Assad Avoids Justice


The torrent of violence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his operatives have rained down on his own people since 2011 — widespread kidnappings, torture, barrel-bombings and chemical weapons attacks — have led to mournful discussions of the dim prospects that Assad will ever be brought to trial for his atrocities. Yet the truth is that the US, and its stance toward the International Criminal Court at The Hague, have helped create many of the impediments to Assad’s prosecution.

The ICC, a permanent war-crimes tribunal, was established through negotiations among most United Nations members in the late 1990s, with the US playing a leading role. Since the Nuremberg trials after World War II, a global consensus had emerged that public trials of war-crimes charges and punishment of those responsible were indispensable to creating a lasting peace in a conflict zone, because dispassionate justice allows survivors to move forward without nursing grievances for generations about horrors that have gone unaddressed.

By the end of 2000, the US and 138 nations had signed the international treaty, called the Rome Statute, that created the court. Then in May 2002, the George W. Bush administration announced that it was “unsigning” the treaty and renouncing America’s obligations.

Many arguments were marshaled against membership, some of them understandable. Perhaps the most cogent objection is that no nation is more likely than the U.S. to be drawn into a peacekeeping role around the world. We would be less likely to do so if our soldiers had to bear the risk of a politically inspired prosecution in front of a criminal court thousands of miles from our shores, with procedures very different than our own.

As an exclamation point, Congress in 2002 passed the American Service-Members Protection Act, which authorized the president to order military action to free any armed forces member called to answer before the ICC. The move was ridiculed in Western Europe as “The Hague Invasion Act,” but the US continued to put diplomatic pressure on other nations, including Iraq, where American troops were fighting, not to participate in the Court.

The American turnaround has helped hobble the ICC. Renegade nations such as China, which failed to participate from the outset, have been able to avoid pressure from the global community by noting the US stance. Far more important, America’s example made it easier for other nations that had signed the Rome Statute also ultimately to fail to ratify it. Many are countries whose actions have often been alleged to violate international law: Iran, Israel, Russia and, most importantly, Syria.

As a result, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Syria and Assad. The UN Security Council could still refer the matter to the international court, but Syria’s ally, Russia, holds veto power there and has so far hindered efforts to call Assad and others to account. The UN has empowered two different bodies to gather evidence about the atrocities in Syria, but they have no forum in which to present it and Assad has said he and his administration “don’t care” about the UN efforts.

If US refusal to ratify the Rome Treaty were truly in American national interest, it could be excused, even if it provided shelter to someone like Assad. But Washington’s reluctance rests on a variety of assumptions that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Foreign prosecutors and investigators are never going to be crawling all over the US trying to imprison our soldiers. ICC jurisdiction is complementary, meaning it does not violate our sovereignty by supplanting our own justice system. The results of a good faith investigation by national authorities is conclusive on the ICC. The court acts only when the nation in question has refused to.

It is unimaginable that serious war-crimes charges against American troops would go uninvestigated by the Pentagon, once they came to light. Consider the convulsive response to the actions by our soldiers at the Baghdad prison, Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, if membership in the ICC sharpened the need to investigate and, when called for, to prosecute Americans in order to forestall action by the court, that would be a positive development, with our treaty obligations serving as a powerful antidote to the inclination of the military, like other institutions, to protect its own and sweep things under the rug.

Finally, the brute realities are that if the ICC ever mounted a prosecution against Americans that we regarded as biased or corrupt, we could withdraw from the treaty then. No nation on earth is strong enough to force Washington to remain. But the US would be standing on firmer moral ground by voicing principled objections in a particular case, rather than adhering to our current position, which is that Americans can commit crimes against humanity without our government being willing to formally guarantee a response.

In the meantime, the efforts by the US and other nations to undermine the Court have significantly weakened it. Stuck trying to preserve a fragile constituency, the ICC has become bogged down in a rigorous procedural regularity, because its only defense to charges of political motivation is to demonstrate a rigid adherence to its own rules.

That has meant that investigations drag on for years, while the lack of support from the US and other powerful nations like Russia and China has often left the court toothless in the face of the resistance. Russia, for example, has been under investigation since 2008 for its actions while invading Georgia.

In 13 years, the ICC has charged a mere 33 individuals, convicting only eight. Charges have failed against 10 defendants, with the other cases ongoing, or suspended because the defendants are fugitives or dead. Worse, all 33 defendants have been from Africa, which has led the court to be derided on that continent as a tool of Western imperialism, even though the conduct charged in these cases is appalling and could never be ignored by any responsible prosecutor.

Yet the US can hardly criticize the court for an ineffectiveness that we have done our best to create. Perhaps the most galling aspect of America’s refusal to participate is that it undermines our own policies and our frequent claims to be the world’s moral leader.


