Can there be justice in the midst of a civil war?
Last week France proposed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC). As Human Rights Watch explains, that would prompt the ICC to investigate abuses by all sides of the conflict. The group cites two similar past referrals, in the case of Darfur and Libya, and urged Security Council members to approve the move – specifically, it called on Russia and China not to block it.
For France and its Western allies, the ICC referral represents a rare opening to dig into the Syrian regime, imposing accountability for its actions (the AP reports that “a confidential list of suspected criminals is being produced and kept under lock and key by the U.N.”). For critics of President Bashar al-Assad, it creates an opportunity to emphatically brand Assad as a war criminal, in the remote hope he’ll face trial.
Adding to the momentum: open accusations that Syria’s government used chlorine gas bombs in 14 recent attacks. Both France and the U.S. have said they have seen indications of such attacks; U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “there will be consequences” if they find concrete proof.
Syria denied any use of chlorine gas attacks, in a CNN interview with Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
As the Security Council decides on an ICC referral, some experts wonder whether it would even be a productive pursuit.
Mark Kersten, the author of the Justice in Conflict blog, wrote in a Washington Post analysis that the Security Council would face a complicated task of deciding who should face trial. Both the regime and rebel forces have been accused of well-documented abuses; the Council would need to agree on whom to rope in and rule out as the accused.
Moreover, Kersten cites the “peace versus justice” debate – an open question of whether a war crimes trial would actually be a helpful step towards conflict resolution. Instead, it might undermine peace and prolong violence.
“These fears have been played out in every ICC intervention into an ongoing and active conflict,” he wrote.
And yet the ICC initiative is accelerating, partly because it’s one of the few things left that Western countries can do for Syria. Peace negotiations, embodied in the Geneva I and Geneva II talks, are practically dead. The resignation of U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi sealed their defeat.
“Three years into the conflict, I think the international community has reached a point of fatigue,” Eurasia Group analyst Ayham Kamel told Syria Deeply.
Last week’s Friends of Syria meeting in London was an attempt at revival, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague talking up support for the Syrian opposition.
But there may not be much to revive. In a meeting with the Syrian opposition Kerry admitted that “the U.S. wasted a year” in the fight against Assad, the Daily Beast reports. A failure of Western support crippled the original rebels forces fighting Assad, enabling al-Qaida and other extremists to establish themselves on the ground.
In contrast, thanks to a fragmented and often incompetent set of rebel fighters, Assad feels continuously confident. As of last week he officially hit the campaign trail, along with two challengers in the June 3 presidential poll. Assad is considered entirely likely to win – critics have called it a rubber stamp on another seven years in office. In any event, Assad’s presidential challenges have both endorsed his wartime actions, praising his military campaign to date.
There’s little expectation that rebel-held areas will have the capacity, much less the interest to vote in the election. Along with the security complications, many locals in those areas are living in disarray, missing the most essential supplies. As a result of conditions on the ground, this week the U.N. announced that 85 percent of its food aid has gone to government areas, compared to a roughly 50-50 split a year ago. That leaves rebel-held regions with even less to survive on.
That’s an acutely felt force in Aleppo, where 2 million people are now struggling to find water (“Some people, including children, have resorted to scooping up murky water alongside roads,” the Los Angeles Times reports). It’s a form of collective punishment, by rebel forces – Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate, cut off power and water in Aleppo in order to pressure Syria’s regime to stop launching aerial raids. The cuts have made life significantly more difficult for the people of Aleppo, so far with no sign they’ll change the dynamic to anything less than disaster.