Few doubt the need for justice in Syria. After a year and a half of unrest, escalating violence, forced displacement and thousands of deaths, the case for a judicial intervention, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) or some other international tribunal, isn’t particularly hard to make. Indeed, the fact that Syria has not been referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council is a rather obvious reminder of the deep-seated politics and selectivity of international criminal justice. After all, the violence in Syria is at least comparable to, if not more devastating than situations where the ICC has recently intervened, including Libya, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
Still, the current global political climate and the stalemate in the Security Council suggest that no such intervention into Syria is forthcoming. After being utterly used by intervening powers and then quietly abandoned in Libya, this may be a good thing for the ICC. But calls for an ICC intervention into Syria will only grow louder as the conflict bloodily drags on with no peaceful end in sight.
Of course, we would expect that the voices demanding that the ICC investigates atrocities in Syria would emanate from supporters of the forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. After the Libyan experience, where the Security Council tapped the ICC to investigate ongoing atrocities in Libya just days before approving the no-fly zone that opened the floodgates for NATO’s intervention, it seems that many – both for and against international intervention – view the invocation of the ICC as a first, and perhaps necessary, step to concrete international action in Syria. For this reason it was remarkable, and certainly a surprise, to see Assad supporters declare that they would like to see the ICC investigate Syria.
The call to have Syria referred to the ICC came in the form of a hacked message plastered on Amnesty International’s blog. In another reminder that the internet and social media aren’t always the warm and fuzzy liberal forces that many assume (see here), Assad supporters posted articles which blamed the ongoing violence in Syria on rebels fighting the regime. The false information was then propagated via Twitter and other social media, even after it had been taken down. According to the Washington Post, it was widely promulgated that the posts came from Amnesty International investigators “who no longer can handle the lies and outright propaganda of media outlets.”
Here is the relevant passage, calling on Syria to be investigated by the ICC:
“Russia must immediately use its influence to end this violence and support the UN Security Council to end NATO’s reign of terror upon Syria and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Amnesty supporters have not forgotten the people of Syria and will continue to demand accountability for these horrific crimes against humanity.”
The statement is notable for a number of reasons. First, it looks to Russia, Syria’s stalwart patron and protector, to do its bidding in pushing for a Security Council referral to the ICC. Russia, however, is more than a little ambivalent in its position to ICC referrals, viewing the ICC as the possible beginning of a slippery slope towards military intervention.
Second, and in contradiction to Russia’s general position, the authors of the message appear to be disinterested in the relationship between an ICC intervention and a military intervention, à la Libya. It rejects a NATO intervention while welcoming an ICC referral, thus refusing to see the link between potential NATO action and an ICC investigation.
Third, while the message does not necessarily mean that the Assad regime itself would like the ICC to investigate its conduct, it seems unlikely that there is no connection between the pro-regime hackers and the government. For those groups advocating judicial intervention in Syria, the statement by Assad’s supporters would appear to be low hanging fruit – they can now claim both sides have requested the ICC to intervene.
So, will Syria be referred to the ICC? Probably not any time soon. But, somewhat ironically, many in the international community will agree with the pro-Assad rebels. The UN Security Council should go for it.