Should Assad face trial as a war criminal?

May 23, 2014 

Reports have circulated over the past several weeks that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces are gaining the upper hand in that nation’s ugly civil war — and are once again committing atrocities using internationally banned chemical weapons. This time, the allegation is that the regime is dropping chlorine gas bombs from helicopters over civilian targets.

If an investigation underway by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirms the latest allegation — leveled by France, among others — it will be time to bring Assad before the International Criminal Court to answer war crimes charges.

Why now? Why not a year ago, when Assad used chemical weapons, including deadly sarin gas? Because until recently there remained a chance — slim though it was — for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis and for Assad’s negotiated exit. But the closer Assad comes to prevailing in the war, the less need there is to keep that diplomatic exit open.

Members of the U.N. Security Council are reportedly drafting a letter to refer Assad’s actions to the ICC. One challenge will be to win the backing of the United States; to that end, the letter has apparently been written specifically to allay U.S. concerns that American troops or the Israeli government will somehow end up before the tribunal.

The second — and far greater — challenge will be to win Russian support. As one of the council’s five permanent members, Russia has a veto, and President Vladimir Putin has been in Assad’s corner from the start of the civil war. As his behavior in Ukraine demonstrates, Putin clearly doesn’t mind flouting international conventions.

Chlorine, because of its pervasive use in industry, is not covered under the reporting requirements of the international Chemical Weapons Convention. But that convention, which Syria signed when it promised to give up chemical weapons, does ban using chlorine gas as a weapon. If the investigation finds the gas was used, Assad must be held accountable.

The Security Council should put the war crimes referral to a vote and force Russia’s hand. If Russia vetoes it, then at least the world will be able to see who stands for humanity and who stands against it.

Los Angeles Times

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