Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the brutal civil war in Syria. The number of atrocities committed over that span is bewildering. In all probability, every single human rights violation and international crime enshrined in international law has been perpetrated in Syria during the last decade, most repeatedly. Yet ten years on, accountability for those atrocities has been minimal, an embarrassing blemish on the reputation of all states that stand for international justice. Canada’s decision to join an effort to bring Syria to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over human rights violations and torture won’t change that. But it is an important decision at a crucial juncture for Syria.
On 4 March, the Canadian government announced that it “has requested formal negotiations, under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to hold Syria accountable for the countless human rights violations it has inflicted on the Syrian people since 2011.” What this means, in short, is that Canada is joining a bold initiative by The Netherlands to eventually bring Syria before the ICJ over the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s wanton programme of systematic torture and atrocity.
What this does not mean is that any Syrian perpetrator will find themselves hauled before a judge to answer for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. Canada’s move may end up being largely symbolic. But symbols matter, and right now keeping faith that justice for atrocities in Syria alive is crucial. So too is ensuring that Syria’s government remains a pariah.
An uncomfortable truth for advocates of human dignity and rights is that Assad has effectively won the war in Syria. There will no doubt continue to be intermittent hostilities. But the dream of a democratic Syria without Assad at the helm has largely been quashed – at least for now. A leader with comparable blood on his hands to any dictator or despot in human history is safe, for the time being, in his palaces. And he has friends working for him.
Right now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is working closely with counterparts in Syria to rehabilitate Assad’s reputation. To think that that is impossible is sadly naïve. It’s also potentially dangerous.
Take Libya, for example. Few heads of state have been as castigated as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in the 1980s and 1990s. The “mad man” of the Middle East was despised due to his sponsorship of terrorist organizations abroad and his repressive rule at home.
Then, in the early 2000s, with investment opportunities opening up, the need for someone to push back migrants heading for Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, and a chance to stymie Gaddafi’s nascent nuclear programme, the erstwhile leader was rehabilitated and welcomed by large swathes of the international community. It didn’t end well. Following the 2011 uprising in Libya, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Gaddafi, alleging he was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was murdered by opposition forces in 2011. But for almost a decade, Gaddafi was (almost) normal in the eyes of states.
Even dictators responsible for genocide can be at least somewhat rehabilitated. After a referral from the United Nations Security Council, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir faced charges for the unholy trinity of international crimes by the ICC: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, all allegedly committed in Darfur. The Sudanese leader was feted in dozens of capitals despite the warrant hanging over his head. And when Gaddafi was overthrown, and Libya descended into intermittent civil war and unrest, European states needed someone to arrest migrant flows across the Mediterranean. Bashir was their man, despite the fact that those migrants were placed in what some compared to concentration camp conditions.
Still, the push for justice for Bashir never eased up. Eventually it was the people of Sudan, and not the international community, that hastened his political demise. He has since been prosecuted for corruption-related offences and dialogue between Sudanese authorities and the ICC over his prosecution for international crimes continues.
Despite his responsibility for countless atrocities of similar gravity and scale as Bashir, Assad won’t be brought to the ICC any time soon. His protectors, in particular Russia, have ensured that the United Nations Security Council cannot refer Syria to the ICC. But keeping the hope that justice will eventually catch up with Assad alive will prevent his political rehabilitation.
That is why Canada’s decision to join the effort to bring Syria to the ICJ over its campaign of torture and atrocity is so vital. It closes the political space available to those who might otherwise consider doing business with Assad.
The Syrian President and his goons may not be hauled before a criminal court to reckon with the litany of atrocities he is responsible for. But neither will they enjoy benefits as rehabilitated members of the international community. Assad will be hounded and haunted by allegations of the worst atrocities of the 21st century. Eventually, if efforts like Canada’s continue, the space around him will shrink and even those who support Assad will grow tired of being tied to a pariah. He might even be held to account.