Fanning the Flames of Justice in Syria

CHICAGO – Justice will be a long time coming in Syria, but it can begin with a Security Council referral of the situation in that wounded country to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation and, ultimately, prosecution. The obstacles are serious, but the goal is imperative.

This week, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called for such a referral to the ICC during a session of the UN Human Rights Council that sharply attacked the Syrian regime for its deadly assaults on civilians in Homs and elsewhere in Syria. A report by UN legal experts found that crimes against humanity are being waged by Syrian forces against civilians under the leadership of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of the prospect of war-crimes charges against Assad. Tunisia, seeking to induce Assad to leave, offered him asylum.

The challenges erupting daily across Syria extend far beyond the criminal conduct of its leaders. The international community’s most important task is to force an end to the bombardments and killings, and to provide humanitarian relief to the country’s besieged civilian populations. If ever there was a case for preventing atrocities and activating the UN’s “responsibility to protect,” Syria provides it. But further political pressure, economic sanctions, and humanitarian action through a tough UN Security Council resolution still seem remote, given resistance by Russia and China – both of which are permanent Council members and closely allied to the Assad regime.

An initiative in New York to craft a Security Council resolution that only refers the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court would not be enough to save many lives, but it might be a plausible first step at a time when few other options are available.