Who would have thought that some 76 years after the Holocaust, babies would be gassed, teenagers would be brutally tortured and women would be raped at the hands of a barbarous regime?
Several years ago, Holocaust survivors cried out against the gassing of Syrian civilians. Horrific pictures streamed across our television screens of children lying on the floor in agony, after breathing in chlorine gas following an attack from Syrian forces. The many corpses lying on the street and in makeshift hospitals were reminiscent of images we have seen from other genocides. For Holocaust survivors, seeing these types of images again was agony.
Yet the world failed to act and the war in Syria, along with continued attacks on innocent civilians, did not stop. Between 350,000 and 500,000 civilians have been brutally murdered. Some 11 million became refugees, fleeing to other places in the Middle East, Europe and North America. Canada saved around 50,000 fleeing Syrians, while Israel set up a tent hospital on its border to treat the injured.
Syrian President Bashar Assad may have regained control of his country, but he has blood on his hands, as do his senior government and military officials. A scathing “60 Minutes” documentary that aired this week revealed the extent of the war crimes committed by the Assad regime. It featured activist Mouaz Moustafa, who has received thousands of photographs of civilians who were allegedly tortured to death and has been sharing them with the world, in an effort to hold Assad and his enablers to account.
Moustafa’s Syrian Emergency Task Force is said to have received some 50,000 photographs from an anonymous military photographer who goes by the alias Caesar. Alongside numerous documents said to have been signed by Assad himself, the photographs provide some of the most damning evidence of the most horrific crimes imaginable.
Who would have thought that some 76 years after the Holocaust, babies would be gassed, teenagers would be brutally tortured and women would be raped at the hands of a brutal regime? How can the world allow Assad to get away with murder, as it did the Nazis?
If we are serious about human rights and preventing mass atrocities, why is the International Criminal Court (ICC) silent on Syria? Its spokesperson, Fadi el-Abdallah, told me that the “ICC has not opened an investigation in relation to Syria.” The ICC is currently investigating places like Uganda, Darfur, Mali, Georgia and Burundi, but not Syria — a country that arguably has committed more documented war crime than any other.
When asked why, el-Abdallah said that, “Syria is not a state party to the Rome Statute and has not accepted the ICC jurisdiction. Thus, crimes committed by its citizens on its own territories do not fall under the ICC jurisdiction, unless the (United Nations Security Council) would refer the situation to the ICC, which has not happened to date.”
Given the fact that Russia has veto power on the Security Council and is militarily involved in Syria and backing Assad, it’s highly unlikely that the council would ever refer the matter to the ICC. But the court’s excuses have become all the more problematic following the ICC’s recent ruling that it has jurisdiction to investigate Israel and the Palestinian Authority over alleged war crimes, despite the fact that Israel is not a state party to the Rome Statute and the Palestinian Authority is not a recognized state.
The ICC was able to circumvent the UN Security Council in order to go after Israel by claiming that the Palestinian Authority is party to the Rome Statute. Surely it could find a loophole to allow it to go after Syria, if there was a will to do so.
The UN’s high commissioner for human rights also seems to be taking exception to the court’s inaction, but has had little success in changing its ways. Marking the 10th anniversary of the conflict, the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a 20-page report documenting “the most heinous of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law perpetrated against the civilian population in Syria since March 2011.” It concludes that, “Such acts are likely to constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes, including genocide.”
A spokesperson at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told me that they have tried to get the UN Security Council to refer the matter to the ICC, noting that, “This matter has not been referred to the ICC, despite the several calls by the commission of inquiry, and numerous recommendations by the Human Rights Council for the UN Security Council to do so.” The commission is now looking at other “areas of criminal justice” to address the matter of war crimes.
Despite the ICC’s inaction, there are things that Western countries like Canada can do to defend human rights. In 2019, the United States passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which targets the Assad regime and its allies — including Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — with economic sanctions.
Canada can also take a lead in this effort by invoking its so-called Magnitsky act against officials in the Assad regime and putting in place sanctions that prevent the murderous regime from operating freely. Given our experience with the Holocaust, anyone who believes in human rights should never allow war criminals like Assad to get away with murder.