Condemnations of Syrian War Crimes Have Little Impact

Any proposal to prosecute Syrian officials would probably fail in the Security Council.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens during a session of Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, May 29
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens during a session of Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, May 29 (UN/Jean-Marc Ferré)

While much of the world is focused on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program, the United Nations Human Rights Council is devoting serious resources to another major issue in the Syrian Civil War: the lack of accountability for those who are engaged in atrocities.

In a speech to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland, the international body’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, disclosed that her colleagues had uncovered numerous incidents in the fighting that amounted to war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Observers of the Syrian Civil War, which is now in its third years, might not be surprised. Reports of what can well be considered crimes against humanity have regularly surfaced. Syrian military forces deliberately bomb densely populated areas, regardless of how many civilians are in the vicinity. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed by the regime’s use of fighter aircraft, heavy artillery and helicopter gunships. Cluster munitions and barrel bombs that explode on impact, covering wider areas than regular munitions, have been used throughout the year. Bakeries, schools and power stations have all been targeted — if not to destroy rebel supplies and command centers, than to frighten civilians into thinking twice about supporting the opposition.

But in a twist that could potentially add renewed urgency to the humanitarian crisis in the country, Pillay singled out President Bashar Assad for either ordering or condoning these abuses.

“The evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state,” she said. “The scale of viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by elements on both sides almost defies belief.”

Taken alone, Pillay’s remarks will not be able to initiate an international investigation into war crimes related to Syria’s war. Although the International Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria, a body that was sanctioned by the Human Rights Council earlier in the conflict, has reportedly compiled a list of individuals responsible for criminal acts, they can only be prosecuted if the Security Council agrees that crimes have in fact been committed.

Referring Assad or anyone in his regime to The Hague to stand trial is more difficult than usual. Not only does Syria not recognize the International Criminal Court; the Security Council has long been deadlocked on the conflict since hostilities began. China and Russia, two of its permanent members, have already blocked three resolutions that targeted Assad’s regime. They can be expected to similarly veto any referral of Syrian officials to the international court.

As long as China and Russia see Assad as at least preferable to the fragmented rebellion, if not an ally, allegations of impropriety against the Syrian leader or his commanders will be stalled. Given the large-scale atrocities that have been committed in Syria since March 2011, and a civilian death toll that is estimated to have exceeded 100,000, the wanton disregard of human life from loyalist forces will likely continue.

Without Security Council approval, there is nothing other countries can do to hold violators to account. The only thing Pillay’s commendations have, for now, achieved is to further discredit Assad and his backers in the eyes of the world.