For years, hospitals in Syria have been getting bombed. These attacks continue even though the UN collected the locations of these protected sites and shared them with the warring parties in hope of shielding them from the crossfire. Many now suspect the coordinates provided by the UN were actually being used unscrupulously by Russian-Syrian forces as a target list.
If true, this would be a huge abuse of the UN system, not least of all, as directing attacks to these sites is a serious violation of the laws of war. By launching an inquiry into these attacks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has taken a step towards unearthing the truth. But to be effective, he should also task investigators to determine and then publicly identify the forces responsible for these unlawful attacks.
At UN headquarters, some argue against identifying those responsible, saying everyone already knows who is behind this string of bombings in Syria. These voices want the UN to avoid potentially antagonizing Moscow, which is already displeased by the inquiry. No need to poke the proverbial bear, they counsel.
Unfortunately, these short-sighted arguments may carry the day. The UN chief has a tendency to go silent on human rights. We worry he may be tempted to tell his investigators to stop shy of connecting the dots to who’s responsible. When asked about his decision to initiate an investigation, the Secretary-General was quick to assure the world that the UN wasn’t seeking to “prove” anything.
But Guterres shouldn’t break with the precedent set under previous Secretaries General, who have set up inquiries into attacks on the UN that readily attributed responsibility for certain acts. A recent study by the International Peace Institute actually found that every single similar UN inquiry “has indeed identified” those responsible for carrying out certain acts, albeit without any conclusions on their legal culpability. From South Sudan to Gaza, previous such inquiries have pointed fingers where there was a basis to do so. Why should this latest look at Syria be different?
The UN Secretary-General as head of the organization, is charged with defending the UN when its institutions are attacked and its trust violated, regardless of how powerful those responsible may be.
As he decides on the terms of this inquiry on Syria, he has an opportunity to do just that.