UN Calls for Ad Hoc Tribunal for Syria
March 21, 2015
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Since 2011, Syria has been home to a violent civil war that arose in the context of the Arab Spring. Spanning 4 years so far, the conflict is ongoing and has left 220,000 people dead and 11 million displaced. What began as a fight between those for or against the Assad regime has developed into a sectarian conflict, pitting Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims, and the involvement of jihadist groups such as ISIS has added another dimension to the conflict. A UN commission of inquiry has evidence of mass atrocities that have taken place in Syria since March of 2011, particularly violence done to civilian populations, and has developed a secret list of those they consider war criminals in the region.
Major political actors in the international community are in many ways involved or invested in the Syrian conflict and its justice process. Russia in particular has been staunchly against a Security Council referral of the situation to the ICC. Russia supports the Assad regime, and is likely concerned that a Security Council referral would lead to the singling out of President Bashar al-Assad as a most responsible perpetrator. In the face of opposition from major powers like Russia and China, the UN Commission has been forced to consider options other than the ICC, and is now considering the appeal of an ad hoc tribunal for Syria. Former chief prosecutor of the ICTY Carla Del Ponte believes that an ad hoc tribunal could work in Syria for a number of reasons: “‘First of all, the ICC would prosecute only three, four, five perpetrators, not more. I think an ad-hoc tribunal could prepare a list of over a hundred, like the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia … An ad-hoc tribunal could also be based near the region, facilitating access of witnesses, documentation and so on,'”. Russia and China would likely be more amenable to an ad hoc tribunal as well, because it would pursue more prosecutions of members of extremist elements of the conflict alongside members of the Assad regime.
It is yet unclear whether the Commission plans to work in tandem with national courts that would exercise universal jurisdiction in order to prosecute human rights violations that occurred during the Syrian conflict, or if they will initiate an investigation and prosecutions of their own. The Commission has indicated that it is willing to cooperate with national courts in terms of sharing incidents of violence and alleged perpetrators, but no concrete steps have yet been made towards the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal for Syria.