New U.N. Team to Look into Syria War Crimes

Geneva- A new body is being set up at the United Nations in Geneva to prepare prosecutions of war crimes committed in Syria, U.N. officials and diplomats said on Thursday.

The General Assembly voted to establish the mechanism in December and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to name a judge or prosecutor as its head this month.

“We expect to start very, very shortly with just a handful of people,” a U.N. human rights official told Reuters.

The team will “analyze information, organize and prepare files on the worst abuses that amount to international crimes – primarily war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – and identify those responsible”, she said.

While it would not be able to prosecute itself, the idea is to prepare files for future prosecution that states or the International Criminal Court in The Hague could use.

The focus on prosecutions means evidence collected since 2011 by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry may be sharpened into legal action.

Amnesty International Accuses Iraq’s Mobilization Units of Committing War Crimes

People look at a burned vehicle at the site of car bomb attack in a busy square at Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City district

Irbil- In a report published on Thursday, Amnesty International accused Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), known as Hashd al-Sha’abi of committing war crimes and called on examining the role of the Iraqi authorities and foreign countries in helping the group acquire weapons.

Amnesty International said in its report: “The predominantly Shi’ite PMU militias have used their arsenal of weapons to carry out or facilitate a systematic pattern of violations, seemingly as revenge in the wake of ISIS attacks. These include enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, as well as the torture of thousands of men and boys.”

In the report entitled “Iraq: Turning a blind eye: The arming of the Popular Mobilization Units,” Amnesty said these paramilitary militias have benefited from transfers of arms manufactured in at least 16 countries. The report said the arms include heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery in addition to a wide range of small arms – an eclectic mix including standard-issue Kalashnikov and M-16 automatic rifles, machine guns, handguns and sniper rifles, and armored vehicles produced in China, Europe, Iraq, Iran, Russia and the U.S.

It said: “Paramilitary militias… are using arms from Iraqi military stockpiles, provided by the USA, Europe, Russia and Iran, to commit war crimes, revenge attacks and other atrocities.”

In a related development, Iraqi forces have retaken around 70 percent of eastern Mosul from ISIS militants and expect to reach the river bisecting the city in the coming days, Iraq’s joint operations commander told Reuters on Thursday.

Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, who is also head of the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) spearheading the campaign to retake the northern city, said the cooperation of residents was helping them advance against ISIS.

In its 12th week, the offensive has gained momentum since Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition renewed their push for the city a week ago, clearing several more eastern districts despite fierce resistance.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that two car bombs in Baghdad claimed by ISIS killed at least 14 people on Thursday, police and medics said, part of a surge in violence across the capital at a time when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces are trying to drive the militants from Mosul in the north.

Syrian Regime, Iraqi Militia Reportedly Killing Aleppo Civilians

Smoke rises as seen from a governement-held area of Aleppo, Syria December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

The U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday it has received reports of Syria’s pro-regime forces and allied Iraqi militias killing at least 82 civilians in eastern Aleppo in four different neighborhoods in the last few days.

Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, says the reports recount pro-regime forces entering homes and killing some civilians “on the spot” in the former rebel enclave.

He said he feared retribution against thousands of civilians believed to be holed up in a “hellish corner” of less than a square kilometer of opposition-held areas. Its capture was imminent, he said.

“In all, as of yesterday (Monday) evening we have received reports of pro-government forces killing least 82 civilians, including 11 women and 13 children, in 4 different neighborhoods – Bustan al-Qasr, al-Fardous, Al-Kalasah and al-Saliheen,” Colville told a news briefing, naming the Iraqi armed group Harakat al-Nujaba as reportedly involved in the killings.

“The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes” Colville said. “There could be many more”.

“The only way to alleviate the deep foreboding and suspicion that massive crimes may be under way both within Aleppo, and in relation to some of those who fled or were captured, whether fighters or civilians, is for there to be monitoring by external bodies, such as the U.N.,” Colville said.

Colville says the reports came in late the previous evening and that he doesn’t know exactly when the killings took place.

France on Tuesday called on the United Nations to use all its mechanisms to determine what was happening in Aleppo, warning Russia that it risked being complicit in acts of “vengeance and terror” taking place in the Syrian city.

Jens Laerke, U.N. humanitarian spokesman said that it looked like “a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo”.

Syrian Refugee Goes on Trial in Germany for ‘War Crimes’

Cologne-A Syrian refugee has gone on trial on charges of working with a terrorist organization and participating in the kidnapping of a U.N. peacekeeper in Damascus in 2013 in what prosecutors call a “war crime”.

