Assad safe from ICC ... for now
Syria has reacted with predictable fury to the call by the United Nations human rights commissioner for it to be investigated for crimes against humanity following the killing of more than 5 000 people since the uprising against the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad began nine months ago.
Assad can be fairly confident that it will not happen—for the simple reason that the international criminal court (ICC) can only act at the request of the UN security council. With Russia and China still backing him and prepared to wield their vetoes, he is safe ... for now.
Navi Pillay, the UN commissioner, spoke for many when she told the council that the situation in Syria had become “intolerable”. But the problem here is the echo of February’s referral of Libya to the ICC, which subsequently accused Muammar Gaddafi, his son and intelligence chief of crimes against humanity.
That move was backed by Moscow and Beijing, as was a second UN resolution shortly afterwards that imposed a no-fly zone and authorised the use of “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces.
But both then objected strenuously when Western countries, supported by the Arab League, tasked Nato to intervene. They saw that as a mandate for regime change by stealth. Both are now determined to prevent the “Libyanisation” of the Syrian crisis.
Use of the ICC is controversial. It was argued by critics in the Libyan case that referral to the court was premature and self-defeating because it closed off options for Gaddafi at a time when the international community might have hoped he would step down and retire in Libya or go into voluntary exile.
Under international law, countries which have signed the ICC statute are obliged to hand over suspects. Deals cannot be done.
It is striking that Pillay talked of referring Syria to the court but did not personalise the issue by naming Assad or other senior figures. Concern over who might eventually face investigation could have its effect internally and weaken the cohesion of the regime and its ability to continue repression.
The UN appears to be using material similar to evidence collected by Human Rights Watch, which names 74 “shoot to kill” commanders and officials responsible for attacks on unarmed protesters.
Syria has retorted that the UN’s case is tainted because it relies on the testimony of defectors from its military and intelligence services. It would be naive to suggest that Assad’s opponents do not have a clear interest in accentuating the negative.
The obvious answer is for Syria to allow in human rights monitors from the UN or the Arab League to carry out independent assessments.
But Damascus is refusing to do that.—