Analysis: No place to hide if Syrian president is forced from his Damascus stronghold
LEGAL mechanisms to jail Syrian leaders accused by Human Rights Watch of systematic war crimes are readily available, but the political will to use them is another matter.
In the most comprehensive report on alleged abuses by Damascus against Syrian rebels to date, HRW accused the regime of president Bashar al-Assad of widespread torture of opposition activists.
Last night, the organisation’s UK director said the allegations amounted to crimes against humanity, and those responsible should be tried by the International Criminal Court. “These are detention centres run by the various branches of the Syrian security organisation, we are talking about the most appalling treatment,” David Mepham said. “Under international law there is this thing called command responsibility, the people who run [Syrian] security forces should be accountable.”
Men responsible for similar horrors in Congo, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda already languish in jail after international trials. The criminal procedures are already established, the precedents set.
But there is a catch: the ICC can investigate Syria only if ordered to do so by the United Nations. And that depends on the acquiescence of China and Russia, Syria’s vocal allies. “The Chinese and Russians have blocked this at [UN] Security Council,” said Mr Mepham.
It is possible that, as the horrors unfolding in Syria mount, Beijing and Moscow may have a change of heart, but even that does not guarantee that the Syrian leader will have to explain himself in court.
In 2005, the Security Council ordered the ICC to investigate genocide in Sudan’s Darfur. Last year it made the same order regarding Libya.
Yet not one suspect has been brought to trial, with Sudan and Libya refusing to hand over suspects, most recently Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who the Libyans want to try in Tripoli. And the UN has not been inclined to pressure either country to change its mind.
Mr Assad, as commander-in-chief of his armed forces, can also be indicted by more that a dozen nations, including Britain, who have the legal power to try war criminals, no matter where the crimes were committed. More than a decade ago Chile’s late dictator General Augusto Pinochet was on the receiving end of just such an indictment, when he was arrested in London on a Spanish extradition warrant.
Pinochet was finally allowed back to Chile on health grounds, but not before a precedent was set, with the law lords ruling that, for the worst crimes, no-one is immune.
By remaining in Syria, Mr Assad will insulate himself from national prosecutions, just as China and Russia provide him with a shield from the ICC. But if he is forced from the country, it may be a different matter.
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