Her decision, announced on Sunday in Switzerland, has dealt a heavy blow to the commission’s credibility. Del Ponte joined in September 2012, bringing her considerable experience as a war crimes prosecutor in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to the civil war in Syria. However, she said her role had come to be an alibi for inaction.
Del Ponte’s resignation raises questions about how war crimes are to be investigated if a permanent member of the UN security council – in this case Russia - decides to veto the process by refusing to refer cases to the international criminal court (ICC).
The Syria commission has no power to prosecute, but has amassed a vast amount of evidence and a confidential list of names, thought to include figures at the very top of the Syrian government and military.
Explaining her resignation, Del Ponte said: “It was all about the inaction of the security council because if you look at all the reports we have published, we have obtained nothing in terms of injustice. It is unbelievable.
“In Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia I was able to pursue investigators, file indictments and arrest warrants [that led] to trials and convictions. But in this case nothing happens. It’s unbelievable. It’s a disgrace for the international community and particularly for the security council.”
Del Porte said she was prepared to continue to act on behalf of justice in the future but only if she was given the powers to do so. She added that she did not agree with remaining part of a commission, “which has no powers, no possibility of seeking justice for the victims”, but “if there is a new court in the future, I am ready to be ready to be a prosecutor and because I have the experience”.
The UN general assembly voted late last year to set up a separate body, the UN international impartial independent mechanism (IIIM) investigating serious crimes in Syria, but then struggled to raise money to fund the body.
Its role is to document and prepare prosecutions of violations international law in Syria, and some see it as a duplication of the commission on which Del Ponte sat. She was reportedly not impressed when French judge Catherine Marchi-Uhe was appointed as head of the newly created body
The UN claims the IIIM’s role is distinct from the commission of inquiry since it would primarily build on the information collected by others – notably the commission – and establish files to assist courts. It is also designed to prepare cases for national courts to pursue, and so perhaps circumvent the Russian refusal to send cases to the ICC in The Hague.
Yet the commission had already interviewed more than 5,000 witnesses, produced 13 reports and prepared meticulous examples of war crimes.
A third UN-linked body is responsible for investigating chemical weapons attacks.
Del Ponte had previously accused Russia or the Syrian air force of attacking UN aid convoys, and said there was evidence that the Syrian government had been responsible for recent chemical attacks.
She said: “Right now it looks as if President Bashar al-Assad will escape justice because if we want to to negotiate peace we will have to talk with him as we did President Milošević. But one day he will have to face justice.
“Justice must do its work because without justice because there is no real peace we know that from history.”
After her announcement, the commission of inquiry said Del Ponte had informed colleagues in June of her decision to leave in the near future. It said the investigations would continue.
“It is our obligation to persist in its work on behalf of the countless number of Syrian victims of the worst human rights violations and international crimes known to humanity.”
The UN special envoy Staff de Mistura is to reconvene talks on the future of Syria in Geneva at the beginning of September, but few have much hope the process is leading anywhere. The UN focus is likely to be to broaden the opposition negotiating team to include some of the groups favoured by Russia.
Author: Patrick Wintour