UNITED NATIONS – The bodies of the young men in the photographs are emaciated, their bones protruding. Starvation was only one form of torture they endured. Some bear the marks of strangulation. Others have vivid bruises and welts from being beaten.
On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council was to meet privately to view projected slides of the dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a Syrian civil war in which more than 150,000 have so far died.
France, which is hosting the closed-door meeting, says the photos to be displayed are part of a collection of 55,000 digital images of Syrians who were tortured and slain by President Bashar Assad’s regime. France says a majority of them were collected by a Syrian military police photographer code-named “Caesar,” who smuggled them out on flash drives when he defected.
Syria’s Justice Ministry has dismissed the photos and accompanying report as “politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism,” a “gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners.” The ministry said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.
The presentation at the Security Council is part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes in the hope of eventually referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
That is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Because Syria never accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, the only way a case can be opened while Assad is in power is for the Security Council to order a referral.
Russia and China have used their veto power three times to block resolutions threatening sanctions on Syria. The hope is that Russia and China will eventually agree to an ICC referral if a resolution names both Syrian government officials and rebels as war crimes perpetrators, according to a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no resolution is in the works.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has been pushing the council to refer Syria to the ICC for three years, but Security Council President U. Joy Ogwu said last week there is no consensus for such a step.
Still, France’s U.N. mission said in a statement that the meeting Tuesday “will also allow a discussion on the means to ensure accountability for these crimes.”
Pillay said last week that abuses by both the Syrian government and rebels should be documented and brought to the international court. But she added, “You cannot compare the two. Clearly, the actions of the forces of the government . . . killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances, far outweigh those by the opposition.”
Ten of the photos were publicly released in January in a study known as the “Caesar Report,” which was funded by the government of Qatar, one of the countries most deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and a major backer of the opposition. More were to be seen Tuesday by the council.
Two of the authors of the “Caesar Report” will brief the council: David M. Crane, who was first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton, a forensic pathologist from Britain. The third author was Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor of ex-President Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
“Caesar” had been a crime scene photographer for the Syrian military, the report says. When the civil war began, he and his colleagues were reassigned to photograph the tortured bodies of rebels and dissidents, providing proof to the regime that its enemies had been liquidated in detention. Victims were assigned a code number. Their relatives were told that the victims had died of “a heart attack or breathing problems” and their number was reassigned to a hospital. Bodies were then buried before relatives could view them.