The Caesar Pictures and Accountability in Syria

In March 2015, the devastating civil war in Syria entered into its fifth year. Here are a few figures that show the grim reality that individuals in that part of the world find themselves in on a daily basis. According to UN estimates, at least 220.000 individuals have thus far lost their lives in the ongoing struggle; 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance; 7.6 million have been internally displaced by the violence; and 3.6 million have fled the country. The magnitude of the suffering in Syria is shocking and an end to the crisis is still not within reach.

However, for ten days, from 10 to 20 March 2015, any person that passed through the main UN Secretariat building in New York could at least not avoid being confronted with gruesome images of atrocities committed in Syria. At the South Wall of the United Nations Conference Building, the exhibit “Caesar Photos: Inside Syrian Authorities’ Prisons”, showed a number of the pictures that a defected Syrian government official, code-named “Caesar”, managed to bring out of the country. The pictures show dead bodies with signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.

“Caesar”, who wants to remain anonymous for security reasons, worked for the Syrian military police and had long been involved in photographing crime scenes. With the beginning of the Syria crisis in March 2011, it became his job to photograph and document the bodies of individuals that were tortured and killed in Syrian detention centres. In January 2014, Caesar and some colleagues provided the international community with about 55.000 images of tortured and dead bodies. Given that each body was photographed four or five times, Caesar and his colleagues photographed at least 11.000 individuals that died in Syrian detention centres. So there are many more pictures than the ones shown at the UN.

According to Ceasar, there were two reasons why the Assad regime systematically photographed the bodies of tortured and executed individuals. First, it permitted the Syrian government to issue death certificates without having to show the dead bodies to the families. Second, the Assad regime wanted to make sure that orders to execute individuals had actually been carried out.

The credibility of “Caesar”, as well as the authenticity of the photographic images, were examined and confirmed by a Commission of Inquiry consisting of legal, medical, and forensic experts – the inquiry was funded by the Government of Qatar. The commission’s core team consisted of Sir Desmond de Silva, former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geofreey Nice, former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and David Crane, the first Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. With additional help from a forensic team, the so-called “Caesar Report” concluded that “there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by agents of the Syrian government.” The report further reached the conclusion that this evidence would support findings of crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Syrian government.

The Caesar pictures are inextricably linked to calls for accountability in Syria. “Caesar” himself explained to the commission that he smuggled the pictures out of Syria “so that the killers could be prosecuted to achieve justice.” And the French government immediately put the Caesar report to exactly this use, pushing for a referral of the situation in Syria since March 2011 to the ICC.

While calls for accountability in Syria have been around since the beginning of the crisis (Navi Pillay, for example, has called for referring the situation in Syria to the ICC as early as August 2011), it was only with the Caesar report, and the failure of the Geneva II peace talks, that the accountability idea gained momentum. On 15 April 2014, in what seems to have been a strategic move, France organized the Arria-formula meeting of the Security Council to present and discuss the Caesar report. It has been reported that the Caesar pictures had an impact on those delegations that were on the fence about an ICC referral, especially on Rwanda, Nigeria, and Chad. So it seems that the Caesar pictures were crucial for advancing the accountability agenda.

On 22 May 2014, as we all know, Russia and China vetoed a French-drafted Security Council resolution referring the situation in Syria to the ICC. The upset that this has caused amongst the permanent Security Council members makes it highly unlikely that such an initiative will be successful any time soon.

But does that mean the end for the accountability agenda in Syria? Not completely. A number of other accountability initiatives are discussed at the moment, with active support of the government of Liechtenstein. I will just briefly mention some of them. First, there is discussion about the possibility to have national trials in future and about what could be done now to strengthen the national jurisdiction in terms of training Syrian lawyers outside of Syria and collecting and preserving evidence. Second, there could be an ad hoc, hybrid, or regional court, which is an idea that the US strongly preferred from the very beginning. Third, there are interesting discussions about the possibility that the states of nationality of foreign terrorist fighters that are State Parties to the Rome Statute could refer the situation in Syria to the ICC. While such a referral would only cover crimes committed by their nationals it would signal international society’s commitment to fight impunity in Syria.

Thus, the pictures that Caesar has provided us with, under enormous risk to himself, played an important role not only in reminding us of the human suffering in Syria but also in advancing and keeping alive the accountability agenda.