U.S. Funds Effort to Gather Evidence For Syrian War Crimes Prosecutions That Will Probably Never Happen

U.S. Funds Effort to Gather Evidence For Syrian War Crimes Prosecutions That Will Probably Never Happen

Jess Bravin has an interesting report out in Thursday’s WSJ (subscrip. req’d)  detailing U.S., UK, and EU support (and funding) for a team of investigators to gather evidence of war crimes by Syrian government and military officials.

For nearly two years, dozens of investigators funded by the U.S. and its allies have been infiltrating Syria to collect evidence of suspected war crimes, sometimes risking their lives to back up promises by Western leaders to hold the guilty accountable.

As Bravin notes, the U.S. government has issued several high profile statements warning that any war crimes committed in Syria would be punished and Syrian government officials and army commanders would be held accountable.  Gathering this evidence fulfills part of this pledge to hold war criminals accountable.

What is sad about this exercise, however, is that there is little evidence that the threat of eventual criminal prosecution (issued back in 2011 by Hillary Clinton) has deterred the commission of serious atrocities by the Syrian government.  The WSJ report suggest that the evidence being gathered is growing at depressingly fast rates (and this NYT report adds more horrific detail). Frankly, the threat of prosecution is either not credible, or less threatening to the Syrian army and government leaders than defeat in this increasingly desperate civil war.  (Professor Jide Nzelibe and I predicted this pattern of behavior by desperate dictators long ago in this article).

Moreover, as Bravin also notes, several diplomats have suggested that amnesty for some or all of the Syrian government’s leaders would have to be considered for any successful peace deal.  Since the U.S. military option to remove the current government is off the table, and since the civil war seems headed for a stalemate, it would be irresponsible of the U.S. to demand full accountability for war crimes as a condition of any peace deal.  To do so might just lead to more atrocities, and still no punishment.

Which means that there is not much chance that the evidence gathered by these brave and dedicated individuals described by Bravin will ever be used in a criminal prosecution.  Sure, it will be leverage during peace talks, but not much more than that.

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International Criminal Law, Middle East, National Security Law
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Robert Clarke

Prosecutions in the near future seem unlikely, but bear in mind that the Khmer Rouge leaders, Hissene Habre and various Latin America junta officials are all now prosecuted after decades of what seemed likely to be eternal inaction. And as any trial lawyer will tell you (especially those working on the KR cases) it is much better to do the investigation and gather the evidence now rather than 30 years after the fact when prosecutions become a concrete reality.

Kevin Jon Heller

Rob stole both of my points.


[…] collect evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, a process that has apparently continued to this day. At the same time, there have been numerous calls by organizations and states for the […]

Stuart Ford

As one of those lawyers that worked on the KR cases, I agree with both of Rob’s points too.

Jillian Blake

Also can a peace agreement grant amnesty for crimes against humanity/genocide? would that agreement be legal ?