Syria immune from being held accountable by ICC for atrocities

The International Criminal Court should act to bring Syrian officials to justice without Security Council authorisation.

More than 30,000 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011. Violations by government officials include indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, targeted killings of activists and opposition supporters, arbitrary detentions, torture and rape, as well as attacks on hospitals and clinics and the use of health facilities for military operations, according to the UN.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch condemned the state-sanctioned atrocities in Syria and called on the United Nations Security Council to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Human Rights Watch as well as many other organisations expect the ICC to adopt targeted sanctions against Syrian officials involved in the crimes. The ICC has so far failed to bring the Syrian officials to justice.

One of the main reasons the ICC has not brought the officials to justice is because the the ICC prosecutor can only evoke the court’s jurisdiction if a referral is made from the Security Council - or from Syria itself. Senior officials from a number of countries and public and private sector organisations worldwide have lobbied the Security Council to refer Syria to the ICC. There is extraordinary agreement across the globe condemning the Syrian regime’s crimes, including a 137-12 General Assembly Vote, an overwhelming vote at the UN Human Rights Council.

Despite the increasing international pressure, it is highly unlikely the Security Council will authorise a referral when Russia and China continue to support Syria. Although the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council are not unconquerable. In the past China, on two occasions, changed its mind and later supported ICC referrals after originally rejecting such referrals. One occasion was in 2005 in relation to Darfur and the latest was the referral of Libya in 2011. History suggests that China could reverse its objection again – and Russia might follow suit.

If the Security Council refuse to refer Syria to the ICC, Syria itself could make a referral to the ICC. This would involve victims working with organisations such as Human Rights Watch to compile an evidentially solid and factual report on behalf of Syrian nationals, which could be presented as a referral to the ICC. Even with a referral to the ICC by Syria, the ICC’s jurisdiction cannot be evoked without the Security Council’s agreement. Pressure from Syria itself could sway the Security Council to concede and agree to evoke the ICC’s jurisdiction.

It is all too easy to get side tracked focusing on the political preferences of the Security Council while forgetting the vital role that the ICC plays in bringing Syrian officials to justice. At present the ICC has failed to hold such officials accountable for their actions. Instead it could appear to the outside world that the ICC is responsible for allowing such officials to carry out atrocities against innocent civilians with arrogant impunity.

The ICC’s failure to take action has wider ramifications on its function as a court established to deal with such atrocities. The ICC could be perceived as following the political agenda of the United States and the Security Council rather than upholding the rule of law. This will inevitably throw the court’s judicial autonomy and integrity into question. Failing to do justice could have long-term detrimental consequences for the ICC and international justice as a whole.

Ensuring countries all around the world are not immune from the consequences of committing such atrocities should be at the forefront of international policy. Particularly in this case, where there is an international consensus that the Syrian regime is responsible for war crimes. As mentioned above, the UN and Human Rights Watch among many other institutions have condemned Syrian’s official’s actions – and the ICC was created to deal with such situations. Rather than call into question the role of the ICC and international justice as a whole, the ICC should take action without Security Council authorisation. Bringing Syrian officials to justice will free the country from an oppressive regime and accelerate progress toward a political transition.

Syrian rebel fighters celebrate on top of a tank captured from the Syrian government forces. Photograph: Getty Images

Charlotte is a barrister in human rights law.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.