UN investigators said Friday they were prepared to publish secret lists of alleged war criminals in Syria to help stem an "exponential rise" in atrocities from nearly four years of war.
Releasing the lists would put "alleged perpetrators on notice" and could "serve to maximize the potential deterrent effect" and "help to protect people at risk of abuse," a commission of inquiry said in a new report.
The commission has drawn up four lists of individuals and groups it believes are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and has kept them locked up in a safe in Geneva, out of concern for due process.
But the investigators said they were ready to shift their approach after nearly four years of efforts.
"We are trying to convince, to mobilize the international community to consider all options on the table for accountability and not to ignore the horrific, the abominable situation of the victims of this war," Brazilian Paolo Pinheiro, who heads the panel, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
The investigators are set to hand over a fifth list of suspected war criminals to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month, and Pinheiro said he expects a decision during the March 17 meeting on the release of the names.
"Not to publish the names at this juncture of the investigation would be to reinforce the impunity that the commission was mandated to combat," the commission said in its report.
More than 210,000 people have been killed in Syria and half of the population has been forced to flee their homes since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
- Assad on the list? -
The lists include a number of unit commanders and armed group leaders who were identified as perpetrators on the basis of their command responsibility.
Investigators have refused to say whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or any of his close aides are on the list, but former UN rights chief Navi Pillay, who was safeguarding the list, said more than a year ago that "the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state."
In its ninth report, the commission described as "an exponential rise in the perpetration of war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations".
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It detailed a horrifying array of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the Syrian regime, Islamic State (IS) jihadists and other armed opposition groups.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, one of the four commission members, singled out the appalling use of children, particularly by IS fighters, in the conflict, describing it as a growing worrisome trend.
Children are "being used as killers, as executioners and as assassins through suicide bombings. These appalling practices must be stopped," said Muntarbhorn.
The commission has never gained access to Syria but has collected thousands of witness accounts, satellite photographs and documents to build up a case of human rights violations.
- No follow-up -
The investigators expressed deep frustration at what they deemed an inadequate international response to the atrocities taking place on a daily basis in Syria.
Commission member Carla Del Ponte, a former war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans, noted that the panel had met with the UN Security Council five times to appeal for action, but that there was "no follow-up."
"The Security Council is not acting," she told reporters. "We expect, really, after four years that something must be done."
Russia, an Assad ally, and China vetoed in May last year a resolution calling on the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria.
In New York, the investigators once again urged the council to refer Syria to the ICC, but also suggested the cases could go before an ad hoc tribunal similar to the one created for the former Yugoslavia.
Such a tribunal could be based in a country near Syria, the investigators said.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said "there was a chance" that the council could agree on prosecuting war crimes in Syria, but he added: "I cannot pretend to be optimistic."
Asked about the report, Syria's Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, dismissed the inquiry as "propaganda" aimed at demonizing his government.