Carla Del Ponte has a long and storied history with the United Nations and its international criminal courts system. She was a Swiss attorney-general and then prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In August 2012 she was appointed to the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.
While another UN body chartered specifically to investigate chemical weapons usage in Syria has been blocked by Syrian government demands that it have a very narrow scope and limit its investigation to a single incident in the Khan al-Assal area, Carla Del Ponte, apparently on her own authority, came forward with these provocative statements. She said in an interview with Swiss-Italian TV on Sunday:
"According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated."She gives no further details. She doesn't say which of the five alleged chemical weapons incidents she is referring to, or if she is alleging a new one. She doesn't speak of causalities or a date or a location. She knows the agent was sarin but she either doesn't know or isn't saying much more. Nothing that would allow consideration of other facts surrounding this mysterious charge. She simply put it out there on a 'believe it or don't' basis.
“This was use on the part of the opposition's fighters, not by the government authorities.”
After she made her announcement, Inner City Press, which tracks UN happenings closely, remarked on their website:
Now the question is, how fast can the UN Human Rights Council, or Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, or in the Security Council the Permanent Three (France, UK and US) walk back from this?It didn't take long. Within hours, the UN panel that she is a member of issued this statement:
Geneva, 6 May 2013 -- The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to further comment on the allegations at this time.This timid retraction could hardly undo the damage done by Carla Del Ponte's out of court statement, because no sooner than she made it than Russian and Syrian government sources, and their many mouthpieces around the globe, made sure everyone heard her proclamation as if it already was a UN determined fact. I will quote the SANA article on this in full, because it does something Carla Del Ponte doesn't, it gives us a clue as to which incident is being blamed on the opposition:
Her one specific, sarin gas, raises its own set of questions. The stuff is illusive and hard to nail down as a cause. It dissipates so rapidly that when it was used in the Tokyo subways, they could still open the next day.
Fighters of Syrian Opposition Have Used Sarin,May 06, 2013
UN Commission Investigator Says
UNITED NATIONS, SANA_ Investigators of the United Nations Commission of inquiry on Syria have gathered testimonies from victims and medical staffs indicating that fighters of the Syrian opposition have used the nerve agent sarin, a commission member, Carla Del Ponte said.
"The United Nations Commission of inquiry on Syria has not yet seen evidence of government forces using chemical weapons," Reuters quoted Del Ponte as saying in a televised interview on Sunday.
She added: “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals,”
“According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Carla Del Ponte stressed.
She said : “This was use on the part of the opposition's fighters, not by the government authorities.”
Earlier, a rocket with chemical materials fired by terrorists on Khan al-Asal area, in Aleppo last March, causing the martyrdom of 25 people and the injury of more than one hundred.
So her conclusion that the chemical involved was sarin based on "the way the victims were treated,” should raise many doubts about her methodology, especially if these were Assad supporters being treated by Assad supporters for sarin. The same should be said about her conclusion as to who used the poisonous gas based on "testimonies from victims and medical staffs." Medical staff won't know and victims could only know who appeared to disbursing the chemicals even assuming they were telling the truth.
If the last paragraph of the SANA story is not extraneous material, we can assume that the incident Carla Del Ponte is talking about is also the Khan al-Asal one. Of the at least five chemical attacks that have been alleged to date in this conflict, the one that took place at Khan al-Asal has been the most controversial with the Syrian government blaming "terrorists" for the deaths of 25 and the opposition blaming the Assad forces. A Free Syrian Army commander denied the state media reports at the time, saying:
“We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents. Then suddenly we learned that the regime was turning these reports against us,” said Qassim Saadeddine, a senior Free Army Commander and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo. “The rebels were not behind this attack.”EAWorldView, which tracks developments in Syria closely, said this the day after the attack:
Hours before the state media reports, opposition Facebook pages already had reports of a chemical weapons attack in Khan al Asal. There were also early reports of a Scud missile falling on the city and causing death and destruction, although the first tweet that mentions a Scud does not mention chemical weapons. Soon after this, there was a [tweet] that the Scud missed the opposition-held areas and fell on a pro-Assad rally, releasing the toxic gas.There are many questions surrounding the chemical attack at Khan al-Asal, for example while both the government and opposition agree that it was hit by a missile and trade accusations about who launched the missile, US says satellite intel doesn't see a Scud launch at the time of the attack.
