WashU Expert: Syrian civil war should be referred to International Criminal Court

The Syrian civil war began in 2011. Its spread since that time has caused refugees to spill across its borders and created a fertile environment for the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).


How can the international community get a handle on a conflict that already has claimed some 220,000 lives?

One possible solution is to refer the Syrian situation to the International Criminal Court, says an expert in international criminal law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“There is now talk of President (Bashar al-) Assad remaining in power — something that was unthinkable a year or two ago given the ferocity of the conflict,” said Leila Sadat, PhD, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law, director of the Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute and special adviser on crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court prosecutor.

“Of course, President Assad may retain his position — as may others in his government or in the opposition — but whatever political solution is devised should be without prejudice to the rights of the international community and the Syrian people to demand accountability for the international crimes committed during the conflict,” Sadat said.

Sadat shared her views in an essay, “Genocide in Syria: International Legal Options, International Legal Limits, and the Serious Problem of Political Will”, which appears in the fifth volume of the Syracuse College of Law Impunity Watch. Sadat’s opinions in the piece are her own. She is not speaking on behalf of the International Criminal Court.

The essay addresses the failure of the international community to rein in the violence in Syria, and suggests that much of the problem is a lack of political will, not only on the part of the United States in the region, but on the part of several permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Nevertheless, the essay suggests several legal options that might bring a modicum of justice to the situation.

Among Sadat’s suggestions are:

  • All states must be reminded of their existing legal obligations.
  • Continuing efforts should be made to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
  • The current impasse in the United Nations Security Council needs to be addressed.
  • Although there is no forum yet in which those responsible for the crimes committed since March 2011 may be tried, many groups and governments are documenting atrocities for future trials.
  • States wishing to move from rhetoric to action regarding the atrocity cascade in Syria must use legal argumentation to much greater effect.
  • While endeavoring to address the situation in Syria, the entire region must be the focus of attention.
  • Although military action should not be ruled out, great care must be taken when using force to address atrocity crimes.

“No amnesty for crimes of the magnitude alleged to have been committed in Syria can, or should be accepted, nor is it clear that any amnesty would be lawful, at least outside of Syria,” Sadat wrote. “Moreover, amnesty would be unlikely to either resolve the current impasse or prevent the commission of future atrocities.

“History has shown that impunity typically emboldens individuals perpetrating atrocity crimes; it does not stop them.”