A bid has been launched with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute the Syrian government for war crimes, as one of the first credible opportunities for Bashar al-Assad’s government to face retribution for its actions in the Syrian war, which has devastated the country since 2011.
Previously, bringing Assad’s government before the ICC had not been possible, as Syria had not been a member of the court. However, using a similar legal approach to the case of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the prosecution seeks to charge the Syrian government for “deportation by force”. By launching the bid from Jordan, a member of the ICC, prosecutors hope to bring justice to the Syrian people who have been brutally repressed and driven out of their homes by Assad’s regime.
Rodney Dixon QC, the head of the legal team, declared in a statement that, “the ICC exists precisely to bring justice to the victims of these most brutal international crimes… The devastating war in Syria has been going on for almost nine years now and no one has yet been held accountable for the hundreds of thousands of violations against civilians.”
Indeed, a summary of the 28 testimonies collected for the case reveals some of devastation wrought by the Assad regime. One witness also spoke of how civilians were shot and killed by regime forces, divulging that her “eldest son was being forced to join the regime forces but he refused. He was taken away and brought back to our house a few days later, he was bruised all over and didn’t recognize [her]. He was bleeding and his clothes were torn…. The ICC must do something about this. We have suffered for too long.”
Syria’s war has led to 360,000 deaths, and around half of the country’s population displaced. There are now 5.6 million refugees living outside of Syria, with 6.6 million internally displaced. Throughout the conflict, evidence of the regime’s indiscriminate approach to prosecuting the war has led to multiple attempts to build a case for war crimes. Evidence includes the use of chemical weapons, the detention and execution of many without trial, and the use of torture. There had previously been an attempt to refer the government to the ICC back in 2014, when more than 60 countries backed a UN Security Council resolution. However, it was vetoed by Russia and China, the former remaining a staunch ally of the Assad regime.
This latest case, using a procedural loophole, offers a chance for the victims “the right to truth, reparation, and justice”, as Kristyan Benedict of Amnesty International U.K. has said. Indeed, progress has been made in these regards in recent months. In February, German and French cooperated to arrest three Syrian men residing in these countries. Two of the men, having lived in Germany since 2012, had been members of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate and military unit respectively. Both are believed to have been responsible for numerous crimes in the early stages of the conflict.
The trial will be the first of any senior member of Assad’s government and could act as a watershed moment in the pursuit of justice. As the war appears to be coming to a conclusion, with Assad still in power and undeterred by international condemnation, the possibility of some form of accountability is a small victory. The Syrian conflict has, through its complex regional and international character, brought many to question the effectiveness of supranational organizations to arbitrate and mediate in wars and humanitarian crises. If the prosecution of the Syrian government in the ICC is successful, it will restore some of the ebbing confidence. Most importantly, it might bring some peace to the innocent victims of a bloody conflict.