By Iva Vukusic
The Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) announced that it has completed investigations in three leadership cases for crimes committed in Syria. The country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is among those who, evidence suggests, should be charged but, at present, there is no court to hear the case.
The non-governmental organisation tasked with collecting evidence for crimes during the four-year conflict is comprised of experienced ex-staffers from international tribunals working closely with a team of Syrians. After analysing the collected material, 25 individuals have been listed as suspects.
The three cases concern the highest-ranking military, intelligence and security officials and the violent suppression of protests early on in the conflict, when the state agencies detained thousands. Defectors such as Caesar uncovered widespread torture and killings. The investigations CIJA completed are focusing on three distinct bodies: Syria’s war cabinet (the Central Crisis Management Cell), the National Security Bureau in charge of coordinating the work of security agencies, and the Security Committee of the Deir ez-Zor province.
The evidence leads all the way up the chain of command. For now, investigations focus on crimes committed by the regime. The Commission is clear about this not being the end of their work. Other investigations focus on the conduct of hostilities and the use of chemical weapons, the hugely destructive barrel bombs and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.
According to Nerma Jelacic, who heads the CIJA communications, “we have investigations ongoing into conduct of non-regime actors.” Details won’t be publicised, as investigations continue. Toby Cadman, an international lawyer deeply involved in accountability efforts for Syria stresses: “even if the Caesar evidence and the reports on the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons put the regime of Basher al-Assad in the main focus of the future process of accountability, every side to the conflict seems to have violated the laws of war and committed international crimes. Therefore, any process would need to ensure the accountability of all actors and address their varying degrees of responsibility.”
Model for future investigations
CIJA’s success in this endeavour will tell us more about private efforts as a model for the future in investigating mass atrocities. Other NGOs, as well as the UN’s Commission of Inquiry, have conducted research and documentation, but their mandate did not include focusing on suspects and preparing cases for trial. This novel approach of non-governmental organizations filling in the gaps left open by institutions could make future trials more likely. As the conflict is ongoing and violations continue, it is important that evidence is collected before it is lost. Making sure evidence is admissible is one of CIJA’s main concerns. The Commission’s funding comes from governments, several of them European, and until last year, it also received financial backing from the United States.
The three investigations were heavily based on documents that had been taken out of institutions that fell into the hands of rebel groups. CIJA’s work in the field is dangerous and in order to gain access, they collaborate with a variety of actors controlling territory. Over half a million pages have been analysed and witnesses interviewed to obtain evidence that can be used in trial. It is that hope of future prosecution that lies behind CIJA’s work.
Impunity the norm
Possible options for pursuing justice for crimes in Syria exist, but thus far. impunity has been the norm. The International Criminal Court, an ad hoc institution based on the experiences of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, a hybrid court possibly set somewhere in the region, national institutions in Syria (unlikely to be a realistic option for years to come) and the principle of universal jurisdiction are among those options. None of them, at this point, seems very likely.
Justice is inextricably tied to a political resolution and the end of hostilities. So far, political and diplomatic efforts to end the carnage have failed. There is a deadlock in the UN Security Council when it comes to referring Syria to the ICC. Even if the ICC had jurisdiction, it is clear that its capacity is limited. For meaningful justice in Syria, holding only a few perpetrators accountable is not enough. Furthermore, it is a process in which Syrians must have a sense of ownership and participation.
Objectivity characterised by Lustitia
Many NGOs supported the referral of the case to the ICC, according to Bassam al-Ahmad, the spokesperson of the Violation Documentation Center. They would, however, be open to other options such as an ad hoc tribunal. War crimes prosecution is challenging, but it’s the only way forward in rebuilding the country, claims al-Ahmad. The mechanism provided, whatever it ends up being, should address all cases where gravity mandates it and where evidence exists.
After all, adds Cadman, “the classical image of justice is one of objectivity characterised by ‘Lustitia’ the blind lady of’ justice, who focuses solely on the events that she hears, irrespective of the person that tells them. And it is her, this blind lady of justice, who is the only one who can provide sustainable peace in Syria.”
Iva Vukusic is a PhD candidate at the History Department of Utrecht University. Previously, she was at the War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo and at Sense News Agency covering the ICTY in The Hague. You can follow her @VukusicIva.
Elias Tabakeas is a Greek cartoonist who works for Cartoon Movement.