On Monday, an independent panel tasked by the United Nations Human Rights Council with investigating human-rights violations in Syria issued its report. It detailed the deteriorating conditions in that country, and provides a clear call to action that all parties in Syria and the international community should heed.
Next month the panel will submit a list of those accused of “crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts,” according to the report’s news release, which also stated that “war crimes and gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law including arbitrary arrest and detention, unlawful attack, attacking protected objects, and pillaging and destruction of property were also committed.”
Those charges describe actions of the Syrian government and loyalist paramilitary forces. But antigovernment forces have committed war crimes, too, although the panel said they did not match the “intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”
Most grave, the panel recorded violations of children’s rights. Progovernment forces have killed, tortured and raped children. Antigovernment forces have enlisted some fighters under the age of 15.
All war crimes are immoral and intolerable. The culture of impunity must end. So all the report’s recommendations should be followed, including a possible referral of charges to the International Criminal Court.
A formal referral might be difficult to accomplish, however, since it would need to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. Russia and China, as permanent Security Council members, have previously vetoed U.N. actions on Syria.
But this doesn’t mean the United States and other countries shouldn’t try anew to hold all parties accountable. Indeed, the U.N. report gives the international community another chance to convince Russia, which still sells arms to the Syrian government, to cut ties with the delegitimized regime.
Tragically, however, even war crimes charges may not immediately shift the civil war’s trajectory. This is why it would be wise for the Obama administration to keep its options open.
A Feb. 18 story in the New York Times reported that President Obama, who disagreed with his previous national security team’s recommendation to directly arm some Syrian rebels, may rethink the issue after consulting his new national security team. While it’s understandable that war-weary, budget-busted Americans would want to completely stay out of the civil war, we’re already partially drawn in, both diplomatically and financially: $365 million in humanitarian aid and $50 million in nonlethal military aid to the rebels has already been authorized.
And the risk of allowing the spiraling violence to worsen may actually be as big as the risk of involvement, according to Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department special adviser on Syria who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s becoming extraordinarily dangerous,” Hof said. “You already have 70,000 dead, tens of thousands incarcerated and possibly undergoing torture, 800,000 people who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, and somewhere between 2.5 to 3 million people internally displaced in Syria.
The danger is we are on a direct trajectory toward state failure. That means that not only could Syria become a carcass on which these parasitic jihadist groups feed so that they are able to conduct operations using Syria as a base, but that Syria becomes an ongoing source of misery not only for its own population of 22.5 million, but for the populations of people in neighboring countries. … It has the probability to be a whole lot worse the longer it goes on. So the idea that we can hold this at arm’s length is an illusion.”
Before sending arms to rebels, which could have dire unintended consequences, it’s best to try every diplomatic route. The U.N. report, and the resulting possibility of war crimes charges, could convince Russia and China to stop supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s bloody, dynastic dictatorship, which is destroying Syria and threatening to engulf its neighbors.
An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis.)