U.N. rights team aims to probe chemical weapons in Syria: del Ponte

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 09, 2013 11:59 AM
U.N. rights team aims to probe chemical weapons in Syria: del Ponte

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) - U.N. human rights investigators hope to get into Syria soon to try to find out who carried out apparent chemical attacks and other war crimes, Carla del Ponte, of the U.N. commission of inquiry on Syria, said on Monday.

Del Ponte gave no time frame for a visit but said that the team was in touch with U.N. chemical weapons inspectors and awaited their findings from the scene of an August 21 poison gas attack. She said the rights team's work would continue whether or not the United States carried out mooted punitive military strikes against the Syrian government over the attack.

"We are in touch with Syrian authorities to enter and we are on the right track," she told the Swiss Press Club in Geneva.

U.N. human rights officials declined to comment on how any air strike might affect a possible visit, but stressed the need for conditions to be right for the team to conduct their work.

The commission's confidential list of suspected Syrian war criminals was "getting longer", she said, but gave no details.

Del Ponte said Syria had sent a "positive signal" by letting U.N. chemical arms inspectors go to Damascus to collect samples in suburbs allegedly attacked with toxic substances on August 21, which are now being analyzed in European laboratories. The arms inspectors were not mandated to apportion blame for the attack.

That would be the job of the human rights investigators, said del Ponte, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor. The Geneva-based team has more than 20 experts, some of them specialists in military and ballistics issues.

"It is the commission (of inquiry) who should carry out the probe to determine who used them," del Ponte said.

The United States and its allies blame the Syrian government for the attacks. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the control of chemical weapons in Syria was limited to President Bashar al-Assad, his brother Maher and an unnamed general. Damascus denies responsibility.


The human rights inquiry, an independent U.N. team led by Brazilian Paulo Pinheiro, was set up two years ago. They have never been allowed to enter the country but base their reports on interviews with Syrian refugees and defectors who have fled.

Its mandate is to gather information on a wide range of violations of international law, which includes the use of chemical weapons, U.N. spokesman Rolando Gomez said.

"Identifying those responsible for such violations also forms part of its mandate," he told Reuters on Monday.

The team's most recent report in June cited "reasonable grounds" to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used and said that most testimony related to their alleged use by state forces.

Both sides - Syrian government forces and rebels fighting to overthrow Assad - are committing horrific crimes, according to del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

"There are no good guys here, they are all bad. That is to say the government forces and the non-governmental forces or the rebels, their crimes are just as serious and incredible. Deaths, torture, I never saw such methods of torture even in the Balkans that I see now in Syria," she said on Monday.

The U.N. rights investigators for Syria have said that they have drawn up lists of people suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity that are being kept in a safe.

"We are doing our work, the list of crimes is getting longer, we try to identify high-ranking politicians and military who are implicated," del Ponte said, adding that she had interviewed some senior defectors of the Syrian military.

She suggested that foreign powers that are supplying weapons to either side in the civil war could be held accountable.

"One should pay attention to the states that supply arms either for the government or the rebels. Those who provide arms knowing that they are used to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity may - may - also bear a responsibility."

(This story has been corrected to change attribution of reported quote in paragraph seven)

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)