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Evidence exists to bring Syria war-crimes case: French diplomat (+video)

France's top human rights diplomat says 'the raw material is there' in the Syria conflict to refer case to the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

By Staff writer / July 12, 2012

Syrian refugees and local residents holding opposition flags take part in a demonstration against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, outside the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, July 12.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters

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After 16 months of carnage in Syria, enough evidence and reports of systematic brutality and crimes against humanity exist to send the case to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, according to diplomats. The reports, including names of Syrian officials and details on massacres, amount to a mass tipping point, they say, and allow a “referral” by the UN Security Council to the ICC that would result in indictments.

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Pressure mounted on Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad as Western powers draw up a 10-day sanctions ultimatum and a first senior diplomat, his ambassador in Baghdad, defects.

Yet an ICC referral requires the agreement of Russia and China, which seems unlikely as the Syria conflict has become a global standoff between Moscow and Western and Arab states led by the US.

This week, France’s top human rights diplomat told the Monitor there is “definitely” enough evidence of Syrian war crimes and torture to refer the case: “The raw material is there,” says Ambassador François Zimeray.

President Hollande and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insist the prosecution of war crimes is not a matter of if, but when. Last week, as host of a Paris summit of Friends of the Syrian People, French president François Hollande made it his first order of business to pledge “no impunity for crimes” by Syrian leaders. The US State Department has collected war crimes evidence since spring 2011.

Mr. Zimeray described Syria as an “endless Guernica” after visiting its border this year, and told the Monitor that after four years and 97 trips to world trouble spots, he had never encountered “such cruelty, cruelty inside of violence … that is manifest in the criminal attitude of [Assad’s] regime.”

Yet, even as various tribunals at The Hague this week marked progress – the first verdict coming from the ICC in the Lubanga child soldiers trial, and the first witness testimony in the trial of Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic – the wheels of justice on Syria are tangled in conflicting interests by emerging world power blocs.  

“Russia and China are the hurdles, definitely,” says Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, which this month published a report describing an “archipelago” of some 27 torture centers around Syria, including locations and the names of at least half of the commanding officers in charge of them.

While a war crimes investigation might not have an immediate impact on the conflict, the fact that enough evidence exists amid ongoing atrocities is a point diplomats feel can play a role in the court of world opinion, if not in Moscow or Beijing.

The concept of international justice in ad hoc tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and now embodied in the ICC, has been criticized as weak, sometimes counterproductive, and slow. ICC indictments have tended to center on African warlords, giving it a “North-South” bias. The US, Israel, India, and many Arab nations are not signatories.


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