The 25-year-old, named only as Suliman A.-S., appeared in court in the southwestern city of Stuttgart with a plaster on his face. Police said the plaster was covering a wound that was caused by another inmate when he assaulted him with a knife a day before the start of the trial.

The suspect allegedly participated in the abduction on February 17, 2013 and was “involved in guarding the kidnapped victim (a Canadian lawyer) between March and June 2013”.

He is “suspected of an attack during Syria’s civil war against a person, who was involved in a peacekeeping mission under the United Nations Charter, and was therefore entitled to protection,” the federal prosecutor’s office said when he was arrested in January.

A verdict is not expected before April 2017.

Germany has so far been spared large-scale jihadist attacks.

But Europe’s biggest economic power has been shaken by two assaults claimed by ISIS and carried out by Syrian asylum seekers — an axe rampage on a train in Wuerzburg that injured five, and a suicide bombing in Ansbach in which 15 people were hurt.

Police last week said they had foiled an alleged plot by a Syrian refugee to bomb one of Berlin’s airports.

The cases have fueled anxiety over Germany’s record influx of nearly 900,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

Meanwhile, German lawmakers on Friday approved a law the government says will tighten oversight of the BND spy agency.

The most controversial section of the law is a clause allowing the Bundesnachrichtendienst to intercept communications of foreign entities and individuals on German soil and abroad which pass through a major internet exchange point in Frankfurt.

The government says this is necessary to detect possible militants planning attacks in Germany or Europe.

France to Seek ICC Investigation for War Crimes in Aleppo

A boy runs as he rushes away from a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria August 24, 2015. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

France intends to get in touch with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor to launch an investigation into war crimes it says have been committed by Syrian regime and Russian forces in eastern Aleppo, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Monday.

Since the failure of efforts to reach a ceasefire in September, Russian and Syrian warplanes have launched their biggest offensive on Aleppo’s besieged rebel-held sectors, in a battle that could become a decisive moment in the five-year-old civil war.

“These bombings – and I said it in Moscow – are war crimes,” Ayrault told France Inter radio after a French-drafted United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria was vetoed at the weekend by Russia. “It includes all those who are complicit for what’s happening in Aleppo, including Russian leaders.

“We shall contact the International Criminal Court prosecutor to see how she can launch these investigations.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also called for a war crimes investigation last week.

“Russia and the regime owe the world more than an explanation about why they keep hitting hospitals, and medical facilities, and children and women,” Kerry said.

“These are acts that beg for an appropriate investigation of war crimes, and those who commit these would and should be held accountable for these actions,” he added. “This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians.”

It is unclear how the ICC could proceed given that the court has no jurisdiction for crimes in Syria because it is not a member of the ICC.

It appears the only way for the case to make it to the ICC would be through the U.N. Security Council referral, which has been deadlocked over Syria. Moscow vetoed a French resolution in May 2014 to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

“It is very dangerous to play with such words because war crimes also weigh on the shoulders of American officials,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, according to RIA news agency.

Moreover, Ayrault said Paris would also seek separate sanctions on the Syrian government at the United Nations once a joint U.N. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry concludes on Oct. 21.

The inquiry has identified two Syrian Air Force helicopter squadrons and two other military units it holds responsible for chlorine gas attacks on civilians, Western diplomats have told Reuters.

According to a diplomatic source, a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution on the use of chemical weapons would now be discussed, although it was vital to reach a deal with Russia.

“It would be problematic to have a veto on chemical weapons. It would be serious, but until now the Russians have been on board with regard chemical weapons,” the source said.

French officials have grappled for ways to try to put new pressure on Russia and their growing anger at events in Aleppo have led them to reconsider whether to host him on Oct. 19.

“We do not agree with what Russia is doing, bombarding Aleppo. France is committed as never before to saving the population of Aleppo,” Ayrault said.

“If the President decides (to see Putin), this will not be to trade pleasantries,” he added.

Protecting Veterans from Legal ‘Witch Hunt’, UK Military Might be Leaving ECHR

London- It has been an intimidating witch hunt– not just to British veterans but it has been intimidating to soldiers who worry that they too might find themselves being investigated 10 years from now- said Britain’s Secretary of State for Defense Sir Michael Fallon in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

Controversial plans for the UK military to opt out from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) during future conflicts will be introduced by ministers, to see off what had been described as an “industry of vexatious claims” against soldiers.

The proposition was announced on Tuesday at the Conservative party conference by Prime Minister Theresa May and Fallon. The plan, which was immediately faced with heated criticism by human rights groups, strives to protect soldiers and veterans from legal pursuit at EU human rights courts.

