United Nations human rights investigators in Syria said on Tuesday that preparing prosecutions against war criminals in Syria should not be delayed until the end of the conflict, which is now entering its sixth year.
"The adoption of measures that lay the ground for accountability need not and should not wait for a final peace agreement to be reached," Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, told the UN Human Rights Council.
"Now for the first time, there is hope of an end in sight," Pinheiro told the forum as UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura carried out mediation efforts nearby.
The UN Commission of Inquiry, which has documented atrocities committed by all sides of the war, has submitted a list of suspects and begun providing judicial assistance to the authorities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that "the main part" of Russia’s armed forces in Syria would start to withdraw, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as UN-mediated talks resumed in Geneva between the Syrian regime and opposition.
"The United States unequivocally condemns atrocities committed by all sides, but we must not forget what the Syrian people will always remember: Assad and his allies have been, from the very beginning, by far the primary source of killing, torture, and deprivation in this war," Michael Ratney, US Special Envoy for Syria, said.
Activists and the independent UN investigators are "all laying the ground work for holding perpetrators of crimes accountable in the future." Ratney said, adding that "It is not a question of if; it is a question of when."
Pinheiro called for immediate steps to organise a long-term process of transitional justice and respect for the rule of law.
"Criminal justice is essential but currently the only justice referred is through national courts of member states. We will continue to call for referral to the ICC [International Criminal Court] or an ad hoc tribunal," Pinheiro said.
Violations still continue with thousands detained and tortured and many dying in custody, Pinheiro said.
DAESH, which is not included in the cessation of hostilities agreement that went into force on Feb. 27, continues to carry out suicide bombings and holds more than 3,000 Yazidi women as sexual slaves, he added.
Pinheiro called on the Syrian regime and opposition to agree to confidence-building measures. These included the unconditional and immediate release of all prisoners arbitrarily detained - especially women and children - setting up a mechanism to trace those missing and an end to sieges.
"We are convinced this would lay a foundation to the beginning of a real transition," Pinheiro said.