Violence in Syria, Libya underscores need for convention on crimes against humanity

The violence against peaceful protesters in Libya and Syria drives home the need for an international convention for the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity, says Leila Nadya Sadat, JD, international law expert and director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute at Washington University School of Law.

“The concerted efforts of the international community have helped to bring about a resolution of the Libyan situation, but the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate,” she says.

“Reports of civilian roundups in Syria are reminiscent of Nazi roundups of the Jews during WWII. History shows that widespread human rights abuses lead to ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and even genocide.”

Leila Sadat
Leila Sadat

Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law at WUSTL, is director of The Crimes Against Humanity Initiative, which has drafted a proposed International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Humanity (

Crimes against humanity is the category of international crimes that apply to situations like Libya and now Syria, where a government turns on its own citizens based upon their political opposition or simply to terrorize them into submission.

“The actions of the Syrian government in attacking peaceful protestors are crimes against humanity, and need to be addressed as such,” she says.

“Unfortunately, other than the possibility of a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the situation in Syria — something that Russia and perhaps other governments appear intent upon thwarting — there is no international treaty condemning and obliging the international community to prevent crimes against humanity.

“These laws are a critical tool to criminalize human rights abuses before they amount to genocide, making them a potentially powerful legal tool in combating impunity for the commission of atrocity crimes,” Sadat says.

What is happening in Syria is not “politics by other means,” notes Sadat, but “criminal behavior that should be addressed by states and the international community.

“This gap in international law can and should be filled by the adoption of a treaty outlawing crimes against humanity,” Sadat says.

“The elaboration and adoption of a new treaty would send a clear message that crimes against humanity are illegal under international law, and that the perpetrators can be punished wherever and whenever they are captured — and not just by the ICC.”

According to Sadat, the U.S. response to the situation in Syria has been too little, too late.

Although the international community was able to effectively mobilize in the Libyan situation, the United States has been very slow to recognize the illegality of Syria’s violent campaign against its citizens, who have not resorted to arms, but to peaceful demonstrations. Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama issued a “Directive on Mass Atrocities,” in which he called for the development of a “comprehensive policy framework” for responding to the commission of atrocities “early, proactively, and decisively.”

One of the clearest signals his administration could send to would-be mass murderers, Sadat says, is to stand with the people of Syria in their struggle for democracy, and to support the adoption of a new crimes against humanity convention to prevent the commission of future atrocities.