A follow-up: growing support for the creation of a standing mechanism to investigate serious human rights violations

There are currently more than 15 so-called “mechanisms,” specialized and dedicated units investigating human rights violations in different countries and assembling case files for prosecution.

It was hard to find an empty seat at the recent Human Rights Council side event put together by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to drum up support for the creation of a Standing Independent Investigative Mechanism (SIIM) to investigate serious human rights violations and strengthen accountability. First unveiled publicly in May, this is a clear indication that the project has been gaining traction since. There are currently more than 15 so-called “mechanisms,” specialized and dedicated units investigating human rights violations in different countries and assembling case files for prosecution. Among them are the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) investigating serious crimes committed in Syria and the Independent Investigative Mechanism (IIM) on Myanmar.

But if experts agree that these accountability mandates play an important role, there is also a broad consensus that the piecemeal approach to the establishment of such mechanisms may have to be reconsidered to ensure better efficiency and tackle new challenges—including the critical importance of handling digital evidence, now crucial in documenting abuses and violations.

With the proliferation of mechanisms, sometimes with different mandates, “the pertinent question has arisen whether one single-standing accountability mechanism wouldn’t be better suited to lead investigations in most serious crimes. The idea of such a mechanism is very compelling,” Kurt Jäger, Liechtenstein Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told the gathering.

With Germany, Liechtenstein is one of the main governments officially supporting the project. For the ICJ, a SIIM would have two functions:

  • conduct investigations with a view to gathering information and evidence for potential use in criminal and other legal and administrative proceedings
  • use its capacity to act as a specialist service provider to existing and future UN body-created Accountability Mandates, including relevant fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry.

Its proponents also stress that the SIIM would support and complement the existing human rights and international justice architecture, including the work of the Hague International Criminal Court (ICC).

It would do so in three ways, the ICJ’s Kingsley Abbott explained: the SIIM could carry out investigations in situations where the ICC has no jurisdiction, it could conduct advanced investigations before the ICC could become operational, and thirdly, serve as a “force multiplier” for the Hague. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the mechanism on Syria used the analogy of a “mothership” to describe the SIIM’s added value to the current system. “It wouldn’t be static,” but could offer expertise, support, and assistance to the various existing mandates. “Its main task would be to provide a pool of services,” she told the audience, ensuring that “the precious lessons and best practices” of the different mandates be retained and perpetuated. “It took us a whole year to become operational and much more time to develop many of our current methodologies, let alone the technical capacities to do the work,” she remarked.

Challenges to the creation of such a standing mechanism undoubtedly abound. But from China to Russia, there is also growing pressure from liberal democracies and civil society to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to account. “We have massive violations taking place in our world today, crimes of torture, and murder and rape. We see attacks on hospitals and on humanitarians, forcible disappearances followed by torture and deaths. But the current justice institutions make it difficult to carry these cases forward. And the perpetrators sense that they can get away with their violations. (…) We need the kind of (digital) information that links the crimes to the perpetrators. I think it is absolutely essential if we don’t want to see even more crimes and more violations than we’ve seen in the last ten years,” Ambassador Stephen Rapp, former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues and the principal architect behind the creation of the SIIM, forcefully argued.