world.’

Ms Marchi-Uhel followed, clarifying the role of the IIIM and explaining that her team not only builds criminal files, but also shares evidence and analysis of ongoing investigations. ‘We want to have an impact that is sooner than later and we know that [...] it takes time to build entirely fledged files.’ In addition, Ms Marchi-Uhel highlighted the role of civil society actors in supporting the work of the IIIM and how, in turn, the IIIM can contribute to their accountability efforts.

Ms Betts then presented the eyeWitness to Atrocities application – a unique tool for human rights defenders to capture evidence and have it stored in a virtual evidence locker for use in investigations and trials. It was developed and is supported by the IBA.

The event was closed by Mr Darwish and Ms Bracq. After detailing the criminal cases his organisations has been working on in Europe, Mr Darwish emphasised the challenges faced by Syrian organisations when documenting evidence, including their remoteness from the crimes, the multiplicity of Syrian organisations, and the lack of cooperation between them.

Finally, Ms Bracq presented the IBAHRI’s activities relating to Syria, in particular its work assisting Syrian lawyers in bringing those guilty of international crimes to account. Ms Bracq ended her presentation by highlighting the ‘many ways civil society organisations can contribute to accountability efforts:

  • For organisations such as the IBA, we can assist other civil society organisations by building their capacity in collecting evidence and fighting impunity; we can also assist them in getting in touch with local and international experts;
  • As civil society organisations working directly on accountability issues, it is important to run fact-finding missions or quasi-judicial inquiries complying with international standards […];
  • And finally advocacy, such as advocacy in Geneva, is also key.’