GENEVA — The top United Nations human rights official linked President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to war crimes and crimes against humanity for the first time on Monday, citing evidence collected by her panel of investigators over the course of the 33-month-old conflict in that country.
The panel, which has not been allowed to enter Syria, has gathered information from Syrian refugees and other sources. The panel has compiled lists of names of individuals, military units and intelligence agencies implicated in the human rights abuses committed on a wide scale since the conflict began in March 2011, with a view to ensuring that those responsible are eventually brought to justice.
As long ago as February 2012, the panel found “reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers, and officials at the highest levels of government bear responsibility for war crimes and gross human rights violations.” The panel also found Syrian opposition groups implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, although on a lesser scale.
But panel members, led by Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian rights expert, and including Carla Del Ponte, the former war crimes tribunal prosecutor, have studiously avoided going further in identifying either the individuals or even the number of names on their lists.
Ms. Pillay later sought to clarify her comment, observing that “I have not said that a head of state is a suspect. I was quoting the fact-finding mission, which said that based on their facts, responsibility points at the highest level.”
Her comments, however, drew a riposte from Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad. “She has been talking nonsense for a long time and we don’t listen to her,” he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying.
Ms. Pillay said the panel had handed her lists of names to be held securely at the human rights office in Geneva. Ms. Pillay also repeated demands that she and the panel have made that the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
“Accountability should be key priority of international community, and I want to make this point again and again as the Geneva 2 talks begin,” she said, alluding to the second international conference on Syria scheduled to start in Geneva on Jan. 22.
In other Syria-related developments on Monday, the top United Nations official in charge of coordinating the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile confirmed that the country’s ability to produce those munitions had been rendered inoperable since a joint mission with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began work in October.
But the official, Sigrid Kaag, said at the organization’s annual meeting of member states in The Hague that “the most complex and challenging work still lies ahead,” referring to the safe disposal of the weapons. According to a United Nations Security Council resolution, they must be destroyed by mid-2014.
The organization’s director general, Ahmed Uzumcu, announced on Saturday that the United States had offered to help eradicate the weapons at sea, on an American vessel equipped with special destruction technology. He also said the organization had received 35 “expressions of interest” from commercial companies to destroy the weapons.
In Lebanon, Syria’s western neighbor, the authorities announced that the army would undertake “all necessary procedures” to restore order in the northern city of Tripoli, where days of sectarian street clashes tied to competing allegiances in the Syria conflict have left at least 10 people dead. The army sent reinforcements to the city and was raiding areas often used by gunmen, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.
Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Rick Gladstone from New York.