Congressional hearing considers Syrian war crimes tribunal

Bashar al Assad President of the Syrian Arab Republic in Damascus April 24 2007 Credit UN Photo Eskinder Debebe CNA 10 31 13 Bashar al-Assad, President of the Syrian Arab Republic in Damascus April 24, 2007. | UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

In a hearing before a congressional committee, policy officials called for the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal to bring to justice those guilty of human rights violations in the 30-month long conflict.

"Those who have perpetrated human rights violations among the Syrian government, the rebels and the foreign fighters on both sides of this conflict must be shown that their actions will have serious consequences," said Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House's subcommittee on global human rights, at the Oct. 30 hearing.

"This is not an academic exercise. We must understand the difficulties of making accountability for war crimes in Syria a reality." 

Smith added that "therefore, we must understand the challenges involved so that we can meet and overcome them and give hope to the terrorized people of Syria. Their suffering must end, and the beginning of that end could come through the results of today's proceeding."

The call for a war crimes tribunal is a response to the gross human rights violations allegedly perpetrated by both government and rebel forces during a violent civil war that has racked Syria 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 said it had conclusive evidence that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for these attacks, though the Syrian government denied this charge and blamed the rebels for the use of chemical weapons.

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

After several days of talks, an agreement was reached for Syria's chemical weapons to be eliminated. The process is being overseen by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

On Oct. 31, weapons inspectors in Syria announced that the country's declared equipment for producing chemical weapons has been destroyed. The regime is to destroy its existing stock of chemical weapons by July 2014.

Smith introduced a resolution asking for a war crimes tribunal on Sept. 9, as a way to enforce international human rights standards prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, while at the same time avoiding the escalation of violence in the war-torn country that would likely result from a U.S. strike.

The Oct. 30 joint hearing focused on "the pros and cons of creating and sustaining a Syrian war crimes tribunal," Smith said.

David Crane, former chief prosecutor for a U.N. special court for Sierra Leone, noted that "we can prosecute heads of state for international crimes," and that this prosecution has been done before, such as in the case of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Crane outlined five "possibilities for a justice mechanism" that could be used in Syria: the International Criminal Court; an ad hoc court created by the United Nations; a regional court authorized by a treaty with a regional body; an internationalized domestic court; or a domestic court comprised of Syrian nationals within a Syrian justice system.

He added that he believes the International Criminal Court is "just not up to the task" of handling a Syrian war crimes tribunal, and that a local, domestic system would be preferable as it would help Syria "transition to a sustainable peace."

Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program for Human Rights Watch, agreed that trials should be held to assure justice for the human rights offenses committed, but argued that a trial should take place within the already-existing International Criminal Court rather than through an ad hoc court that must be created and regulated.

Alan White, an investigator for the U.N.'s Sierra Leone court, asserted that "an immediate alternative needs to be aggressively pursued," but warned that conducting a war crimes tribunal "is one of the most challenging, if not the most difficult and demanding type of investigation within the international justice system."

More in US

For the tribunal's success, he said, witnesses must be protected, and the court should be focused on assuring justice for the victims, not on political accountability to the international community.

Stephen Rademaker of the Bipartisan Policy Center noted that he is typically a critic of war crimes tribunals, but acknowledged that "there are several unique features to the Syrian conflict" that may merit the creation of a tribunal, namely the "humanitarian catastrophe in Syria" and the international community's "moral obligation to try to address it."

He stressed that a tribunal would help bring to justice human rights offenders on both sides of the civil war, and the public accountability of a trial would help to dissuade future humanitarian offenses. In addition, the tribunal would delegitimize the Assad regime, and "reinforce diplomatic efforts to remove Assad from power."

The Syrian conflict has now dragged on for 30 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide in March 2011 protesting the rule of al-Assad.

In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people.

There are at least 2.1 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

An additional 4.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.

(Story continues below)

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.