U.N. investigator on Syria: Out over her skis yet again?

U.N. investigator on Syria: Out over her skis yet again?

With the United Nations now walking back statements by Carla Del Ponte about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian rebels, the storied war-crimes investigator is finding herself in a familiar position: Having her remarks muted by her own organization.

Today, the U.N. issued a statement saying it “wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict.” The statement comes 24 hours after Del Ponte, a lead investigator of the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry, suggested that the preponderance of evidence implicates the Syrian rebels over the government. “There are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” she told a Swiss TV channel. “This was used on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”

Del Ponte’s allegations were further scrutinized Monday by the White House, which called her remarks “incredible,” and the State Department,  which said the United States believes Syria’s large chemical weapons stockpiles remain securely in the hands of the regime.

Del Ponte is a legend in international circles: the nemisis of some of the world’s worst tyrants and war criminals. She is a former chief prosecutor of two U.N.-backed tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Just this week, the New Yorker described her as an “indefatigable” lawyer. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t come off half-cocked from time to time — leaving the U.N. to “clarify” her remarks and clean up the mess.

In December 1999, Del Ponte quite dramatically raised eyebrows after being asked if she was prepared to press criminal charges against NATO related to war-crimes allegations in Kosovo. She told London’s Observer, “If I am not willing to do that, I am not in the right place: I must give up the mission.” Four days later, after an international uproar, her office walked it back, saying “NATO is not under investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There is no formal inquiry into the actions of NATO during the conflict in Kosovo.”

In 2008, Del Ponte again stirred the pot at the U.N. with the publication of her book The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals, which alleged the systematic theft and smuggling of human organs from kidnapped Serbs in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. The allegations were so contested, and controversial, that the Swiss government, for which she worked at the time as its ambassador to Argentina, banned her from promoting the book because of the effect it would have on the country’s foreign relations. Authorities on the tribunal, such as Mirko Klarin, described the allegations as “irresponsible and appalling …She shouldn’t put rumours in her book.”

Back at the U.N. Tribunal, where she very recently left, Del Ponte’s remarks again had to be clarified. “The Tribunal is aware of very serious allegations of human organ trafficking raised by the former Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, in a book recently published in Italian under her name,” said an ICTY spokesperson. “No evidence in support of such allegations was ever brought before the Tribunal’s judges.”

Del Ponte also put herself out on the line in 2005 when she accused the Vatican of helping Croatia’s most-wanted war crimes suspect, Gen. Ante Gotovina, avoid capture and prosecution, speculating that he was hiding in a monastery in Croatia. Gotovina was later acquitted after an appeal, an outcome Del Ponte protested. “I’m shocked. I was very surprised and shocked.” she told Serbian reporters. 

This isn’t to suggest that Del Ponte’s chemical weapons claims are false, but it’s worth remembering she has something of a history when it comes to shooting from the hip ahead of an official U.N. consensus.