Establish a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal

by Rep. Chris Smith, 'The Washington Post' oped, September 9, 2013

Smith: Switch gears, Mr. President. Fight to establish Syrian war crimes court &hold both Assad and the rebels who commit egregious crimes accountable

There is a non-lethal way to help ensure that Bashar al-Assad and other perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are held to account not someday far in the future but beginning now.

The U.N. Security Council must move immediately to establish a Syria War Crimes Tribunal. Past ad hoc war crimes tribunals including courts for the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda have made a difference, but sent thugs to jail after hostilities ended. A new sense of urgency and commitment requires initiating investigations and prosecutions now in order to send a clear message to those who commit genocide— and all those just following orders — that such barbaric behavior has dire personal consequences.

On Monday, I introduced a bipartisan congressional resolution urging the President to use our voice and vote at the United Nations to create the Syrian War Crimes Tribunal.

Can a U.N. Security Council resolution establishing a Syrian tribunal prevail? Yes. With a Herculean diplomatic push by the United States and other interested nations, past success in creating war crimes courts can indeed be prologue. Notwithstanding Russia’s solidarity with Serbia during the war in the Balkans, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), now in its 20th year, passed unanimously. 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 the Syrian court, no one on either side who commits war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity would be precluded from prosecution. In the early ’90s, the Russians knew that the ICTY was designed to hold all transgressors liable for punishment — not just Serbians — and did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution that instituted that 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 country-specific court has significant advantages over the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a venue for justice. For starters, both Syria and the United States are nonmembers of the ICC, although mechanisms exist to push prosecutions there. The ICC has operated since 2002 and boasts only one conviction. By way of contrast, the Yugoslavia court convicted 67 people, Rwanda 26 and the Sierra Leone court sent 16 to prison. Moreover, a singularly focused Syrian War Crimes Tribunal court that provides Syrians themselves with some degree of ownership at some point in the process will likely enhance its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration push for military strikes intensifies.

At a House Foreign Affairs hearing last week, I asked Secretary of State John Kerry if there was proof that Bashar al-Assad had ordered the August 21 chemical weapons attack in a suburb of Damascus. I also asked him for rudimentary clarity of mission by defining “limited strike” and the expected “duration” of any potential U.S. attack.

Astonishingly, Secretary Kerry failed to answer those pertinent questions.

Yet each day, the Obama team grows shriller suggesting that not using military force constitutes doing nothing. Support missiles and bombs or the moral implication is that you embrace the status quo.

Never does the Obama team admit that wielding powerful weapons against Syria is fraught with potentially disastrous consequences not just inside the war-torn country but throughout the region. In the president’s rush to bomb, no one knows for sure whether U.S. strikes will mitigate or exacerbate the violence. And with the rebels’ ranks swelling with al-Qaeda extremists, does military action by the United States help or hinder any future transition to humane and responsible governance in a free Syria? What are the risks to U.S. service members and allies in the region?

Additionally, the ugly specter of innocent Syrian civilians either killed or wounded by U.S. firepower cannot be overlooked, trivialized or dismissed.

Switch gears, Mr. President. Fight to establish the Syrian war crimes court and hold both Assad and the rebels who commit egregious crimes to account.

Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s human rights panel.

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