Whatever the circumstances, it does appear that pro-Assad forces and supporters were affected by this attack
And whoever is responsible for this attack, the Syrian government must be confident that it looks like a rebel attack because since they reported this attack, they have been pushing hard to get it and only it investigated. The commission report the Assad regime is hoping for ala Khan al-Asal hasn't been forthcoming because Ban Ki-moon has refused the exclusive invitation and is demanding greater access.
Carla Del Ponte to the rescue!
If Khan al-Asal is the attack Carla Del Ponte is speaking of, we can now make a further speculation as to the real source of her new revelations:
There is a Russia state media journalist, Anastasia Popova, that spent seven months in Syria producting a documentary "The Syrian Dairy." Last week she showed her footage at the Russian Mission to the UN, according to Inner City Press. She claims to have been in Khan al-Asal at the time of the attack, a lucky break for her, given her line of work, and she, not surprisingly, confirms the Assad regime version of events.
She has also shown her work to the 22nd session of the Council of Human Rights of the UN and to the "Commission of Inquiry on Syria," Ponte's group. Popova reported that her meeting with Carla Del Ponte and three other commission members, scheduled for 20 minutes went almost an hour. She said it "was very positive in my opinion." Anastasia Popova recounts in a recent interview with Silvia Cattori that she got very positive feedback from Carla Del Ponte:
I was surprised to receive a letter from Carla del Ponte said she had watched my documentary and is interested in further cooperation. In my opinion, it was a very useful meeting and I hope to see positive results soon.Could this half-baked claim that the opposition used sarin gas be just the positive results Popova was hoping to see?
It has the immediate affect of throwing more dust in the air, mudding the waters. It will cause those thinking of backing the opposition to hesitate and it strengthens the hand of the Assad regime. It has taken the massacre in Banias off the frontpage and will almost certainly drive this conflict in ways that will cost more lives. And most fortuitously for the Assad regime, Ponte broke this story just when the US Congress is taking up the question of arming his opposition.
But We've been through this movie before with Carla Del Ponte, remember?
When Carla Del Ponte was an United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor, she worked very hard at showing that all sides to the conflict were equality responsible for war crimes:
She sought that members of all ethnic groups be convicted. That would lead to some bogus equalisation of criminal responsibility of all sides in war. And that’s a very questionable strategy.That is what Sir Geoffrey Nice, a former ICTY prosecutor said in an interview for "Dnevni Avaz" according to a translation by Ina Vukic.
This simply was not the reality of this conflict and it led her to push through indictments on non-Serbs with little or no evidence. This "artificial apportionment of criminal responsibility" has been called "the hideous legacy of Carla Del Ponte." She was responsible for the indictment of nine high-ranking non-Serbs that spent cumulatively more than 40 years in detention before they were acquitted.