“Our troops must know we are on their side,” said May, while insisting that armed forces should not be hounded with “vexatious” Human Rights Act claims on the battlefield.

May also announced that human rights laws will be suspended on battlefield.

The PM said that the decided suspension of human rights laws will give British troops the “confidence when they go out into combat for us that they are able to do what is necessary to keep us safe.”

Defending the move, May said: “Our troops, our men and women of our armed forces go out there and put their lives on the line in order to defend us.

“They do things that most people wouldn’t be willing to do in terms of that, in terms of going out and potentially paying the ultimate sacrifice for us.”

More so, Fallon, in comments released ahead of his conference speech, said: “Our legal system has been abused to level false charges against our troops on an industrial scale.”

He added: “It has caused significant distress to people who risked their lives to protect us, it has cost the taxpayer millions and there is a real risk it will stop our armed forces doing their job.”

U.N. to Debate Urging End to All Military Flights over Syria’s Aleppo

The United Nations Security Council will begin negotiations on Monday on a draft resolution that urges Russia and the United States to ensure an immediate truce in Syria’s Aleppo and to “put an end to all military flights over the city.”

The draft text, according to Reuters which procured a preview of, also asks U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to propose options for a U.N.-supervised monitoring of a truce and threatens to “take further measures” in the event of non-compliance by “any party to the Syrian domestic conflict.”

The 15-member council will begin talks on the text – drafted by France and Spain – on Monday afternoon, diplomats said.

It was not immediately clear how Russia and China would respond to the draft, diplomats said. Both countries have previously protected the Syrian regime from council action by blocking several resolutions, including a bid to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has said that any state that opposes the resolution would be deemed complicit in war crimes.

Syrian regime head Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by support from Russia and Iran, have been battling for control of eastern Aleppo. Capturing the rebel-held half of Syria’s largest city, where more than 250,000 civilians are trapped, would be the biggest victory of the five-year civil war for Assad’s forces.

East Aleppo came under siege in early July after its main supply route, the Castello Road, fell under government control.

International attempts to establish ceasefires to allow in United Nations humanitarian aid have failed, although other aid groups have brought in limited supplies.

The relentless Russian and Syrian air campaign has badly damaged hospitals and water supplies.

U.N. Security Council: Recent Events in Syria May Amount to War Crimes

Members of the U.N. Security Council expressed anger at all the recent attacks targeting civilians and amenities in Syria including medical facilities, in addition to all indiscriminate attacks.

In a press statement released Thursday, members of the council stressed that these measures may be amount to war crimes, and expressed deep concern about the violations of the cessation of hostilities established by Security Council resolution 2268.

Members of the Security Council welcomed recent efforts made by the chairmen of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) who affirmed their commitment to the cessation of hostilities which came into effect on the 27th of February in Syria and using their influence to stop hostilities between parties on the ground. The chairmen also urged parties “to abide by the ceasefire, refrain from disproportionate responses to provocations and exercise restraint”.

Council members also noted that all obligations set out by international humanitarian law must be respected under all circumstances by all parties, and highlighted the need to distinguish between the civilian population and fighters. They also warned against indiscriminate attacks on civilians and amenities.

The members of the Council also called on all parties to immediately implement all terms of the Security Council resolutions concerning Syria, including resolutions 2139, 2165, 2191, 2258 and 2286 which is related to health care in armed conflicts. In addition to this, they emphasised the fact that the Syrian government’s primary responsibility was to protect the people of Syria and added “that parties to armed conflict bear the primary responsibility to take all possible steps to ensure that civilians are protected.”

U.N. Investigators Tell States to Stop Syria War Crimes

People and Civil Defense members remove rubble while looking for survivors in the ruins of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria

U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a statement on Wednesday urging states supporting Syria’s peace process to stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites.

Air strikes, bombardment and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” the commision’s chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said.

“Until the culture of impunity is uprooted, civilians will continue to be targeted, victimized and brutally killed.”

According to international law, all parties to the conflict must distinguish between lawful and unlawful targets, but that distinction had been ignored and some recent attacks had been war crimes, the statement said.

It cited an attack on the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo governorate on April 27 and other attacks on nearby medical facilities, and air strikes on markets, bakeries and a water station, as well as the May 5 attack on a refugee camp in Idlib.

Those attacks all happened after a two-month ceasefire, engineered by Russia and the United states, unraveled, and Syrian government forces said they would launch an assault to recapture rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

The statement did not explicitly attribute blame for attacks on civilians, but only Syria’s government and its ally Russia are using aircraft in the conflict.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said last week that initial reports suggested Syrian government aircraft were responsible for the attack on the refugee camp in Idlib governorate, which killed about 30 people. Syria’s military denied that they had targeted the camp.