After six years of a brutal war in Syria, the United Nations took a concrete step this month to help heal Syrian society once the war ends. It set up an office for the formal investigation of war crimes in Syria to collect hard evidence for the future prosecution of perpetrators on all sides in the conflict.
The idea is to prepare for the day when Syrian victims of the war can find justice in a courtroom. Such post-conflict tribunals have become more common for countries that have experienced mass atrocities, such as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They reestablish a critical norm in a country – that the rule of law must prevail over the killing of innocent people. And they reveal the truth about war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity, which is necessary for a country to achieve national reconciliation.
At present, no court is set up to try suspected war criminals in the Syrian war. Most of the atrocities have been committed by forces of the Assad regime, which has been accused of conducting mass executions, using chemical weapons on civilians, and bombing hospitals and schools. The war also involves combatants from many other countries, including Russia.
Two years ago, Russia vetoed a proposal in the UN Security Council to have the International Criminal Court in The Hague begin to prosecute war crimes in Syria. Then, last December, the UN General Assembly – in defiance of Russia – voted overwhelmingly to set up a special body to prepare evidence for the eventual prosecutions.
The vote reflected the power of the world humanitarian community in its effort to ensure international law prevails in Syria. The effort at the UN was led by Lichtenstein and Canada.
Several bodies, mainly private groups but also the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, have been collecting detailed information on atrocities in Syria. This new body is designed to collect and preserve information that can hold up in a court of law.
It remains unclear which court might eventually take such cases. That issue could be resolved in the process of any peace talks that end the war. Even now, national courts that claim “universal jurisdiction” over war crimes could be handed suspected war criminals. On Thursday, a court in Sweden gave a life sentence to a Syrian man for his role in the execution-style murder of seven men in Idlib, Syria in 2012. The man had become a resident in Sweden.
More than 400,000 people have been killed in Syria since 2011, the greatest war atrocity of the 21st century. When peace, and perhaps democracy, finally come to Syria, it will need formal justice and societal healing to prevent a cycle of revenge and retaliation. As a first step, the UN’s new team of investigators has begun to fulfill that purpose.