More than 50 countries led by Switzerland have called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the Syria crisis to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which prosecutes genocide and war crimes.
"We are firmly of the view that the Security Council must ensure accountability for the crimes that seem to have been and continue to be committed in the Syrian Arab Republic and send a clear signal to the Syrian authorities," read a letter submitted on Monday at the UN in New York by Switzerland.
"The situation on the ground has only become more desperate, with attacks on the civilian population and the commission of atrocities having almost become the norm," pointed out the letter, supported by permanent council members France and Britain.
More than 60,000 people have been killed during a 21-month-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which began with peaceful protests but turned violent after Assad's forces cracked down on demonstrators.
Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities, but the United Nations says the government and its allies have been more culpable.
"At the very least, the council should send out an unequivocal message urging the Syrian authorities and all other parties to fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law in the ongoing conflict," read the letter.
The letter said the council should announce "that it intends to refer the situation to the ICC unless a credible, fair and independent accountability process is being established in a timely manner".
Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute, which set up the International Criminal Court, so the only way the court can investigate the situation is if it receives a referral from the Security Council. The council has previously referred conflicts in Libya and Darfur, Sudan to the court.
Action against impunity
"Switzerland is convinced that no lasting peace is possible in Syria without taking consistent action against impunity," Adrian Sollberger, spokesman for Swiss UN Mission in New York, told swissinfo.ch.
For the Swiss foreign ministry, the petition will not undermine attempts to find a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, which Switzerland also supports.
The Swiss initiative was launched in June last year, but the petition was only submitted now as its success depends to a large extent from the support of a sufficient number of countries from around the world according to Sollberger, notably to ensure that it had "sufficient political weight".
The timing was also related to the ongoing situation in Syria. "After almost two years of bloody fighting the humanitarian situation in Syria is still deteriorating. And there is still no political solution in sight," added Sollberger.
Whether the council will act remains uncertain. The United States, China and Russia, the other three permanent council members with veto powers, are not members of the ICC, although the US considers the petition favourably according to UN insiders.
Russia and China have acted as Syria's protector by repeatedly blocking Western efforts to take stronger UN action - such as imposing sanctions - against the Syrian government to try to end the war.
"But regardless of the decision of the Security Council, the letter in itself sends a strong signal against impunity: a significant number of countries are not willing to tolerate crimes against humanity and war crimes," pointed out Sollberger.
"This is a signal to the victims in Syria that they are not forgotten. And it is a warning to warring parties on all sides to stop violence as well as to respect human rights and international humanitarian law. The letter therefore also has a value in itself."
swissinfo.ch and agencies