Sir Nice described how it was in the case of the indictment of Prime Minister of Kosovo Ramus Haradinaj, who was later acquitted:
An experienced lawyer and I wrote to Carla Del Ponte just a few months before the issuing of indictment, alerting her that she cannot issue an indictment without the consensus of the legal board, which is a kind of a test regarding the viability of an indictment based on the amount and strength of evidence. This was otherwise the usual practice among lawyers of the Prosecution during Louise Arbour’s time, before Carla Del Ponte came.But as Nice told it,
We explained to her that testing of the indictment was necessary so that the most experienced lawyers could be given the opportunity to comment. But, Del Ponte refused. Just as when she abolished the practice of a professional board when other indictments were in question
Her official power was big. She, as an individual, could bring such significant decisions without any consensus from her office.So she could issue indictments that proved her political thesis that both sides were equally responsible, regardless of the facts, at least until the evidence had to be presented in court. This also helped the Serbians, as Nice sees it:
Through various methods Serbia is determined to leave evidence that could show equal moral responsibility of Serbia and of other republics of the Former Yugoslavia and their people. Such a method wasn’t unsuccessful in situations when, for example, publishing of some essential evidence was blocked.Croat Generals Gotovima and Markac were two of those indicted by Ponte and when they were acquitted, she took public exception to the Hague ruling in a very unprofessional manner:
Further, it maintained the indictments which it based and bases either upon the lack of evidence or on that such evidence does not exist at all. These indictments surfaced even as a part of ICTY working material and you can find them in Mrs Del Ponte’s book. Perhaps their fingers could even be found behind decisions about who is to be indicted and brought before the court.
“This is not justice; this is denial of a huge crime.” She further elaborated on her position stating that the Serbian Government and the Serbs cannot accept such a verdict and "I completely agree with their televised statements because it is clear that the crime has been committed. We shall see what is going to happen next, but surely this is not justice.”In the Request for Investigation and Sanctions Against Ms. Carla Del Ponte filed with the UN by Gotovina's lawyers, they said "Ms. Del Ponte’s improper media statements constitute a grave violation of Mr. Gotovina’s fundamental rights and are an unacceptable interference with the reputation and authority of the ICTY," and they recount:
B. Ms. Del Ponte’s record of inappropriate statementsSo we can see that Carla Del Ponte already had a history of abusing her official position and making statements to the media not supported by facts in evidence for the purpose of proving a pre-determined political point. When Carla Del Ponte was appointed to the UN group that’s considering whether there is enough evidence to show that war crimes have been committed in Syria, former ICTY colleague Sir Geoffrey Nice warned prophetically:
This is not the first time that Ms. Del Ponte has made improper statements concerning cases before the ICTY. In April 2008 the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs reprimanded Ms. Del Ponte for remarks in her book which the Swiss Government said did not “befit her role as ambassador” and contain “statements which are not permissible for a representative of the Swiss government.” She was banned by the Swiss Government from promoting her book.
Ms. Del Ponte consistently commented on the merits of ICTY cases whilst proceedings were ongoing and suggested that defendants were guilty. Whilst not formally sanctioned for these statements, ethical complaints were filed against her. Ms. Del Ponte was also criticized by the respected former President of the ICTY, Professor Antonio Cassese, who noted the following:
"All Ms. Del Ponte's statements before the debate, in which she shouted from the rooftops about having damning evidence against Milosevic, have allowed him to use the ICTY as a political platform."Judge Cassese further commented on Ms. Del Ponte’s unfortunate habit of turning criminal trials into political affairs through the media:
"My concern is that the ICTY, in such a big trial, is being transformed into a political platform. It's what Milosevic is doing, it's what on some occasions Carla Del Ponte has a tendency to do. That creates a malaise and is damaging to the ICTY. Justice is not done by statements to the media. I must say that it's Ms. Del Ponte who started it."
Given her behaviour in the Haradinaj case, her colleagues should be very cautious when considering any of her contributions in the investigation.
More on Carla Del Ponte's ICTY prosecutions can be found here.
UPDATED 7 May 2013 11:40am pst: A group calling itself the Conflict Resolution Center for Syria has started a petition on Change.com - UN: Remove Carla del Ponte from UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria
See this blog for details and updates on the Banias Massacre. As many as 700 may have been slaughtered by Assad the old fashion way while everyone has been discussing chemical weapons and red-lines and Carla Del Ponte.
See this for more on Del Ponte: Carla Del Ponte in the WikiLeaks Cablegate files
See also these other recent blogs by me:
Other Echoes of Iraq in NATO response to WMD in Syria
Islamaphobia & the Boston Bombing | Islamaphobia & the Left
Counterpunch: So Wrong on Syria