Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

War criminals

UN investigators want Syria’s president and his aides to be referred to the International Criminal Court on suspicion of war crimes, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

For the first time, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Navi Pillay has clearly stated that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad should be investigated on suspicion of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the present conflict in Syria.

Pillay called on the international community to take action against him, including perhaps military action to overthrow Al-Assad and bring him in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges. Russia, a key ally of the Syrian regime, has refused action on the issue and signaled it will veto any such move.

Meanwhile, UN Security Council investigators announced last week that they had drawn up lists of Syrian officials suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the present conflict that should also be submitted to the ICC.

For the time being the lists are being kept secret due to the requirements of the investigations. But the Security Council has called for quick action to be taken in order to guarantee that those suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Syrian uprising, soon to enter its third year, will be brought to justice.

Despite Pillay’s warnings of the critical situation in the country and the demands by UN investigators, Syria is not signatory to the Rome Statute that created the ICC, and this could block the moves. Moreover, in order for an issue to be referred to the ICC for investigation a Security Council resolution is required, and this is certain to be blocked by a Russian veto, something which Moscow has done twice before in order to block resolutions condemning the Syrian regime.

Pillay’s statement came after the UNHCR had declared that mass killings by Syrian government forces amounted to war crimes and UN reports had revealed that children as young as nine years old had been killed, tortured or imprisoned by regime forces and militias.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that the Syrian crisis will have repercussions as far as war crimes are concerned and the application of the Geneva Conventions.

This is not the first time that Russia has blocked the referral of the Syrian conflict to international courts for investigation. Last month, Moscow obstructed efforts by Switzerland, supported by more than 50 other states, to refer the Syrian crisis to the War Crimes Tribunal and prosecute those accused of committing genocide in Syria.

At first glance, action by the UN on suspected Syrian war crimes appears to be motivated by human rights considerations aiming to prosecute suspected criminals. However, in reality this action may be political in motivation, aiming to put pressure on the Syrian regime perhaps to warn it to be more responsive to UN efforts to end the violence.

“I believe the reason behind the talk by international investigators of prosecuting war criminals is primarily only because of their moral and legal obligations,” said Rodeif Mustafa, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and chair of the Kurdish Human Rights Commission in Syria.

“It could also be a form of political pressure on the regime, which throughout the revolution has ignored the international community and its initiatives, except to try and sabotage them and void them of content.”

“International justice is now on the line, and people’s confidence in it is almost non-existent after the Syrian crisis. The Syrian regime has launched a vicious war on its own people, and it is committing massacres and systematic abuses every day, but no one is stopping it. What is occurring is a disgrace to international justice,” Mustafa said.

The Syrian opposition and local and international monitors say that the Al-Assad regime has committed massacres that have killed tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and committed war crimes that are difficult to tally because there are too many of them to count.

It has used heavy artillery and warplanes to bomb residential areas and dropped explosives on civilians, while its security and military forces have committed murders, rapes and torture against men, women and children.

It has also arrested more than one quarter of a million Syrians since the start of the uprising, some of whom have died in detention as a result of torture. It has destroyed entire towns and villages, displacing more than one quarter of a million Syrians from their homes.

According to the UN, the number of those killed in Syria after two years of the uprising now stands at more than 70,000, with the number of victims rising by more than 5,000 a month because of the use of air attacks and heavy artillery.

According to the opposition, this number is in fact far higher since the regime has itself killed more than 55,000, while military and irregular armed militia forces have killed more than 30,000.

The Database of Martyrs of the Syrian Revolution has recorded the names, dates and locations of victims killed by the regime since the uprising began, and it gives a figure of 54,601 dead, 87 per cent of whom were civilians and 13 per cent had defected from the regular army.

The area around Damascus has suffered the most with 11,886 dead, more than 10 per cent of whom were women and children and a third of whom were girls.

UN investigators say that the armed opposition could also have committed war crimes but at a much lower rate than the regime, and it has also demanded that perpetrators of such crimes among the armed opposition should be prosecuted.

Russia has not altered its stance as a result, however, since it knows that regime forces are the ones committing the major crimes and it does not want to see its ally harmed.

London-based Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there were documented cases of massacres carried out by the regime that were ready to be presented to the ICC should the decision to prosecute be taken.

“We have documented many massacres in Syria, including massacres of civilians, executions in the field and war crimes,” Abdel-Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Those killed have been recorded by name — who was executed, who was killed, and who was responsible. We can present these documents to the ICC, but until now no international decision has been taken.”

“Since we are part of the democratic opposition in Syria, we document all crimes irrespective of the perpetrators, even if they are from the armed revolutionary brigades. At the same time, we are working on raising the awareness of opposition fighters inside Syria, asking them not to execute captives and helping them exchange prisoners with the regime.”

Haitham Manaa, a prominent opposition figure and spokesman for the Arab Human Rights Committee, said that “we have warned the revolutionaries many times about the dangers of a lack of discipline and violating the rights of regime forces. We have advised the political opposition not to support the arming of the revolution, and present events now threaten that criminal prosecutions will take place of persons from both sides.”

“Lists of war criminals from both sides are being drawn up, which is something most revolutionaries do not want to see. We must stop anyone who diverts the revolution of freedom and dignity from its goals. We do not want to reproduce corruption and tyranny under any name, sect or party.”

However, Mustafa said that “Russia and others know that the abuses carried out by some of the armed brigades do not amount to crimes against humanity and that they are not systematic. These are individual mistakes and sometimes revenge killings against people known to have killed locals and raped women.”

Syrians now say that the tragedy in their country has gone beyond any hope of political settlement, and they refuse to grant amnesties to those responsible for war crimes in any agreement to end the crisis.

Mustafa said that “it is impossible to protect criminals through any international agreement because prosecuting these people is the right of the Syrian people. We will also ask the Security Council to implicate Russia as a partner of the regime in the killings. This could prevent it from voting on a resolution to refer the issue to the ICC to prosecute the criminals.”

“Even if there were a political solution in the near future and international agreement on it, as human rights activists we will continue to pursue the killers in international and domestic courts until they are brought to justice,” Abdel-Rahman said. 

According to Radwan Ziyada, director of the Syrian Centre for Political Studies in Washington, “there can be no compromise on the issue of justice for the victims and their families, and any future government formed by the opposition or after the overthrow of the Al-Assad regime must ratify the Rome Statute that established the ICC. In this way, the prosecutor-general will be able to launch investigations into these crimes.”

“The course of international justice is not the ideal route because it is very slow, but it is still the best choice since it sends a message to all Syrians that revenge is not the goal and no particular sect will be targeted. Instead, it will establish a process of justice that guarantees that Syria will be able to build a future on the proper foundations. It will also reassure the international community that Syria is moving in the right direction.”

The revolution started in order to achieve something Syrians have always dreamed of — freedom — although its price was and still is high. Yet, the international community has abandoned the Syrian people to suffer alone, and they are being killed on a daily basis with a variety of weapons including long-range ballistic missiles and cluster bombs that are considered to be weapons of mass destruction.

Observers believe that the regime would not have dared to use this arsenal if the international community had shown a greater will to stop the violence. Syria could now fall apart if the regime continues its military crackdown and if the process of transitional justice does not begin.

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