Ben Taub writes: The horror of Syria’s war is in the millions of pictures that are too gruesome to circulate—charred limbs stacked outside hospital wards, bloated bodies rotting in sniper alleys, a toddler plucked from the rubble without a head. It is in a group of relatives trying to carry the sixty-pound corpse of a man who died of hunger — the boiled grass he’d been living on could no longer sustain him — but struggling under his weight, because they, too, are starving to death. It is in a generation of orphans, of children who never learned to read but can tell you the difference between the sounds of shelling and those of air strikes. It is in the intentional bombing of hospitals and clinics, the targeted assassinations of medical workers, the forced displacements, the chemical-weapons attacks. It is in a death toll so high, and so impossible to verify, that the U.N. stopped counting two years ago.
Following the horrors of the First World War, a British lawyer named Hugh Bellot spent years beseeching the League of Nations to establish an international criminal court at The Hague, to prosecute war crimes and “all offenses committed contrary to the laws of humanity.” For Bellot, allowing the “outrages” committed during the war — which included the widespread use of chemical weapons — to go unaddressed was as “dangerous to humanity and civilization” as the atrocities themselves had been. Bellot’s efforts fell short; it took the Holocaust for the international community to set up the world’s first international war-crimes tribunal, and another half century of atrocities in South America, Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe for his vision to be fully realized. In 1998, after the widespread killings in Rwanda and Bosnia, the United Nations convened a five-week assembly in Rome, to draft a treaty that would establish an international criminal court that could prosecute war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. In theory, the U.N. believed, the very existence of such a court would give pause to dictators and warlords prone to brutality; perpetrators living anywhere in the world could be hunted until their dying breaths.
Nowhere has the supposed deterrent of eventual justice proved so visibly ineffective as in Syria. Like most countries, Syria signed the Rome Statute, which, according to U.N. rules, means that it is bound by the “obligation not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.” But, because Syria never actually ratified the document, the International Criminal Court has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The U.N. Security Council does have the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, but international criminal justice is a relatively new and fragile endeavor, and, to a disturbing extent, its application is contingent on geopolitics. In 2014, when a measure to give the I.C.C. jurisdiction in Syria came before the council, Russia and China blocked it. Meanwhile, since 2011, not a minute has passed in which the Syrian government has not been committing multiple, simultaneous, widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity. The body of court-ready evidence against top officials within the Syrian government is more complete and damning than any that has ever previously been collected during an active conflict. And yet there is no clear path for prosecuting the highest-level offenders. [Continue reading…]