22 Mar US House of Representatives Overwhelmingly Calls for War Crimes Tribunal for Syria (with Jurisdiction to Try Americans, Apparently)
[Patrick Wall is studying for an LL.M. in International Law at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, as the Sir Ninian Stephen Menzies Scholar in International Law.]
Last Monday, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed—by 392 votes to 3—a resolution ‘[e]xpressing the sense of the Congress condemning the gross violations of international law amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict in Syria, and asking the President to direct his Ambassador at the United Nations to promote the establishment of a war crimes tribunal where these crimes could be addressed’. Information on the resolution can be found here, and the full text as passed can be found here.
The resolution was sponsored by Rep Chris Smith, a Republican of New Jersey, and was co-sponsored by one Democrat and three other Republicans. This is something of a personal victory for Smith, who has been advocating for a war crimes tribunal for Syria since at least September 2013 (this Google search links to all articles on his website concerning his advocacy on the issue).
After recalling some of the horrendous violations of international law that have doubtless occurred in Syria—and specifically pointing the finger at the Government of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, ‘Iran’s terrorist proxies including Hezbollah’, the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front—the House:
- strongly condemns the continued use of unlawful and indiscriminate violence against civilian populations by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
- urges the United States and its partners to continue to demand and work toward the cessation of attacks on Syrian civilians by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
- urges the Administration to establish additional mechanisms for the protection of civilians and to ensure consistent and equitable access to humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations;
- urges the United States to continue its support for efforts to collect and analyze documentation related to ongoing violations of human rights in Syria, and to prioritize the collection of evidence that can be used to support future prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict;
- urges the President to direct the United States representative to the United Nations to use the voice and vote of the United States to immediately promote the establishment of a Syrian war crimes tribunal, a regional or international hybrid court to prosecute the perpetrators of grave crimes committed by the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict; and
- urges other nations to apprehend and deliver into the custody of such a Syrian war crimes tribunal persons indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide in Syria, and to provide information pertaining to such crimes to the tribunal.
During his speech in the House urging lawmakers to vote in favour of the resolution, Smith pleaded that ‘the atrocities committed against Syria’s population demand accountability and demand justice’. At a press conference after the vote, he argued that the tribunal would need to be ‘aggressive, transparent, [and] go after all sides’.
There are a few notable elements about the development.
The first is the position of the International Criminal Court in all of this. The preamble to the resolution notes that ‘Syria is not a state-party to the Rome Statute and is not a member of the International Criminal Court’. Smith had the following to say during the post-vote press conference:
An ad hoc or regional court has significant advantages over the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a venue for justice. For starters, neither Syria nor the United States is a member of the ICC, although mechanisms exist to push prosecutions there. The ICC has operated since 2002 but boasts only two convictions. By way of contrast, the Yugoslavia court convicted 80 people; Rwanda, 61; and Sierra Leone, 9. Moreover, a singularly focused Syrian tribunal that provides Syrians with a degree of ownership could significantly enhance its effectiveness.
Although there are certainly no suggestions that Smith is in favour of the United States becoming a member of the ICC, his dispassionate analysis of the possible venues for international criminal trials does stand in stark contrast to the Congress’ well-known hostility towards the ICC.
The second item of note is Smith’s optimism about the possibility of the Security Council actually voting to establish an international criminal tribunal for Syria. Pointing to the fact that Russia did not stand in the way of the creation of the ICTY—despite being a supporter of Slobodan Milošević—Smith argues that a ‘serious and sustained push by the United States and other interested parties’ would result in the passage of a Security Council Resolution creating the tribunal.
This would seem to be unrealistically optimistic. Although there were suggestions during the Balkan conflict that Russia would deploy troops in support of Serbia, this never occurred, so there was never any possibility that the ICTY would investigate or prosecute Russian personnel. In Syria, Russia has become an active participant. Indeed, the very preamble to Rep Smith’s resolution alleges that ‘the Russian Federation…has committed its own violations of international law by leading deliberate bombing campaigns on civilian targets including bakeries, hospitals, markets, and schools’. Smith has not, to my knowledge, explained why Russia wouldn’t veto a resolution that would expose its own troops to prosecution.
Which brings us to the most curious part of the whole saga: the fact that American troops and those of her allies would also fall within the jurisdiction of the proposed tribunal. The proposed tribunal’s rationae personae is said to be ‘the Government of Syria, its allies, and other parties to the conflict’ and Smith said in the post-vote press conference that ‘no one on any side…would be precluded from prosecution’; it would ‘go after all sides’.
As we know, the United States, the United Kingdom and France have conducted strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and are, thus, ‘parties to the conflict’. Given that the Congress has previously authorised the use of military force to liberate any citizen of the United States or an allied country held by the ICC, it is at least passing strange that the House has so overwhelmingly urged the creation of a new international criminal tribunal that would be empowered to prosecute, for example, an American pilot accused of bombing civilian targets within Syria.
Comment on this possibility has been sought from Rep Smith, but a response has not yet been forthcoming.