In the past few decades, the international community has set up six major war crimes tribunals, such as for Rwanda and Cambodia. Not all were able to hold perpetrators to account. Nor have these courts always helped in the ultimate goal of national reconciliation and societal healing. Yet that has not stopped efforts to prepare for a new tribunal to prosecute war crimes in Syria once that country’s conflict ends.
For five years, a number of humanitarian groups have been diligently collecting evidence of mass crimes in Syria’s war, in which an estimated 400,000 have been killed. In recent days, the prospects of establishing a war crimes tribunal for Syria has improved. France, Britain, and the United States have called for an investigation of Russia for war crimes as a result of its bombing of civilian areas – including hospitals – in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.
Since the end of a cease-fire last month, hundreds in Aleppo have been killed by either Russian or Syrian war planes. “This is a targeted strategy to terrorize civilians,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry. Russia’s goal may be to help the Syrian regime gain an upper hand in any peace negotiations and to stay in power.
Shining a light of truth on mass atrocities in Aleppo, where an estimated 275,000 civilians are under siege, would be just the first step toward reparative justice in a postwar Syria. If an international tribunal finds that both Russia and the Syrian regime are guilty of war crimes, it could help prevent a cycle of revenge and serve as a deterrent for war crimes in the Middle East.
Merely calling for a probe may help entice Russian military leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, to bring a quick end to the war. They do not want to become international outlaws wanted by a tribunal.
Russia can use its veto power at the United Nations to block an attempt by the Security Council to request prosecution of war crimes in Syria by the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal in The Hague. This would be a shame as the UN’s prime purpose is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” But legal scholars say there might be other ways to set up a special court. Or individual countries might be able to prosecute perpetrators. Truth-telling about war crimes and justice for Syria would be the first step to heal a nation torn by war.