On March 14, 2016, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian Civil War, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to urge the United Nations Security Council to immediately establish a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal. During the House debate on H.Con.Res. 121, resolution sponsor Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) praised INSCT Faculty Member David M. Crane, Professor of Practice at Syracuse University College of Law, and the SU Law-based Syrian Accountability Project (SAP) for their work gathering evidence that could be used against perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes on all sides of the conflict.
“I chaired a congressional hearing in 2013 on establishing a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal, which included David Crane, the former chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone and founder and chairman of the Syria Accountability Project,” Smith explained. “As Mr. Crane testified, the Syria Accountability Project has collected data ‘and built a framework by which President [Bashar al-]Assad and his henchmen along with members of the opposition can be prosecuted openly and fairly.’ Crane and his team have developed a ‘crime base matrix which catalogs most of the incidents chronologically and highlights the violations of the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions as well as domestic Syrian criminal law.’”
As part of its work—now in its fifth phase—SAP has developed a white paper that documents and analyzes incidents of rape and sexual crimes—considered crimes against humanity—during the Syrian conflict. It will reveal its groundbreaking analysis at a March 24, 2016, event at SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs called “Spotlight on Syria: The Gendered Perils of War and Forced Migration.” UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Hawa Bangura will provide keynote remarks at the event.
Smith told his House colleagues that Crane’s leadership on seeking justice for atrocities has in the past held even heads of state to account: “Who can forget the picture of the infamous former President of Liberia—Charles Taylor—with his head bowed incredulous that the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2012 meted out a 50-year jail term for his crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
Commenting on the passage of the resolution, Crane said: “Chairman Chris Smith, his staff, and I have been working together in seeking justice for the oppressed for more than 15 years, from Sierra Leone to Syria. This resolution is an example of the leadership Chairman Smith has shown in the US Congress on behalf of human rights. It’s been my pleasure to work with this fine advocate.”
As Crane wrote in a March 14, 2016, editorial in The World Post, on the solemn occasion of the conflict’s fifth anniversary, the international community must begin thinking about redress for Syrian civilians when the fighting ends. However, because Syria is not signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the ICC has no direct jurisdiction over the country, and so far efforts by the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to refer the situation to the ICC have been opposed by permanent members Russia and China.
Nevertheless, as Smith explained in his remarks on the resolution, with international political will, some form of ad hoc, UN-sponsored justice mechanism can be created on behalf of the Syrian people. “Past ad hoc/regional war crimes tribunals—including courts for Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia—have made a significant difference holding some of the worst mass murderers to account with successful prosecutions followed by long jail sentences.” Smith called upon the President Barack Obama Administration to adopt the policy goal of developing an alternative justice mechanism, including using America’s voice and vote at the UN. “An ad hoc or regional court has significant advantages over the International Criminal Court as a venue for justice,” Smith said. “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.”
Smith said he was confident that a UN Security Council resolution establishing a Syrian war crimes tribunal could prevail but that it would require a “serious and sustained diplomatic push by the US and other interested parties.” There is precedent for such as process, he said. “Notwithstanding Russia’s solidarity with Serbia during the Balkan war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was unanimously approved. Ditto for the special court in Sierra Leone in 2002. The Rwanda tribunal was created in 1994, with China choosing to abstain rather than veto.”
The Syria resolution has broad bi-partisan support, Smith observed, and it received input from the US Department of State as well as a panel of experts at a 2013 hearing he chaired entitled “Establishing a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal.” Furthermore, Smith’s resolution was approved at a March 2, 2016, hearing by the full US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which Smith is a member.
Specifically, H.Con.Res 121 expresses “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 [asks] 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.” The resolution also urges the Obama Administration to establish additional mechanisms for the protection of civilians and to ensure access to humanitarian aid for vulnerable populations and asks the US to support efforts to collect and analyze documentation related to ongoing violations of human rights in Syria that can be used to support future prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On March 15, 2016, Rep. Smith joined House Republican Leadership—including Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Republican Party Conference Chairwoman Kathy McMorris Rodgers—at a press conference about the two Syria-focused bipartisan House resolutions passed on March 14, including H.Con.Res. 121. At the press conference, Smith again noted Crane’s work on behalf of postconflict justice for Syrian civilians. “Indeed,” said Smith, “I would like to relay words that Mr. Crane spoke just this afternoon during a call I had with him, wherein he reminded us that ‘It is important that Congress continue the quest to seek justice for the oppressed and work on justice for the Syrian people, in particular as we recall the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in that country.’”