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Syria chemical weapons attack: How could accountability be delivered? (+video)

There are several ways that the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack in Syria could be held accountable. But reality is they aren't likely to face justice anytime soon, if ever.

By Staff writer / September 19, 2013

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a news conference at the UN Headquarters in New York, Thursday, September 19, 2013.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters



When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week described the Aug. 21 sarin nerve gas attack in Syria as a “war crime,” it was an unambiguous call for prosecution of a universally recognized violation of international law.

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Moscow will send the United Nations information it received from Syria implicating rebels in the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.

“The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never reemerge as an instrument of warfare,” Mr. Ban said.

But clarity on the politically fraught issue of prosecuting the perpetrators of the deadly chemical weapons attack ended there. Asked at a press conference Monday how that accountability should be delivered, Ban said, “I do not have a clear answer at this time.”

The UN weapons inspection team’s report issued this week on the August attack does not fix blame for the incident. But most security experts and many Security Council members – with the glaring exception of Russia – say the evidence in the report points unequivocally to the Syrian government and President Bashar al-Assad.

Still, the reality is that the perpetrators of the attack – which Ban described as the “most significant use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988” – aren’t likely to face justice anytime soon, if ever.

As many human rights advocates and international justice experts see it, the priorities of the key international players in the Syrian conflict – and the central role that Mr. Assad will need to play in addressing his country’s crisis – are conspiring to leave the attack’s perpetrators unpunished.

“The bigger question here is stopping the Syrian civil war, and the reality is that Assad is the strongest player in the conflict,” says Michael Doyle, a professor of US foreign and security policy at Columbia University in New York and a former assistant secretary-general at the UN.

“It’s hard to imagine any follow-on regime that doesn’t include him or some of his followers,” he says, adding, “So to the question, ‘How will he or they be held accountable?,’ the answer may very well be that they won’t be held accountable.”

The most obvious way to hold the perpetrators “accountable,” as Ban insists the international community must, would be for the Security Council to refer the Syria case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

But that seems very unlikely. Russia, Assad’s chief international backer, would use its veto to prevent it. And in any case, the United States is not pressing for it.


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