Establish a Syrian War Crimes TribunalEssential Next Step
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) joined House Republican Leadership, including Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Conference Chairwoman Kathy McMorris Rodgers, at press conference today on two bipartisan House resolutions passed last night, including Smith's own HConRes. 121 calling for a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal at the U.N. and another about the ongoing genocide of Christians and other minority groups in Syria and Iraq at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS.
The U.N. Security Council should move immediately to establish a Syrian war crimes tribunal and H Con Res 121 calls upon the Administration to pursue this policy goal including using our voice and vote at the UN.
Past ad hoc/regional war crimes tribunals—including courts for Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—have made a significant difference holding some of the worst mass murders to account with successful prosecutions followed by long jail sentences.
Who can forget the picture of the infamous former President of Liberia—Charles Taylor—with his headed bowed incredulous that the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2012 meted out a 50-year jail term for his crimes against humanity and war crimes.
According to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research approximately five years of wanton bloodshed in Syria has killed either directly or indirectly an estimated 470,000 people, other estimates put the death toll at a quarter of a million. While, the UN long ago abandoned estimating the death toll due to its inability to verify the veracity of the numbers, the war in Syria has caused a massive loss of life—including genocide, against Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities, especially of women and children.
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the United States and Russia brokered a cessation of hostilities that kicked in on February 27 that applies to all parties except ISIS and al-Nusra. While we all hope and pray the ceasefire holds—and humanitarian groups gain access to sick, frail and at risk people—the atrocities committed against Syria’s population demand accountability and justice.
There have been, however, numerous reports of violations by of the ceasefire by Assad and his forces. In an opinion piece in Newsweek published yesterday, it was noted that “regime forces are openly bombing and in some cases launching ground operations to capture key rebel territory without making any pretense of attacking the Nusra Front. “ Further, the Syria Ceasefire Monitor “reports 111 violations as of March 9 – almost all perpetuated by the Assad regime or Russian forces.”
Rigorous Investigations by a new Syria court followed by prosecutions, convictions and serious jail time for perpetrators of crimes on all sides will not only hold those responsible for war crimes accountable but will send a clear message that such barbaric behavior has dire personal consequences. The victims—and their loved ones—deserve no less.
Can a U.N. Security Council resolution establishing a Syrian war crimes tribunal prevail? Yes. With a serious and sustained diplomatic push by the United States and other interested parties, past success in creating war crimes tribunals can indeed be prologue. Notwithstanding Russia's solidarity with Serbia during the Balkan war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was unanimously approved. Ditto for the special court in Sierra Leone in 2002. The Rwanda tribunal was created in 1994, with China choosing to abstain rather than veto.
At a Syrian war crimes court, no one on any side who commits genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity would be precluded from prosecution. In the early '90s, the Russians knew that the Yugoslav court was designed to hold all transgressors liable for punishment—not just Serbians—and did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution that instituted the court. I believe the Russians and the Chinese can be persuaded to support or at least abstain from blocking establishment of the court.
An ad hoc or regional court has significant advantages over the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a venue for justice. For starters, neither Syria nor the United States is a member of the ICC, although mechanisms exist to push prosecutions there. The ICC has operated since 2002 but boasts only two convictions. By way of contrast, the Yugoslavia court convicted 80 people; Rwanda, 61; and Sierra Leone, 9. Moreover, a singularly focused Syrian tribunal that provides Syrians with a degree of ownership could significantly enhance its effectiveness.
I chaired a congressional hearing in 2013 on establishing a Syrian War Crimes tribunal, which included David Crane, the former chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and founder and chairman of the Syria Accountability Project. As Mr. Crane testified, the Syria Accountability Project has collected data “and built a framework by which President Assad and his henchmen along with members of the opposition can be prosecuted openly and fairly.” He and his team have developed a “crime base matrix which catalogs most of the incidents chronologically and highlights the violations of the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions as well as domestic Syrian criminal law.”
Significantly, with respect to the ICC, Mr. Crane testified that “It lacks the capability and the political and diplomatic sophistication to handle such a mandate.”
Indeed, I would like to relay words that Mr. Crane spoke just this afternoon during a call I had with him, wherein he reminded us that “It is important that Congress continue the quest to seek justice for the oppressed and work on justice for the Syrian people, in particular as we recall the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in that country.”
Today marks the fifth of anniversary of the beginning of this horrific conflict, which has taken the lives of so many innocents.
Accountability that is aggressive, predictable, transparent and applicable to perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity on all sides of the divide must be pursued now.