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Syria Tests the Power of the Rule of Law

David Crane is a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law and was the founding chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2002-2005, an international war crimes tribunal for West Africa.

Written by David M. Crane Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Daily, the lawlessness that is Syria causes concern. The intentional targeting of civilians by President Assad’s regime to retain power through terror is medieval. Sadly, such a strategy is reminiscent of the dark ages. What is more alarming, however, is that the international community is moving away from the progress it achieved in the mid-twentieth century, when it made effort to use the rule of law to stop violent dictators like Assad.

The rule of law is a concept laid out in the United Nations Charter, where member nations can settle their disputes peacefully. It is not just a concept, but a necessary tool to end conflicts. Between 2002 and 2005, I was working in Sierra Leone, where people had been victims of pillage, rape, murder and mutilation. I did what many were skeptical of: I took down the most powerful warlord in Africa, the then sitting president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and prosecuted him and his other henchmen for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was the beginning of perhaps a new era, in which tyrants would be brought to justice.

Unfortunately, the momentum of that era has slowed. This era has moved forward into a paradigm of an uncertain world order, in which efforts to protect universal human rights are blocked by national or regional motives.

What has helped sustain this uncertainty is a loss of nations who can lead. The one nation that had stood for the rule of law, the U.S., arguably lost its moral standing due to its questionable policies on how to confront radical extremists. Torture, extraordinary renditions, and detention without trial, among other decisions that violate international law, have destroyed the legitimacy of this super power to marshal the political will to stop further killings elsewhere in the world.

Without this accountability and justice, the killing fields of Syria have only flourished. Meanwhile, other powers use the situation to their advantage and have checkmated attempts to build a political and moral consensus on what to do about Syria. Russia and China diplomatically outmaneuver any attempts by the more liberal democracies to come to a political agreement on how best to resolve the situation in Syria peacefully.

These two countries may not respect the rule of law, but they do respect power.  Today, the US lacks both. The ability of the once global superpower to lead any resolution of the crisis looks like a weak prospect. Instead, it will be Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and others who will dictate any resolution, good or bad. To maintain the status quo, they will allow Assad to crush the resistance with brute force while the world watches.

What a sad state of affairs in the era of international justice that we allow international crimes to go on. The responsibility to protect is mocked every day the crisis in Syria continues. Is it not the duty of the international community to stop a tyrant from committing crimes against humanity?

It is. Regardless of the challenges of the geo-political situation, a 21st century world needs the rule of law from which a more balanced world can exist. Indeed, while the world thinks about how to stop the killing in Syria, it must think beyond the rule of the gun: it must think about transitional justice.

A resolution under international law can help the Syrian people to eventually emerge from the conflict with the possibility of creating a new Syria, in which  that eclectic and diverse society will have a rightful place in self-governance. The rule of law will allow the Syrian people to seek justice for the thousands upon thousands of victims who have been harmed, not only in the recent past but by  the regime that came to power over forty years ago.  Though this would have to happen later than sooner, justice will have to prevail under domestic Syrian law and under the supervision of the international community. Of course, I am not certain any of this will happen, just a hope.

If the conflict is played out—and “resolved”—through weapons, it will end badly and bloody.  Syria will be split apart, each warring faction seeking their own destiny while backed by self-interested entities that will continue to destabilize the entire Middle East.  There may be vigilante justice: mass killings without trial of persons associated with Assad’s regime, including Assad and his family. This is not the justice contemplated under the shadow of the Rome Statute and modern international criminal law. Sadly, the possibility of the public execution of Assad, his family, and his senior leadership is real and disturbing.  Should this happen, it will be increasingly hard to convince victims of atrocity who want some form of justice that the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun.

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