An Arab War-Crimes Court for Syria

Article excerpt

A war-crimes tribunal run by the Arab League could be the solution to Syrian atrocities.

The United States and other governments don't want to intervene militarily in Syria. That's understandable; hardly anyone wants another Middle East war.

In seeking other ways to ensure that the Syrian government and its henchmen pay a price for slaughtering their citizens, U.S. officials are seeking ways to bring them to justice. A war crimes tribunal run by the Arab League could be the solution. The experience of war-torn countries like Bosnia has proved that such tribunals can work, if properly designed.

Last weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the United States would "support and train Syrian citizens working to document atrocities, identify perpetrators, and safeguard evidence for future investigations and prosecutions." A difficulty with this plan, however, is how to use the evidence that is collected. Syria is not a party to the treaty for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and Russia and China would most likely use their veto power to block any United Nations Security Council effort to refer the case to the court.

To overcome such obstructionism, another innovation is required: an Arab League tribunal to deal with the crimes against humanity that are taking place in Syria. Such a tribunal could have Arab judges, Arab prosecutors, Arab investigators and Arab defense attorneys and conduct its proceedings in Arabic. The Arab League could give it jurisdiction over crimes against humanity and war crimes as the treaty for the International Criminal Court defines them. And such a court should have jurisdiction over all crimes, including those committed by rebels. It is essential to uphold the principle that, no matter the justice of the cause or the crimes committed by one's opponents, all must be held to the same standards.

Because it would take time to establish such a tribunal and because there is an urgent need to stop Syrian forces from committing more crimes, the Arab League could specify that prosecutions for crimes committed after the resolution's adoption would have priority. That would put the forces of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, on notice that the surest way to end up in the dock is to persist in the crimes they have been committing.

We should not grant them impunity for crimes committed up to now. But the urgent need to prevent further atrocities justifies giving them an incentive to stop. Of course, some of those responsible for crimes would imagine that they would never be apprehended and brought to justice. …