Why U.S. should back ICC role in Syria
September 25th, 2013
11:30 AM ET

Why U.S. should back ICC role in Syria

By Balkees Jarrah, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Balkees Jarrah is international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Washington’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria has been imbued with words ordinarily reserved for a courtroom. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have spoken of “accountability,” “impunity,” “punishment” and even “standards of proof.”  Yet, the United States, curiously, has made little mention of criminal justice for the atrocities committed not only in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, but across Syria since 2011.

With renewed activity at the U.N. Security Council on Syria, there may be a chance for the Obama administration to match its rhetoric with its actions by publicly backing a role for the International Criminal Court.

Because Syria is not a member of the treaty that established the court, the Security Council would have to give it jurisdiction through what’s known as an “ICC referral.” A draft of a new Council resolution prepared by France, leaked to the media on September 13, included an ICC referral. It’s unclear though what the U.S. position is, in principle, on engaging the court.

The ICC is by no means a panacea for the situation in Syria, and nobody claims that the court’s involvement will stop the killing overnight. Diplomatic and humanitarian activities are critical to resolving the crisis. But a U.S. decision to get behind an ICC referral would signal that the administration is serious about its commitment to end impunity in Syria. Crucially, bringing the court into the picture would send a clear message to all parties to the conflict that grave crimes will carry serious consequences. Indeed, raising the price on today’s abuses has real potential to influence tomorrow’s behavior and help deter further atrocities.

More from GPS: Justice at The Hague?

The Obama administration has given mixed signals about its support for the court’s involvement in Syria. U.S. officials have sidestepped the question by pointing to the improbability of Russian acquiescence, at the same time voicing a preference for some kind of hybrid court. Together, this gives the distinct impression that Washington is, in fact, not in favor of an ICC referral.

Russia’s objection to an ICC referral should not be seen as irreversible. To successfully press Moscow on the issue, though, it needs to be clear that a global coalition of countries stands behind the measure, including members of the Security Council itself. More than 60 countries already do, including six Security Council members: France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia, and South Korea. It’s time the U.S. followed suit.

Russia has described the effort to seek an ICC referral as “ill-timed and counterproductive,” touching on the long-running debate about whether seeking justice interferes with prospects for peace.

More from CNN: Humanitarian crisis spilling from Syria

In fact, the record from past conflicts, such as in the Balkans in the 1990s, indicates that criminal indictments of senior political, military and rebel leaders can actually strengthen peace efforts by delegitimizing and marginalizing those who stand in the way of resolving a conflict. At the same time, the failure to hold those responsible for the most serious crimes to account can fuel future abuses. In Syria, we see this playing out in excruciating terms as abuses continue, aggravated by a complete and utter climate of impunity.

Referring Syria to the ICC is a crucial first step toward accountability for the crimes by all sides, whether by government forces, opposition fighters, jihadists, or other militias. It would set a valuable reference point for other judicial initiatives, including national trials and even potentially some kind of mixed judicial entity, which US officials have indicated they are working toward establishing. Other non-judicial measures will also be required, including truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reform. None of this is going to happen quickly or easily in Syria, but all will be essential.

It was just a year ago that Russia described the ICC as a “serious new tool” that the Security Council could use to address the fight against impunity. The United States expressed a similar view. Both countries participated in a unanimous Security Council vote in 2011 to give the ICC jurisdiction in Libya. Perhaps they should use this rare meeting of the minds to start to unfasten the deadlock on Syria and refer the situation in Syria to the court.

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Chukwuemeka

    I hope the ICC would be seen to be fair in the case of Syria. An example is Kenya were they are trying a sitting President and his deputy. Imagine if President Uhuru Kentatta were at the Hague when the terrorists attacked the shopping mall, would those left behind have the political will to urge the security forces to do a clinical job? Would they have been able to hold back the backlash from the Kenya on resident Somalis? Equity should be the yardstick of the ICC

    September 25, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • bocknobby

      President Uhuru Kentatta remains responsible for the actions of the Kenyan military in Somalia. End of story.

