If the UN investigation into the Houla massacre had any credibility to start with, given how the UN Human Rights Council is little more than a rubber stamp for the Security Council, it is now down to zero. The Council has now adopted a resolution which calls for a “special inquiry” into the massacre and echoes calls by U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay for the U.N. Security Council to consider referring Syria to the International Criminal Court.
Pillay had declared that the massacre could constitute a “crime against humanity”, and as such, warranted ICC referral. While no moral label for this barbaric crime is too extreme, it is the politic-legal implications of the concept of “crimes against humanity” which are problematic. As Pillay herself asserts:
“These acts may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes, and may be indicative of a pattern of widespread or systematic attacks against civilian populations that have been perpetrated with impunity,” she said.
The key word here is “systematic” which represents the main distinction between crimes against humanity and regular war crimes, the latter being “isolated inhumane acts”. One should be careful to note here the governmental connotations of the term “systematic” as elaborated by the The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum which defines crimes against humanity as: “particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder; extermination; torture; rape; political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.”
By suggesting the crime falls under a more general pattern of a systematic government policy of atrocities, the UN Human Rights Council has clearly already decided who the culprits are before a full scale investigation has even been launched. This should come as no surprise though to anyone who has read the Council Spokesperson, Rupert Colville’s, responses to peace activist Marinella Corregia who interviewed him for Russia Today. Coleville admitted to Corregia that the investigation relies on interviews with “witnesses” that are conducted by telephone. More provocative still, was his response to her question about how they recognized the killers as shabeeha:”Our local contacts in Syria say they were Shabbiya. Try to be less cynical.”
For its part, the Syrian government has also announced the preliminary findings of its own investigation into the massacre. While it is an accused party and its history of repression hardly makes it a reliable source of information, it is just as entitled to be heard as the UN, which is hardly a neutral outsider. As in other geopolitical contexts, the UN Council is essentially synonymous with NATO countries who represent another party to the conflict and hence, a side implicated in the violence.
Moreover, the Syrian government’s findings were much more convincing than the blanket accusation against the regime. According to this as yet unverifiable narrative, between 600-800 gunmen from neighbouring areas joined the Houla rebels after Friday prayers . The wide scale nature of the massacre appears to have been the result of a criminal plan gone awry. The violence initially “targeted the relatives of the People’s Assembly member Abdul-Moa’ti Mashlab” but then “the events ran contrary to the plan and the massacre extended to slaughter other families.” This version of events fits into the now widespread counter -mainstream media-narrative which suggests that although the majority of those killed were Sunni, they were government loyalists, or at minimum, people who refused to take sides.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ministry, Dr. Jihad Makdissi, acknowledged the investigation was running into difficulties “due to the presence of gunmen in the area.” This latter fact is now undeniable when one takes account of this recent AP report which cites activists who claim that the regime was still shelling Houla, indicating it remains under rebel control. This latter story also begs the question how regimes forces or shabeeha could have entered such a firmly entrenched rebel base that remained under opposition control despite all the allegations about the regime’s heavy-handed activities there.
Unfortunately no matter how persuasive the evidence produced by the regime’s investigation or how flimsy that presented by the UN investigation, the overwhelming majority of the world public, not to mention leaders, have already decided who is responsible for this game-changing massacre. Russia has very rightly denounced the UN Human Right’s Council resolution. Perhaps it should now propose the creation of a more impartial investigative team—even one under UN auspices— which would be comprised of neutral countries who abstained from voting for the Resolution, like Uganda and Ecuador.