French lawyer Catherine Marchi-Uhel chosen as leader for Syrian war crime inquiry

GENEVA - After more than six years of atrocities in Syria that have been exhaustively documented by human rights investigators, a former French judge will take on the task of preparing evidence that may eventually lead to war crimes trials.

The judge, Catherine Marchi-Uhel, was appointed late on Monday (July 3) by the UN secretary-general António Guterres to lead the legal team, being established in Geneva, that will collect and preserve evidence of crimes for use by courts or an international tribunal.

The legal team, the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism, was created by a General Assembly resolution in December, despite fierce resistance from Russia, which had repeatedly used its veto as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to block criminal investigations of the conflict.

The selection of Marchi-Uhel surprised some human rights experts, who had thought citizens of Security Council permanent members and countries that are part of the international coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) would be excluded. They said that Russia, or other critics of Syrian war crimes inquiries, could question the impartiality of someone from a country, like France, that is both a member of the council and involved in the conflict.

Still, diplomats and others praised the appointment of a lawyer with Marchi-Uhel's broad international experience. She was the principal legal adviser for the international tribunal in the former Yugoslavia and was a judge on the UN-Cambodian tribunal charged with prosecuting crimes committed during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In France, she served on a court trying the most serious crimes and was a legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.

The legal team is expected eventually to have about 50 staff members, but so far has received only about half the US$13 million (S$18 million ) its work was expected to cost in its first year, with contributions from 29 European countries, led by the Netherlands and Germany. Most of the nations are European, and only two Arab countries, Qatar and Kuwait, are on the list of donors.

Even so, investigations of war crimes are slowly gathering momentum.

Sweden has prosecuted a member of an armed Syrian opposition group, and Germany, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland have opened Syrian war crimes investigations. Spain's national court is considering hearing a case filed against high-ranking members of President Bashar Assad's security services.

The legal team in Geneva will make the task of national prosecutors significantly easier, and possibly cheaper, by analysing and prepackaging the huge volume of raw evidence of atrocities accumulated by the UN and other investigations.

Data at their disposal is expected to include a list, drawn up by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, of individuals implicated in possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. That list is believed to include Assad and key figures in his government.

Lawyers say the results of the team's work will not come quickly or be particularly visible, but its creation is a significant milestone in efforts to break the impunity that has kept Syria's war criminals free.

"It builds the momentum for prosecutions at the national level which otherwise would be less feasible, if not impossible," said Andrew Clapham, an international law professor at Geneva's Graduate Institute.

"It also sends a message to those who are continuing to commit atrocities on the ground that the world is watching, and they may not be able to live out their lives casually or in comfort," he added.