      September 25, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The author has overseen that Ban Ki-Moon spoke of a human rights report on Syria. Both regime forces and some rebels were accused of human rights abuses, yet it's the regime forces that are the worse of the two evils. He said that Assad would be held responsible for crimes against humanity, when the "whole thing is over". So the US can wait till the UN takes the first step. Assad can't go anywhere.
        The author mentioned Russia gave the Security Council its vote in 2011 for an ICC jurisdiction in Libya. Well Putin wasn't president then. Russia abstained from the Resolution 1973 in March 2011 to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. Today it will look different.

        September 27, 2013 at 7:46 am |
  2. bocknobby

    This is just too funny.

    The United States has never shown any honest respect for the ICC and continues to insist that its citizens, notably its armed forces personnel, are not bound by the terms and conditions of the ICC. Ah, yes, American exceptionalism!!

    Is obvious to most of the civilized world that the ICC is the best course of action and it would be refreshing to see the US join the rest of the civilized world and recognize the authority of the ICC and, of course, accept that the actions of Americans are, like the rest of the citizens of the world, bound by the Court.

    The world is tired of the US and Israel operating under its own set of rules. Is long overdue for the US and Israel to accept the authority of the UN, the ICC and the IAEA.

    What are the Americans afraid of?

    September 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Beautifully put, bocknobby. I couldn't have said it better! We Americans have been far too arrogant and self righteous to respect any international laws along with Great Britain and France. This sorely needs to cease once and for all! Up to now, only third world leaders had anything to fear from the ICC and this is completely wrong!

      September 25, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  3. danielserwer

    There is nothing unclear about the US position on the ICC. The US supported the referral of Sudan President Bashir, so it has no objection in principle. But it would be pointless, and possibly counterproductive, for the US to support referral so long as Russia and China oppose it, as referral requires UN Security Council approval. Nor is it likely to happen so long as implementation of the chemical weapons agreement takes precedence in Washington's eyes over removal of Bashar al Assad.

    Daniel Serwer

    September 25, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Tell me daniel, just who are the right-wing thugs in Washington to say that Bashar al-Assad must go? If the Syrians ever hope to restore any degree of normalcy in their country it will essential that the Assad regime must stay at least for a while. Unfortunately, the right-wing thugs in Washington wish to set up another U.S. backed pseud-democracy in that country similar to the one in Iraq!

      September 26, 2013 at 7:45 am |
  4. Valentine Anthony

    Kenya has condemned the ICC as neo-colonist. I have also noted its bias. When it comes to non-western nations, it shouts but with western countries it is silent. If Obama goes to ICC on Syria, skeletons in the cupboard will spill.

    Valentine Anthony, Editor, http://www.worldnews

    September 25, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Can you truly blame Kenya, Valentine, for condemning the ICC? This organization is the greatest farce to ever be perpetrated in all the annals of mankind!

      September 26, 2013 at 7:48 am |
  5. Polar Bear

    Where did the story go about Iran's new leader and his alleged remarks? “CNN officials seem to be escaping their responsibility of informing the public honestly,” Fars News wrote on their English site. “During the interview, the CNN aired an English translation of President Rouhani's remarks which was totally inaccurate and untrustworthy, and in some parts contained sentences which were not at all uttered by the president.”

    September 26, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  6. giggig

    First things fist ! Are we sucked in into a major confrontation again,like korea,vietnam and the cold war ? yes ,lets proscecute this .Nothing else, there are side-products only,if chemicals get into intl control,if an alignment toke place Sunni/Shia ,if heads of Sultans,Sheiks and Kings are rolling.

    September 26, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  7. RugbyGuy

    Where the hell is CNN's coverage on the US and Russia reaching an agreement on a draft UN Security Council resolution?

    September 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
  8. Rick

    Obviously the US not being a signatory of the ICC is not going to be quick to lean on the ICC. Also the US position has always been such. That if we don't offer these dictators a way out, they will fight till the bloody end.

    September 27, 2013 at 1:29 am |

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