It's time for the U.N. Security Council to do something about war crimes in Syria.
In Syria, the new year begins without change. President Bashar al-Assad continues to attack Syrian citizens on a vast scale, targeting civilians and rebels indiscriminately, and making use of summary executions and torture. Meanwhile, anti-government factions commit human rights violations of their own, according to the United Nations and various human rights organizations. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently estimated the number of dead at more than 60,000; Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League peace envoy, warns that the civil war could claim another 100,000 lives in 2013.
But if the situation in Syria looks increasingly grave, one thing could and should change. The U.N. Security Council -- so far unable to agree on measures to try to end the war -- should find a way to deter war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflict. Its current silence encourages all Syrians, especially the perpetrators of such crimes, to believe that nobody will be held accountable for these abuses. The Security Council should therefore adopt a three-pronged strategy to insert some measure of accountability and restraint into the war, even while a political settlement remains out of reach.
First, the Security Council should impose financial, travel, and diplomatic sanctions on individuals on both sides of the conflict who commit serious violations of human rights or international humanitarian law. The Security Council has established sanctions committees in conflict zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan to restrain those responsible for the worst abuses. In Sudan, the so-called 1591 Sanctions Committee is authorized to make sanctions determinations on the basis of information from a range of sources, including a specialized panel of experts, governments, U.N. bodies, and non-governmental organizations. A similarly modeled Syria sanctions committee would also complement the U.N.'s independent commission of inquiry on Syria by providing a more individualized and granular response to the violence.
Second, the Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- as it did Sudan in 2005 and Libya in 2011. An ICC referral has long seemed out of reach because of opposition from critical Security Council members, but that may be changing. Russian officials, for instance, increasingly see Assad as a butcher and understand the risks to the thousands of Russian nationals living in Syria. Moscow, itself not hostile to the court in principle, should see that an ICC referral could restrain the rebels as well as the government.
To facilitate success, the Security Council should take two steps it failed to do in previous cases. Because a Syria investigation would likely stretch ICC resources beyond capacity, the Security Council should take a leading role in helping fund a serious, sustained process. Likewise, the Security Council should promise up front that it will stand behind the results of the ICC investigation, obligating all governments to provide the court with the necessary logistical and political support. This should not involve a commitment to use military force to make arrests, but political and logistical support, as well as a sanctions process, would put a meaningful squeeze on those alleged responsible for the worst crimes.
Third, the Security Council should support a framework to encourage Syrians from all ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds to begin discussions about long-term justice and rule of law in the country. The ICC is a blunt and limited instrument, designed to hold senior political and military leaders accountable for their actions. But many thousands more have been and are involved in the violence; they too need to be reminded of their obligations of humane behavior in war.
A Syrian national effort, with U.N. support and encouragement, could begin to map out a plan for seeking justice in the long-term. Such an effort should include discussion of criminal process at local and national levels; truth and reconciliation programs; reparations for those thousands who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods; and rebuilding of the institutions of law and governance. Many Syrian activists are already thinking ahead to the day when accountability is on the national agenda. They should be supported by the international community, though the process must ultimately be Syrian-led and inclusive of all sections of society.
None of these efforts is a substitute for real efforts to end the war. But they would amount to a powerful statement in favor of norms against war crimes and crimes against humanity -- warning both the regime and the opposition that they will be held accountable for their actions. Such measures would also offer a longer-term framework for restraining abuses in the future. If even at the margins, a strategy against the most serious crimes could temper abuses and possibly save lives. Failure to take action, moreover, undermines the international community's commitment to seeking justice for massive crimes and upholding the responsibility to protect.
There are some who will argue that introducing accountability weakens the prospects for a political settlement by forcing leaders to dig in their heels in commitment to violence. In some situations, the reality on the ground may indeed counsel against moves toward accountability at a given moment. But that moment has long passed in Syria, where the regime has abandoned even the pretense of restraint and elements of the armed opposition have already stumbled into the regime's sectarian trap.
Justice may seem unattainable for now as Syria spirals further out of control. But Syrians and members of the international community can still point the way to another possible future -- one where those who commit terrible crimes cannot escape some measure of justice.