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It was 2013 and I had just started as CEO of GOAL. I had received strong advice not to travel to Syria because of the security situation there. The uprising that had begun in 2011 had turned extremely violent. The Government was fighting rebels in many parts of the country.

In the north west, GOAL had a humanitarian programme distributing aid, repairing water systems and supporting bakeries. Getting to meet the staff was complicated but, I felt, worthwhile.

Crossing into Syria from Turkey at a normal border crossing was not an option. Arrangements were made with local farmers to cross at a river that bordered agricultural land. In the river sat a metal barrel about 8 feet across. You stepped in and pulled yourself across the river using a cable suspended between the two banks.

Most people aren’t aware of the complications and dangers associated with supporting vulnerable people in a conflict.

It was clear to me that the uprising had been taken over by extremists and radicals. It was not surprising given the lack of international support. This was despite the widespread evidence of chemical attacks and the use of barrel bombs.

Two weeks later, I gave evidence in the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs committee that the death toll had already reached 80,000. I next addressed the same committee in 2015 by which time the death toll had reached 250,000.

Now in 2021, it is estimated that at least 500,000 Syrians have lost their lives. No one is talking about replacing Assad anymore. But it is also true that no individual group is capable of military victory. On March 15, it will be exactly 10 years since the uprising began.

The only option now is diplomacy. A ceasefire is holding with sporadic outbreaks of violence. A Constitutional Committee has been formed but is struggling to gain acceptance. At some point, however, consideration will have to be given to the prosecution of those responsible for the worst crimes carried out during the conflict.

Now, as an MEP, I continue my campaigning for justice and humanitarian access in Syria.

Next week (March 3rd), I will host a webinar on the fight against impunity in Syria. After other conflicts, individuals have been prosecuted in the International Criminal Court or else special tribunals have been set up. It is a matter of justice for the victims.

The problem with the ICC is that Syria is not a party to the Convention establishing the Court. The UN Security Council could make a referral of Syria to the ICC but Russia holds a veto.

The webinar will hear from a lawyer who is already prosecuting a case in Germany involving the concept of ‘universal jurisdiction’. Effectively, if a war criminal showed up in Dublin, he could be arrested and prosecuted in Ireland.

This is how the trial got under way in Koblenz.

A judgment is expected on Thursday 24 February in the case of Eyad al Gharib, one of the defendants. He was a relatively small fish and there is an argument that he was not directing anything. Retribution is not the same as justice.

In addition, the Dutch government has taken the brave step of notifying the Syrian Government of its intention to take a case against Syria on foot of breaches of the Chemical weapons convention. This procedure started late last year and will take a while to find its way to a conclusion.

Cases have also being brought against European companies guilty of selling surveillance equipment to the Syrian Government. These are even more complicated and will take a long time to come to trial.

There are clearly ways in which the worst war criminals can be brought to justice. All of these developments provide a glimmer of hope for the families of the tens of thousands of people who have disappeared since March 2011.

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