Will the United Nations Connect the Dots in Syria?

Will the United Nations Connect the Dots in Syria?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is briefing the Security Council today on the findings of the special mission set up to investigate the use of chemical weapons. The mission had a responsibility to investigate whether chemical weapons were used, but not to identify the perpetrators. The report hews to that line; it provides technical details on the attack and its consequences, but avoids conclusions on authorship.

The U.N. report has been released into an environment, at least in the West, where Syrian government responsibility is taken for granted. Western capitals have all accused the regime. Human Rights Watch has concluded that regime forces "almost certainly" launched the attack. Yet the report is being combed for any implicit conclusions on responsibility, and senior U.N. officials will face intense pressure from journalists to draw the seemingly obvious conclusion.

It’s worth recalling that there’s another U.N. investigation under way that has an explicit mandate to assign responsibility. Two years ago, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council created a commission, chaired by Brazilian Sergio Pinheiro and including former international prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

The Commission was … tasked to establish the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations and of the crimes perpetrated and, where possible, to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity, are held accountable.

This Reuters report makes clear that this commission is also engaged on the chemical weapons question, and in a potentially broader and more comprehensive fashion:

U.N. war crimes investigators know of 14 potential chemical attacks in Syria since they began monitoring Syrian human rights abuses in September 2011, the team’s chairman said on Monday.

"We are investigating 14 alleged cases of chemical weapons or chemical agent use. But we have not established the responsibility or the nature of the materials that were used," Paulo Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria told a news conference.

How actively the Pinheiro-led commission now pursues its mandate may be an important question. The emerging deal on Syrian disarmament will require high and sustained levels of regime support. However strained, a level of official international ambiguity about who committed the August attacks may serve a strategic purpose in facilitating regime cooperation and Russian buy-in. Western governments didn’t wait for the U.N. report to assign blame for the chemical attack and to threaten consequences. That pressure has yielded a disarmament process the West thinks has some potential. Ironically, Western officials may now not be enthusiastic about U.N. investigators connecting the dots on individual guilt.