Published October 30, 2013
The Syrian civil war will end. Eventually. No war lasts forever. And when the guns finally fall silent in what has been, and remains, a particularly brutal fight, someone will have to pay for the war crimes committed. And those crimes have been committed by both sides.
The United Nations says chemical weapons were used, to horrific effect, on Aug. 21. U.S. officials say there is no doubt those weapons were used by President Bashar al-Assad’s army. That is a war crime.
Human Rights Watch has accused extremist rebels of slaughtering nearly 200 civilians in an offensive against pro-regime villages on Aug. 4, going house to house and executing entire families. That is a war crime.
President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and leaders from many other western countries have repeatedly said those responsible for carrying out war crimes must, and will, be held responsible.
But who can do that? And how does any kind of court look at the evidence and separate the plain truth from the fog of war?
Professor David Crane might be the man to do it. Crane, currently at the Syracuse University College of Law, certainly has the experience – he was the first Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a court that successfully prosecuted former President Charles Taylor of the neighboring African nation of Liberia. Taylor is currently serving a 50-year sentence.
And now Crane, along with a blue ribbon panel of international law experts, as well as some law students at Syracuse, has set his sights on Syria. It is vital, he says, that the crimes committed there are prosecuted, that the international community’s promises of accountability are followed up with action. “Mankind has evolved to where they have decided to hold individuals accountable who commit war crimes against humanity and genocide,” the professor told me before testifying to Congress this week, “and if we step back from that or show the appearance that we're stepping away from that kind of standard, then it's going to be a pretty dark world over time, so the rule of law has to happen. The rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun, and we have to send that signal.”
Crane and his team set up the Syria Accountability Project in 2011 to track and try to verify, or debunk, every accusation of war crimes in Syria, and provide potential prosecutors with what the professor calls a “cornerstone document” on which trials could be based.
It’s an ambitious project with the United Nations and the State Department among its interested clients. The project uses open source reporting and other sources from all sides in the Syrian conflict to establish a “conflict narrative” that tracks the situation on the ground in Syria and key geopolitical developments relative to the major players in the conflict.
Using all this information, as well as his own expertise and that of his colleagues,Crane then develops the “crime base matrix,” a kind of road map for those who might one day prosecute these crimes. “It's important to understand that we developed this crime-based matrix, but from there, we analyze that data,” the professor told me, “and then we take those incidents that are truly verifiable, that actually took place, and develop an indictment matrix and from that is where they actually begin to draft the outline of an indictment against whomever we are looking at to include Assad and his henchmen.”
So where would these trials take place? It’s important to note that Syria is not a party to the International Criminal Court, based in the Netherlands, so the ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Syria unless the United Nations Security Council grants it. Crane believes that won’t happen because of the politics of the Security Council. But he does believe a Syrian court or something similar to the Special Court for Sierra Leone could be venues in which to bring justice for the Syrian people.
And it must happen, he says. “We have to use the rule of law as a basis by which we govern ourselves both domestically and internationally, and as soon as that crack happens, where it looks like we are not following the rule of law, the 21st century is in grave danger. We're better than that.”