Accountability for the Atrocities in Syria: A Call on the Opposition


Just a few weeks ago, we entered the third year of the uprising in Syria -- the third year of violence, lawlessness and of unspeakable atrocities. In recent months, collective outrage has somewhat subsided, as the world has gotten used to daily accounts of gruesome crimes. At the same time, there has been more profound analysis and deep thinking on the course of action that may be best to lead Syria into a future that is brighter both for its citizens and for regional stability. Yet one obvious element necessary to build a viable future Syria has been almost entirely neglected: justice for the victims and accountability for the crimes committed.

A Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council has documented these crimes, drawing from the limited sources available. The findings are shocking, even against the background of long years of systematic abuse of human rights and the most brutal oppression in the country: systematic violence perpetrated against children, sexual violence on a massive scale, widespread use of the most abhorrent forms of torture and a profound disrespect for human life. When earlier reports indicated that the regime, true to form, was primarily responsible for these atrocities, the opposition forces have quickly made up ground in this contest of horrors.

Efforts to broker a political solution have been a spectacular failure. What is worse, they have often focused on finding an exit for a regime that is not looking for one, but rather continues to believe in military victory. Nevertheless, the voices calling for those responsible for the worst crimes to be held to account have been few. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, deserves praise for her early call on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- but few have followed. Earlier this year, and after several months of consultations, 58 states, led by Switzerland, asked the Security Council in writing to mandate the ICC to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in Syria, as recommended by Pillay a long time ago. The letter signed by States ranging from the United Kingdom to Ghana was never formally discussed in the Council, after Russia and others made it clear that they would not support such a request.

And indeed, why ask the Council to make another referral to the Court when past experience with such referrals (Darfur, Libya) is mixed at best? Rarely has the Council followed up forcefully and made us believe that its referrals were more than just the expression of a fortuitous political constellation on one particular day of diplomatic haggling.

Maybe there is a better option. The Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the Court, allows governments to submit their countries on an ad hoc basis to its jurisdiction. The opposition, having overcome many obstacles, has made a number of institutional breakthroughs: Having formed a government and appointed a prime minister, it has also taken Syria's seat at the Arab League. Efforts to do the same at the UN will follow before long. This is therefore the moment to call on the opposition government to live up to its high-minded aspirations and, acting in the interest of the Syrian people, to submit the situation in Syria to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Right now, the Court may not be able to accept jurisdiction yet and delay its decision until the dice have been cast at the UN. Nevertheless, the opposition government would make a most powerful statement: that it will not allow the crimes committed in Syria to go unpunished -- no matter who has committed them -- and to thus commit itself to accountability that the people of Syria have been waiting for so many decades. In so doing, it would put all of us to shame for our collective inaction, after yet another futile pledge of "never again."

Subscribe to the World Post email.