00:26, October 14 57 0 theguardian.com

2019-10-14 00:26:05
Syria war criminals may find the law is finally closing in on them

Actual or suspected war crimes have been reported at every stage of Syria’s long-running civil war – and Turkey’s latest cross-border incursion has unleashed another wave of atrocities, including executions of civilians and other alleged crimes against humanity.

But despite huge amounts of documentary evidence collected since 2011 by the UN and independent human rights groups, the perpetrators of such crimes in Syria, whether they are governments, armed factions or individuals, have mostly escaped punishment. This has encouraged a sense of impunity among wrongdoers – and dismay among victims.

Ahrar al-Sharqiya, the Turkish-backed rebel group allegedly responsible for killing nine civilians near Tel Abyad at the weekend, exemplifies this phenomenon. It was previously accused of abusing civilians, including forced disappearances and looting, during last year’s Turkish-led occupation of Afrin in north-west Syria.

Fighters in Jaish al-Sharqiyah, another faction attached to the rebel Free Syrian Army, were also accused of human rights abuses in Afrin. FSA officials later pledged action would be taken against those responsible. But according to a Human Rights Watch report, this never happened.

Turkey’s proxy forces are not alone in committing alleged war crimes in Syria. A military offensive last spring in Idlib province in north-west Syria by Syrian and Russian forces caused hundreds of civilian deaths, and displaced tens of thousands of people. In one episode, four hospitals were deliberately targeted by Russian bombers in the space of 12 hours.

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s human rights chief, declared in July. Mark Lowcock, another senior UN official, angrily accused UN security council members of “doing nothing for 90 days as the carnage continues in front of your eyes”. But a UN board of inquiry into Idlib has yet to report its findings.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has frequently been accused of war crimes through illegal use of chemical weapons. One of the most notorious incidents occurred in the town of Khan Sheikhun, where nearly 100 people died in a sarin gas attack in April 2017.

The international chemical weapons watchdog officially blamed the regime for the attack, as did the US and Britain. But Assad flatly denied it, Russia said the incident was staged – and no one has been held to account.

Donald Trump and other western leaders have also faced war crimes controversies, for example over airstrikes in Raqqa and Mosul during coalition operations against Islamic State. Unknown numbers of civilians died in the bombings. Yet their deaths have not been investigated or, in Britain’s case, even acknowledged.

When it comes to war crimes, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump, Assad, the Russian and US air forces and the rebel militiamen in Tel Abyad all have one thing in common: they are unlikely to face prosecution. The culture of impunity stretches from the top to bottom.

The international criminal court, which has lead responsibility for investigating war crimes, lacks authority and is not officially recognised by the US, Russia, Turkey or Syria. The UN’s international commission of inquiry on Syria, created in 2011, has a mandate to investigate violations of human rights law – but Assad’s refusal to cooperate has stymied it.

In practice, hopes of justice for war crimes victims mainly rely at present on independent, non-government organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syria Campaign and the Commission for International Justice and Accountability that collect and document evidence and witness statements that could be used in future prosecutions.

Recent history suggests most culprits will escape justice, including the killers now on the rampage around Tel Abyad. But this may be changing. Groundbreaking cases brought in Germany and France this year against alleged Syrian state torturers, which are expected to go to trial, have raised hopes the law is slowly catching up with the lawless.



Topics