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UN judge set to open war crimes cases over Syrian civil war

Multiple UN-backed probes have found evidence of major international crimes by government forces and rebels in the seven-year conflict
Syrian children in Idlib wear makeshift gas masks in preparation for a chemical attack by Syrian government forces (AFP)

The United Nations judge responsible for preparing war crimes charges against individuals over the Syrian civil war has planned to open two cases by the end of the year. 

Catherine Marchi-Uhel, a French national, heads the body known as the "International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism" tasked with bringing those responsible for the most severe crimes in Syria to justice.

The IIIM was set up after the UN General Assembly voted in 2017 to investigate serious crimes in Syria but has struggled to raise money to fund the body. 

"We expect to open two or more specific investigative case files before the end of this year," Marchi-Uhel told reporters in Geneva, without providing details. 

Multiple other UN-backed probes have found evidence of major international crimes by government forces and rebels in the seven-year conflict. But those enquiries have not attributed legal responsibility to individual leaders or commanders.

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Frustration over "Russian obstruction" in investigations relating to Syria led to Carla Del Ponte, a leading UN Syria investigator, leaving her post in 2017. 

Del Ponte was one of three investigators appointed by the UN to investigate war crimes in the Syrian civil war for a separate body not related to the IIIM. 

During her resignation, she said that in Rwanda and Yugoslavia she was "able to pursue investigators, file indictments and arrests [that led] to trials and convictions. 

"But in this case [Syria] nothing happens. It's unbelievable. It's a disgrace for the international community and particularly for the security council." 

In building her cases, Marchi-Uhel said she would focus in part on crimes representative of the widespread violations committed during the conflict as well as acts that had a significant impact on the broader war. She also highlighted that she would focus on all parties to the complex conflict.

Marchi-Uhel described her office as a "quasi-prosecutor" which will be looking to share files with regional and national courts, in addition to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Her office is currently working on requests for cooperation from seven different jurisdictions, she said. The French judge is a veteran of international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia.