War crimes tribunal suggested as alternative to strike on Syria

Rep Chris Smith Credit US Mission Geneva CNA US Catholic News 5 2 12 Rep. Chris Smith. | US Mission Geneva.

A ranking member of the U.S. House has proposed a war crimes tribunal as an alternative to military intervention in Syria so that perpetrators can be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons.

"There is a compelling, moral imperative to immediately establish a comprehensive way to hold accountable all those on either side, including Assad, who have slaughtered and raped in Syria," Rep. Chris Smith  (R-N.J.) affirmed in a Sept. 5 statement.

Smith offered the plan as a way to enforce international standards prohibiting the use of chemical weapons while avoiding an escalation of violence in the war-torn country.

He suggested that a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal established through the United Nations would be "a nonlethal alternative to missiles and bombs that carry huge risks of killing or maiming innocent civilians and exacerbating the conflict-all while putting American servicemembers at risk."

Smith is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and chairman of committee's Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee. His office confirmed in a press release that he has stated he will vote against U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Instead, he voiced his intent to propose immediate legislation to instruct the U.S. representative to the United Nations to work towards the establishment of a war crimes tribunal to deliver justice in a non-violent manner.

The congressman's suggestion comes as Congress considers President Obama's Sept. 1 call for the approval of military action against Syria, which has been caught in a violent civil war between government and rebel forces – both secular and Islamist – for more than two years.

In late August, reports indicated that chemical weapons had been used against civilians in the country, killing more than 1,400 people.

The Obama administration has said it has conclusive evidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for these attacks, though the Syrian government denies this charge and blames the rebels for the use of chemical weapons.

The possibility of a military strike against Syria has sparked strong opposition from Russia, whose leaders say they have compiled an extensive report with evidence that rebels used chemical weapons back in March.

Smith affirmed in his statement that those "guilty of war crimes, genocide and other atrocities – whether committed by members of the Syrian government or the rebels – must be investigated and brought to justice."

He advocated for the use of a war crimes tribunal in order to bring the guilty parties to justice because unlike "air strikes, a war crime tribunal neither indirectly assists jihadist forces in Syria, nor does it foster anger against Christian and other communities in Syria."

The congressman cautioned, though, that if the United States is to pursue a tribunal, the establishment "of a court has to be immediate, and a comprehensive collection of evidence must begin now," to ensure the trial's success.

 Smith also noted that these sorts of trials have been used in the past, and their lessons can prepare the United States for addressing the crimes in Syria.

"We have learned lessons from the Special Court in Sierra Leone, we have learned lessons from the Rwandan Court and certainly we have learned lessons from the court in Yugoslavia," he said.

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