United Nations war crimes investigators are considering publishing names of suspects involved in Syria's four-year war and are also pushing for new ways to bring them to justice, in a radical change of strategy announced on Friday.
Diplomatic sources said the Independent Commission of Inquiry, led by Brazilian investigator Paulo Pinheiro, may publish some or all of hundreds of names on secret lists of suspects at the UN Human Rights Council on March 17.
Pinheiro, speaking to reporters after informally briefing the UN Security Council, refused to be drawn, saying any release of names would need to "be of some use" and have some "follow-up".
He also underlined to reporters that horrific crimes are being perpetrated in Syria not just by the terrorist groups, including Islamic State, but also by "government forces and by other non-state armed groups".
Pinheiro's colleague on the Commission of Inquiry, Vitit Muntarbhorn, said the investigators had already drawn up four lists of suspect names.
"To date we have prepared four lists which have been submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for safekeeping in the safe. And those lists cover a variety of alleged perpetrators from different groups. Secondly, to date we have not revealed the names because we consider that the issue of due process of law has to be borne in mind. Thirdly, we are now preparing the fifth list and this is the key list where we will be consolidating some names as well. And the final point is that we are also considering today, this month, the next month, the pros and cons of whether or not to release the lists," he said.
The first four lists include military and security commanders, the heads of detention facilities, and commanders of non-state armed groups, including the so-called "emirs" of radical groups.
The report, the latest in a series documenting human rights abuses such as torture, sex crimes, murder and the use of child soldiers, said the international community had failed in its duty to protect Syria's civilians.
The fighting has killed more than 200,000 people and forced 10 million from their homes, triggering a regional humanitarian crisis that shows no sign of ending.
Without naming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's allies such as Russia and Iran, nor countries backing rebel armed groups such as the United States, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the investigators made plain that they blamed such countries for the continuing bloodshed.
"The consistent support provided to the government by its international backers, in terms of military equipment, advice and training, encouraged it to persist in its military and security approach based on the excessive use of force," the report said.
Meanwhile support for opposition armed groups was too restricted to enable them to seriously challenge government forces, and had strengthened the hand of radicals, it added.
"The support given to the so-called 'moderates' has ultimately consolidated the dominance of extremist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which managed to overrun the positions of moderates and to gain loyalties among their ranks," the report also said.
The inquiry has repeatedly called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), but with that avenue blocked by divisions on the UN Security Council, it said an international ad hoc tribunal should be urgently considered instead.
While interacting with reporters, Carla Del Ponte, another member of the inquiry group, again pushed for the referral of the Syrian conflict to the ICC.
"An immense amount, an immense package of crimes are committed daily in Syria and nobody, nobody, the Security Council is not acting despite the resolution we had. So we are appealing again here, because the Security Council, asking for justice, asking that they decide finally a referral to justice, ICC (International Criminal Court), the tribunal ad hoc, that are the alternative. We put alternative and we accept really after four years that something must be done," she said.
"The fact that no one disagrees about the abuses that are being perpetrated on all sides, there may be a chance that the council would be prepared to refer the situation to the ICC. I cannot pretend to be optimistic. But we will certainly look to see whether they could be unanimity on that issue this time, as there wasn't nine months ago when we tried," said Britain's UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.
The investigators said they had increasingly been sharing information with countries planning to prosecute their own citizens for crimes committed in Syria, and they also would be willing to share information with states trying to prosecute foreign nationals under the rules of "universal jurisdiction".
Syria has refused to cooperate with the investigators and its UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari called their inquiry biased.
"From the beginning we said that this commission was established for political purposes, to serve a hidden agenda of the handlers and masters of the terrorists who are targeting Syria -- the government, Syria -- the country and Syria --- the people. This commission has been biased from the beginning. It didn't visit Syria. It only met with people who live abroad and claiming to be opponents. And it did ignore always and until now all the reports submitted to it by the Syrian government," Ja'afari said.