“I carry in me a great cemetery,” says the main character in Mustapha Khalifeh’s novel “Al-Qawqaa,” (The Shell). “At night the tombs open their doors. Those in them look at me ... talk to me, reproach me.”
The character has just been released from the Syrian prison at Palmyra, which Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who spent 15 years incarcerated in Syria, once described as a place “that literally eats men ... where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people.” Khalifeh’s broken character cannot escape his memories of a netherworld characterized by suffering and humiliation.
It is the consequences of this world that an anonymous photographer, “Caesar,” recorded, before defecting to the opposition. He and his colleagues’ photographs of thousands of dead victims of the Syrian security services form the basis of a report released this week highlighting the torture and execution of detainees, showing evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report was prepared for Carter-Ruck and Co. Solicitors of London, on behalf of Qatar.
Caesar was a military police photographer. When the uprising began in Syria, he and his colleagues were ordered to photograph the corpses of those killed in the custody of the security services. This was done to allow the issuing of death certificates without the families asking to see the bodies; and to confirm that execution orders had been carried out.
One can admire the paradoxes in the venture. To document in the smallest detail the death of individuals, only to better conceal the method of their murder from inquisitive families. And to show due regard for an administrative requirement of the state, the preparation of a death certificate, as a result of actions that completely undermined the basic role of the state as a protector of its citizens.
But the photographs also appear to be something else: A record to ensure that orders were obeyed, certainly, but also a surreptitious means of keeping the murderers in line through a process of implication in crimes, by a regime living in perpetual fear of betrayal by its own. Each corpse was documented and given a reference number “related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death,” the report reads.
The precision of the security services provides a potential way to identify the guilty. According to estimates by the inquiry team that prepared the report – which includes three former prosecutors who served in the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as well as three forensic experts – the photographic evidence involves some 55,000 images. Since each victim was photographed four or five times, the team estimated that it had images for approximately 11,000 dead detainees.
To many aid agencies involved with Syria, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Syrian activists told Martin Chulov of The Guardian that some 50,000 detainees remain unaccounted for. This figure roughly corresponds to the one reached by Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian activist and human rights lawyer who worked with the Violations Documentation Center. Zeitouneh disappeared last year and until then her group had documented the disappearance of some 47,000 people.
In response to the report, Amnesty International released a statement calling for immediate access to Syrian places of detention for the inquiry team, and some sort of concerted response to the revelations. Philip Luther, the organization’s Middle East and North Africa director, declared, “If confirmed, these would be crimes against humanity committed on a staggering scale. It certainly raises the question once again why the Security Council has not yet referred the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.”
That’s a good question, and Luther knows the answer. Syria is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court Statute. That means crimes there can only be referred to the ICC if the Syrian government were to accept its jurisdiction, or if a case were to be brought by the United Nations Security Council. The first condition will never be met by the Syrian regime, while the second would mean that Russia and China agree not to use their veto, which is almost as unlikely.
In fact, amid all the talk of Russian success in outmaneuvering the West over Syria, the blunt reality is that Moscow, like Beijing, has been abetting horrific crimes by President Bashar Assad’s regime. This may not be surprising from a country led by Vladimir Putin, but what is equally remarkable is that the United States has not seemed overly preoccupied with the human rights situation in Syria, nor has it taken the lead in pushing for judicial accountability. Then again, the U.S. isn’t an ICC signatory either.
In a reckless comment, President Barack Obama described the Syrian conflict as “someone else’s civil war,” this at a time when the savagery of Assad’s security services was well established, amid evidence that his regime had ordered the murder and torture of tens of thousands of people.
Assad’s forces have behaved like beasts because there has been wide latitude for them to do so, without any penalty. Yet rarely have the horrors of war been made so available, through thousands of videos taken by citizen journalists and activists. However, outrage has been muted. Syrians are entitled to wonder why they count for less than citizens of the former Yugoslavia, or of Libya, who benefited from Western military intervention to avert a massacre in Benghazi.
As the Geneva conference begins, foreign countries should not lose sight of what has occurred in Syria. If a settlement comes at the expense of accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, any hopes for a more just and principled international order will be dashed, and we shall all carry within ourselves part of a great cemetery.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.