The UN Security Council was to meet privately yesterday to view projected slides of Syria’s war dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a conflict in which more than 150,000 have died.
The bodies of the young men in the photographs are emaciated, their bones protruding, but starvation was only one form of torture they endured. Some bear the marks of strangulation, while others have vivid bruises and welts.
France, which is hosting the closed-door meeting, says the photographs are part of a collection of 55,000 digital images of Syrians tortured and slain by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
France says a majority of them were collected by a Syrian military police photographer code-named “Caesar,” who smuggled them out on flash drives when he defected.
The Syrian Ministry of Justice dismissed the photos and accompanying report as “politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism,” a “gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom turned out to be foreigners.”
It said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.
The presentation is part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes in the hope of eventually referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. However, that is unlikely, as Syria never accepted the jurisdiction of the court so the only way a case can be opened while al-Assad is in power is for the council to order a referral.
Russia and China have used their veto power three times to block resolutions threatening sanctions on Syria. The hope is that they will eventually agree to a court referral if a resolution names both Syrian government officials and rebels as war crimes perpetrators, according to a Western diplomat.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has been pushing the council to refer Syria to the court for three years, but Security Council President Joy Ogwu has said there is no consensus.
Still, France’s UN mission said in a statement that yesterday’s meeting “will also allow a discussion on the means to ensure accountability for these crimes.”
Pillay said last week that abuses by both the Syrian government and rebels should be documented and brought to the international court.
However, she added: “You cannot compare the two. Clearly, the actions of the forces of the government ... killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances, far outweigh those by the opposition.”
Ten of the photos were released to the public in January in a study known as the “Caesar Report” and funded by the government of Qatar, one of the countries most deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and a major backer of the opposition.
Two of the authors of the report were also to brief the council: David M. Crane, first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and British forensic pathologist Stuart J. Hamilton. The third author was Sir Geoffrey Nice, lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former republic.
“Caesar” had been a crime scene photographer for the Syrian military, the report says. When the war began, he and his colleagues were reassigned to photograph the tortured bodies of rebels and dissidents, providing proof to the regime that its enemies had been liquidated in detention.