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The real question on Syria: Why no war crimes indictments yet?

Crackdowns on the scale of Syria's have prompted action by the International Criminal Court elsewhere. The ICC opened an investigation against Qaddafi just three weeks into Libya's uprising.

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The Los Angeles Times reports this week that a "western government" is paying for an investigation designed to lead to indictments (the paper didn't say which one), and that some foreign governments, led by the United Kingdom, have called on the international community to take stronger action. But so far, no steps have been taken. US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice reminded reporters this week that ICC action would require support from the UN Security Council.

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"I think if we were talking about whether that would be forthcoming today, I would have to say, quite candidly, I doubt it," Ms. Rice said.

Though she didn't say so, it's clear that Security Council members like China and Russia are nervous about expanding the ICC's remit. Blogging at the Council on Foreign Relations earlier this month, Stewart Patrick argued that China and Russia are afraid that "if the UN Security Council is entitled to investigate human rights abuses and use force against national governments, it might act upon longstanding outrage at human rights abuses in their own nations."

While in the short term an indictment probably would be worth as much as Obama calling Assad up and telling him to go (i.e., not much), it would be a much stronger step, and represent a real threat to Assad's future mobility and status in the world – something that would certainly give many of his allies pause, wondering if they're next.

Of course, the ICC indictment of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi has done little to budge that dictator. But an indictment against Assad would be a truly isolating, united international step at least, unlike a unilateral cut of all ties by Obama, which would leave the US out of the loop even as Assad pursues his relationships with other nations.

But the Libyan case compared to Syria is instructive about how inconsistent the ICC can be when it comes to taking action, a sign that it's as influenced by international politics as by a desire to mete out justice. While a broad regional and global consensus against Qaddafi emerged quickly after that country's uprising began in February, the more complicated case of Syria – with the clear danger of sectarian fighting in the aftermath of the regime's fall and fears that problems there could destabilize neighbors like Lebanon – has created a muddier international picture.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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