UN Security Council: Seize Chance for Justice in Syria

New Resolution Should Include ICC Referral
September 17, 2013

(New York) – The resolution the United Nations Security Council is considering about the August 21, 2013 chemical weapon attacks in Syria should include a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). An ICC referral of the situation in Syria would be a major step toward achieving justice for victims of the attack and other atrocities by all sides in Syria’s armed conflict.

“To lock up the chemical weapons and not prosecute those who used them is an affront to the civilians who died,” said Richard Dicker, international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Referring Syria to the ICC is essential for justice for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Syria by all sides since the conflict there began.”

Because Syria is not a member of the ICC treaty, the Security Council would have to give the court jurisdiction. A new Human Rights Watch document provides questions and answers about the referral process.

France included an ICC referral in an early draft of a Syria resolution, but there is concern that the clause could be eliminated for political concessions as negotiations progress, Human Rights Watch said.

An ICC referral would send a strong message to all parties to the conflict in Syria that grave crimes in violation of international law – including war crimes and crimes against humanity – will not be tolerated and will carry serious consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

The latest Security Council debate concerns the chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, which Human Rights Watch and others concluded were most likely committed by government forces. But Syrian armed forces and armed groups and various opposition forces have also committed numerous serious abuses using conventional weapons.

The chemical weapon attacks on August 21 in Ghouta were the most significant use of chemical agents since the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein used them in an attack on Iraqi Kurds in 1988. UN experts who visited Ghouta concluded that surface-to surface rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were used. This is consistent with Human Rights Watch findings about the attack.

The two-year Syrian conflict has taken a devastating toll on civilians. The latest report from the UN’s Syria Commission of Inquiry found that all sides had committed war crimes, including executions and indiscriminate attacks, and that government forces have committed crimes against humanity. Over six million Syrians have fled their homes, with over two million of them living in neighboring countries.

In addition to referring the Syria situation to the ICC, the Security Council should impose an embargo on all military sales and assistance, Human Rights Watch said. An embargo should include technical training and services to both the Syrian government and to opposition armed groups that have committed widespread human rights abuses.

The Security Council should also support expanded cross-border aid, press Syria to cooperate fully in humanitarian relief efforts, and grant unrestricted access for humanitarian agencies and the UN Commission of Inquiry.

Humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas has been undermined because various armed groups have been unwilling to guarantee security to those providing assistance. The Security Council should call on the Syrian opposition to encourage armed opposition groups to ensure safe passage to relief convoys and personnel into the territory under their control. 

Six of the 15 Security Council members have publicly expressed support for an ICC referral: France, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Argentina, Australia and South Korea. Neither the United States nor China has expressed support for a referral. Russia has said an ICC referral would be “ill-timed and counterproductive.”
Sixty-four countries in total have called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC.

The UN high commissioner for human rights has on multiple occasions recommended that the Security Council refer the Syria situation to the ICC. In February, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed “the debate triggered by the call of some Member States for the Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”

“Russia, the US and other Security Council members do not need to agree on who is responsible for war crimes in Syria, but they should all reject impunity for these crimes,” Dicker said. “The world will be a safer place only when those who gas children in their sleep or commit other atrocities don’t walk free.”

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