Over the past couple of weeks, I have been ‘investigating’ ongoing efforts by private non-governmental organizations to document and collect evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. The following is a snippet from an article that I wrote for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage. It is based on interviews I conducted with international investigators, as well as staff from the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
There is no immediate prospect for international justice or accountability in Syria. Efforts to have the United Nations Security Council refer the conflict to the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been stymied by Russia and China. The possibility of setting up an “ad hoc” tribunal to investigate allegations of crimes committed in Syria is more of an intellectual project than a political reality. While the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria has produced a host of impressive and damning reports, the response of states has been meager and the conflict rages on. Even the broader debate regarding “transitional justice” in Syria misses a key point: There is no transition.
In this rather gloomy context of injustice and impunity, some have been comforted by the fact that at least someone is doing something: For the last few years, a small number of private non-governmental organizations have been investigating and documenting evidence of crimes committed in Syria. But what are the risks of such investigations? Do they outweigh the benefits? And is this the birth of a new model for investigating mass atrocities in war zones?
On first glance, it seems that groups like the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) solve a key limitation facing other justice mechanisms: On the ground and in active conflicts, they are able to investigate crimes immediately following their commission. Other institutions – like the ICC or the Commission of Inquiry – aren’t able to directly gather evidence or document crimes on the ground. And when they finally do get access to the “crime scene” once the conflict has come to an end, key evidence has often been destroyed.
Indeed, international investigations are generally conservative, owing in part to the high-profile nature of international criminal tribunals and the hazards of deploying international investigators into ongoing conflicts. In the 1990s, investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia faced significant challenges in investigating ongoing atrocities in the Balkans. When the ICC opened an official investigation in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, it initially only dispatched two investigators. Those individuals were tasked with gathering evidence and understanding the commission of atrocities in an area not much smaller than Ireland. A more recent example is the ICC’s intervention in Libya. The Security Council requested that the ICC investigate events in Libya in February 2011 and the court issued arrest warrants in May of the same year. However, the ICC could only put investigators on the ground in October – the same month the Libyan civil war came to an end. Its cases were consequently built on evidence from sources and witnesses from outside of the country and sources within Libya that were able to gather evidence while the conflict was ongoing.
This points to another advantage for private organizations in Syria: They can be much less risk-averse than other institutions. As Nerma Jelacic of the CIJA says, “We have a higher risk tolerance than courts and U.N. agencies and that is what puts us in a unique situation … we are able to make these decisions quicker and without the security burdens that can sometimes prevent other agencies from getting on the ground and collecting such information.”
These two advantages – the ability to investigate in the midst of ongoing political violence and having a greater tolerance to risk in doing so – are important. But do they outweigh the potential costs of such investigations?
A key concern for any investigation – and the pursuit of justice more generally – is impartiality. The Commission of Inquiry has catalogued crimes and human rights abuses committed not only by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also by opposition groups. This poses a serious dilemma for any group investigating atrocities. Any investigation on the ground and in real time requires cooperation – often from the same groups that are perpetrating crimes. Jelacic readily admits that the CIJA needs to cooperate with some groups that may be implicated in the commission of crimes: “We have been quite open about it. In order to gain access to certain areas we need approval of opposition forces … [and] the majority of what we do are regime offences.” Continue reading