last edits January 6, 2015
The findings of the United Nation Commission of Inquiry into Syria (CoI), carried out under the auspices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, provides the closest thing the "international community" or has to an official story on the Houla Massacre. Because of its supposed rigor and impartiality, the CoI's findings are the first source turned to by the Western media and leaders to support their decision to blame the government and allied, genocidal, Alawite militias.
The findings related on this blog differ greatly, and this post is meant to answer the questions many will have on seeing that disagreement. How on Earth could their rigorous, impartial findings, with such a logical conclusion, be trumped by amateur online investigators? How is their investigation even really open to question at all?
* Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab
Republic UN Human Rights Council, June 27, 2012. PDF link.
* United Nations Human Rights Council: Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. August 16, 2012. A/HRC/21/50 PDF link
Some reasons to doubt their findings: (not an exhaustive list):
1) The Commission of Inquiry was chaired by Karen Koning Abuzayd, a US diplomat and director of a Washington think tank (Middle East Policy Council) that clearly shares the basic outlook and goals of the US government and its corporate backers. Imagine if this were reversed and a pro-Assad Russian think tank director were put in charge of the probe - can you imagine the uproar? But it's reversed and so everyone calls it credible, not because our slant is the good guy one but because its the one so pervasive it's generally invisible.
2) Its findings are based largely on believing, with little scrutiny, the rebel-supplied alleged witnesses while doing whatever they could to ignore the other alleged witnesses. The Western media and governments already relied on this screening method for their narrative. Repeating that exercise does nothing to "confirm" those prior calls in a manner that reflects well on the report's credibility. (see post Witness Reliability.)
3) A number of flawed and shifting decisions regarding the rebel offensive and security situation are highlighted in our 2014 report, pages 38-40, 43-45, 46, 52, and pages 54-57. The net effect, perhaps coincidentally, is to leave them presuming unfettered government control in the massacre zones rebels almost got themselves into. Thus, most likely it was pro-government forces who did the killings, and so on.
4) The CoI seemingly ignored the UN's own previous findings on Houla to leave itself uninformed, and then blamed the Syrian government. Their June report with its lack of clear blame on the regime notes, perhaps in explanation for that, "the CoI was unable to visit the site of the killing as it has yet to be afforded access to the country. This fact substantially hampered the investigation, and its findings should be viewed in that light."
But they had a report submitted by the UNSMIS monitors with detailed testimony from Houla residents, and apparently failed to look at it, while insisting on new access for the CoI in particular. I say they apparently failed to look because they otherwise must have consciously ignored what it said; the CoI said in its later August report, assessing the field of alleged witnesses, "apart from the two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events.” There are over a dozen around in the public record that do so. And there are the ones their own monitors heard from but we have not, in a report they should have had access to, but give no clue - in the reports, anyway - of knowing about.
At a press conference with journalists in Damascus on June 15, Major-General Robert Mood, head of UNSMIS (the UN Special Mission in Syria) spoke on the report he submitted to New York after his team's visit to Taldou. "We have interviews, interviewed locals with one story, and we have interviewed locals that has another story," he said, both included in the report. He gave no further details, but we know what the two basic stories are, and one is consistent with the government's. Was neither of these narratives his people heard from "locals" (plural) that same one supported by the video evidence? Or did the CoI just never see the report?
As for how the UNSMIS weighed the two witness sets, Gen. Mood said on June 15 "the circumstances leading up to el Houla and the detailed circumstances, the facts related to the incident itself, still remains unclear to us." In the same press conference, Mood offered to help with further on-site investigation to settle the matter. The first UNSMIS Houla report was never referenced, and the mission was willfully shut down in July (mandate allowed to expire by decision of western governments) so there could never be a second one. Note: a month before that proper disbandment, the UNSMIS decided (were compelled?) to suspend all field investigations due to security worries - on June 16, the day after that press conference.
So ... the UN's on-the-ground investigation heard two stories, both compelling enough that the situation remained unclear to them. When everything else the CoI considered at first left it unclear as well ... they blame Syria, for not letting them do an on-the-ground investigation ... even though that already happened and yielded a result that sounds at least as murky.