Accountability in Syria

The world appears to have run out solutions to the Syrian crisis. An extensive five-month report commissioned by the UN revealed in January that the generally accepted death toll of around 40,000 was wrong by almost half. Instead, the statisticians showed that 60,000 people had been killed by the end of last November; a death toll that is increasing at a rate of 5,000 a month. The steady increase in the lethality of fighting is also forcing more to flee the country, with January this year seeing a record 56,000 people cross into Jordan alone.


The UN Security Council remains divided against this backdrop of bloodshed. The Russians and the Chinese are refusing to countenance the notion of Syria’s sovereignty being compromised on the basis of internal fighting. At the same time, the US and Europe have ruled out unilateral military intervention and are deeply nervous about providing anything more than non-lethal support to the still-fragmented Syrian opposition. Yet the popular narrative—even from the Russians—is that it is only a matter of time before the Assad regime falls. This raises a huge range of questions as to what will happen after the conflict, and although it is certainly presumptuous to imagine a post-Assad Syria, it is nevertheless necessary to ensure that the international community is prepared for such an eventuality.

March 15 marks the two-year anniversary of the violence in Syria; March 19—four days later—is the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The subsequent collapse of the Iraqi state preceded a bloody civil war (2005–2008), whose repercussions continue to wreak violence across the country. Much like the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1991), an end to major violence in Iraq was not followed by a genuine process of reconciliation in which people who committed crimes during the fighting were brought to justice. Learning from the past and creating mechanisms of accountability today can be part of ensuring stability in the Syria of tomorrow.

Much is already afoot in this regard. At present, the most conventional route—referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC)—is off the table. Syria is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, so a highly specialized criminal investigation by the ICC Prosecutor can only start after a referral by the Security Council. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has been pushing for such a referral since July 2012, arguing that it could give “international sanction to the documentation of abuses by both the government and the opposition such as killings, torture, detention, recruitment of children, abductions [or] taking of hostages.”

Pillay is not alone in pushing for the international mechanism of law to engage with the conflict in Syria. In January, a petition led by Switzerland and 57 other countries was delivered to the Security Council.

Pillay is not alone in pushing for the international mechanism of law to engage with the conflict in Syria. In January, a petition led by Switzerland and 57 other countries was delivered to the Security Council. It called again for the situation in Syria to be referred to the ICC. Although the signatories were aware that there is no prospect of such a referral given the deep divisions in the Council, the petition was intended to send “a clear message that the international community is not turning a blind eye to the atrocities being committed in Syria,” according to a British diplomat. The Russians continue to argue that such a referral would be “untimely and counterproductive.” At a closed-door UN session, one Russian diplomat was rumored to have said, “Everyone realizes you can’t start a dialogue by this route. Look at the Libya case, there was not much justice after the referral to the ICC, only a bullet in the head of Gaddafi.”

With the United Nations Security Council gridlocked, much of the energy of world governments has gone into responding to the humanitarian crisis, with a donor conference in Kuwait in January raising an unprecedented USD 1.5 billion for the first six months of the year. Other governments have been leading targeted sanctions, seizing regime assets and acting as bridge builders and opposition conveners of sorts. British Prime Minister David Cameron traveled to the Jordanian border following the US election in November 2012, signaling a drive to better unify and lead the opposition towards a transition to a post-Assad era that was enshrined in a major meeting in Doha that same month. The creation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces sparked speculation that those Western powers would start going beyond the non-lethal support that they have given the opposition to date. At the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting in December, member-states agreed on a three-month arms embargo, rather than twelve-month one, to give them the flexibility to arm the opposition in future. However, at present there appears to be a slow down in arms shipments to the opposition, with people close to events on the ground saying that “the supplies are drying up.” So if arming the opposition is off the table for now, what more can be done?

An important pilot scheme is the British government’s new program of deploying doctors, investigators, psychologists and lawyers to the Syrian region to gather evidence to bring perpetrators of rape to justice. UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos has repeatedly spoken about the vicious and indiscriminate nature of the violence and increasing levels of sexual violence and rape in Syria. British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative is a major part of his global priorities for 2013—and with ICC referral blocked, it has obvious benefits in Syria.

In addition, part of the non-lethal support from both the US and the UK to date has included giving training to human rights monitors, some of whom have visited sites such as Houla, the site of a reported massacre in May last year. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice explained in January that “as the transition proceeds, we stand ready to assist Syria’s new leaders in their efforts to address issues of accountability and reconciliation. For this purpose, the United States will continue to support Syrian and international efforts to document evidence of atrocities committed by all sides for use in future accountability processes.”

Although referral to the ICC has been prevented to date, that may not be the case indefinitely. It is crucial for Syria’s post-Assad future that people on all sides who have committed war crimes and grievous human rights abuses are brought to account. In my view, countries with the resources to do so should lead on the creation of a Syria Accountability Group (SAG) that would be made up of as broad an international coalition as possible and that would convene all available information on abuses from the various internal and external monitoring teams that are at work. The international community needs to somehow navigate from Syria’s descent into hell to transitioning into a process that leads to peace. The creation of an effective SAG would reflect a longer-term commitment to a better future for Syria.


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