Assad, Beware the Long Arm of Justice

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

As a shaky ceasefire in Syria appears on the verge of collapse, peace talks are set to resume in Geneva this week. It’s a harrowing time for Syrians, made all the worse by the Syrian government continuing to willfully cut off deliveries of food and medicine to civilians. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told reporters this week that 4.5 metric tons of medical supplies were stripped from a recent convoy headed for innocent people trapped in cities under siege. Instead of death by barrel bomb, Syrians face the agony of starvation, malnutrition, and preventable diseases. A slower way to die, but no less cruel.

Intentionally cutting off humanitarian aid is a war crime. Add that to the staggeringly long list of war crimes committed in Syria – unspeakable violations of what are universally considered the laws of armed conflict. Emerging news this week confirms a growing trove of documentary evidence to support such charges. But what good is a list of crimes if no one is ever held responsible for them?

Chief among those who must face justice is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When his rule was challenged by protestors demanding freedom, rights, and opportunities during the heady days of the Arab Spring, his response was to launch a deadly campaign against the people of Syria. Security forces swept up, tortured, and disappeared thousands. The Syrian military has focused on punishing civilians living in opposition-held areas, killing hundreds of thousands of people and besieging more than 800,000.

The Syrian Air Force, backed by its Russian allies, has engaged in a bombing campaign on hospitals and clinics and has targeted doctors and other medical professionals, adding to the challenge of staying alive for those who have not fled the fighting. Physicians for Human Rights has documented 358 attacks on hospitals since 2011, more than 90 percent of them by Assad’s forces and their allies. The government has systematically violated virtually all the laws of war: hard-won standards aimed at making war a little less hellish for civilians.

Yet no court has come forward to claim jurisdiction over the crimes committed in Syria. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague was envisioned as a court of last resort to bring to justice brutal leaders like Assad who bear individual criminal responsibility for the worst crimes under international law. For too long, we lived in a world in which political power was parlayed into impunity.

The ICC came into being by international accord in 1998, but a self-congratulatory mood was soon replaced with an understanding that the court’s mechanisms were inadequate. Civil society organizations had played a powerful role in advocating for the ICC, but when it came to bringing cases for prosecution, that power was granted solely to the ICC prosecutor, individual states, and the UN Security Council.

The ICC has had its high moments: last month, the court convicted former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But thus far, the Security Council has failed to refer Syria’s heinous crimes to the ICC. If a state like Syria has a champion among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a referral to the international court will be blocked. Russia and China have vetoed any meaningful action on Syria. Power – or having powerful friends – is promoting a wanton disregard for international law.

In the short term, there are a few options to prosecute Assad. National courts may bring cases based on the principle of universal jurisdiction – the idea that some crimes are so egregious that no matter who commits them or where, all states that can do so should prosecute those crimes. The systematic nature of Assad’s crimes may well prompt some governments to exercise universal jurisdiction to start the wheels of justice turning.

In the longer term, once Assad is no longer in power, there may be support for the creation of a special Syrian Court, with assistance from people with expertise in investigating and prosecuting complex cases that capture the magnitude of the crimes committed. One such example was the special court for Sierra Leone, which in 2012 condemned former Liberian president Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the ‘90s.

And last month, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia sentenced former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in prison for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the 1990s Bosnian war – including ethnic cleansing, the siege of Sarajevo, and the deaths of 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered in Srebrenica under Karadzic’s command.

As government forces continue to perpetrate their war crimes in Syria, Assad would do well to remember that while Russia may have his back at the UN Security Council for now, those in power change, and their interests change. Over time, particularly as the world comes to understand the extent of Assad’s crimes, the calls for justice will strengthen, not wane.

Just last week, the ICC failed to pursue a case against Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto, citing witness tampering and political interference. The ICC and international legal systems are no doubt flawed. But, as Radovan Karadzic, Charles Taylor, and others sitting in prison have learned the hard way, those who believe in justice do not give up, and sometimes international justice prevails.

Get Updates from PHR