ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, says Syria has become a torture chamber and the worst manmade disaster since World War 2. And the commissioner, who's a Jordanian, now joins us from Geneva to talk about this. Welcome to the program once again.
ZEID RA'AD AL-HUSSEIN: Thank you, Robert. Thank you.
SIEGEL: By what measure is Syria the worst manmade disaster in 70 years?
ZEID: Well, after 70 years of the most brutal slaughter, it's amazing how we've become used to it when on almost a weekly basis we will read an - a horrific attack or that large numbers of prisoners have been executed, torture, detention, often detention without trial and often the families not knowing what's happened to their detainees, whether they are detained by the Syrian authorities or by ISIS.
And on that basis, I mean, we see and read a lot of reports. We see a lot of evidence gathered from places around the world. And Syria really is a standalone in terms of the savagery and brutality of this war and the pain inflicted on millions of civilians who certainly do not deserve more than this.
SIEGEL: How many people do you figure are detainees in Syria today?
ZEID: Well, we estimate. We can't be sure, But certainly a large number are. And as we have heard from witnesses and former detainees themselves, certainly it'll be difficult to imagine that the peace talks can progress unless you have released large numbers of detainees.
And they shouldn't be held onto as bartering chips in any negotiating process. Their families have suffered enough. And they need to be released. At the very least, the families need to be informed of their whereabouts. And if they have died, they need to be told that they have in fact died.
SIEGEL: Prince Zeid, you have written as a U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that your office is moving as fast as possible on building up the basis for criminal proceedings against individual perpetrators. Is there a risk that the threat of prosecution for crimes against humanity would make it even less likely that, say, the Syrian regime would agree to peace terms if the very people who would have to make peace would then be asked to stand trial? Might that be a disincentive to negotiate?
ZEID: Well, it's true that that may be an argument. But it's equally true that it's very difficult to conceive of a peace that would hold, a peace that is sustainable, durable if there isn't redress to the victims in the form of justice for the large scale almost unprecedented killings in the Middle East. I mean, Iraq comes very close to it of course. But in Syria, the sheer barbarity of it would demand justice.
Indeed, in all our interactions with the victims of this barbarism, they've all said that they cannot conceive of a peace unless there is accountability for these crimes. And yes indeed, we think it's necessary work. And we think that the peace talks must accommodate for it, not the other way around.
SIEGEL: Do you see any prospect for the peace talks, say, within this year?
ZEID: I sincerely hope so. There's a inclination within us that would make us believe that it has to come to an end. And the U.N. is trying very hard to bring it to an end. One hopes that sanity will prevail and that we will close this very bloody chapter in Syrian history and move on to the rebuilding of the country with full accountability for the crimes that have been committed.
SIEGEL: Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, thanks for speaking with us.
ZEID: Thank you very much, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.