On March 24, University of Michigan students marched for their lives. In January 2017 and 2018, thousands of college students marched for the protection of their rights and diversity. Now, imagine if those 4 million citizens gathered throughout the country in protest had been gunned down.
This is essentially what occurred six years ago in Syria. The violent response to a peaceful 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad spiraled into a civil war that has killed and displaced millions. The situation is not improving. On March 27, the U.N. Emergency Coordinator Mark Lowcock reported that “the last few months have been some of the worst yet for many civilians inside Syria.” The Syrian conflict displays a detrimental failure of international cooperation. However, the innovative use of international law will be necessary to achieve peace and reconciliation.
The past six years make it easy to become a cynic. Negotiations have been unsuccessful, because the rebels will not stop fighting until the seemingly impossible abdication of the Syrian government. To complicate the situation, major world powers have become involved. Russian interference has shifted the balance of power in favor of the government. The Syrian opposition, trained by the U.S. and Turkey, maintains faith that international law lies in their favor. The U.N. has, in fact, passed resolutions that “reiterate the need for political transition.” The question is whether we can overcome the bureaucracy of international law.
Both sides have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture, use of chemical weapons and violence against civilians. Human Rights Watch has collected enough evidence to ensure the delivery of justice in international tribunals. First, however, we must create these tribunals. In a perfect world, the U.S. or another power could submit the case to the International Criminal Court, but Syria is not a member of the ICC, and would probably not be willing to join anytime soon. The only body with the power to authorize the use of the ICC for a non-member state or create an ad hoc tribunal is the U.N. Security Council. When the UNSC referred the case to the ICC in 2014, the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China.
Though the situation seems hopeless, International Law Specialist Nicholas Koumjian would disagree. In his recent lecture at the University, Koumjian insisted upon the value of international justice, even if it comes at a slow pace and high economic cost. International justice has tangible benefits, such as satisfaction for the victims and deterrence of future crimes. Victims of the Bosnian genocide confirmed that the punishment of even a few guilty persons can restore a sense of the righteousness of the world.
We must renew the search for an international solution to the Syrian crisis. Every additional hour of war indicates increased human rights violations, U.S. dollars spent on airstrikes and refugees flooding the shores of Europe. Universal jurisdiction or the prosecution of Russia could provide short-term relief.
The principle of universal jurisdiction upholds the ideal that national courts charge individuals with crimes against international law. An uninvolved state, therefore, could potentially convict criminals fleeing the Syrian conflict. If the United States or another power was truly determined, it could also charge Russia, an ICC member, with involvement in international crimes. Russia recently lost its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council. While these are both feasible options, realistically immense exterior pressure would be required to convince states to take actions that could jeopardize relationships with Russia and China.
No matter what occurs, it is imperative that a peace agreement outlines a framework for judicial proceedings that address perpetrators on both sides of the conflict. Bilateral tribunals will inevitably result in the removal of the Assad regime. Syrian survivors insist that peace cannot come without justice. The crimes of the regime are too broad to be ignored. International or hybrid courts should also operate close to the community to assist in the restorative process.
In the long-term, the UNSC should be reformed to prevent abuses of veto powers that impede the protection of human rights. The international legal system is still a work in progress. As Koumjian concluded, international justice is not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. In the case of Syria, it can make the difference between the continuation of a catastrophic conflict and the transition to a brighter future.
Karuna Nandkumar is an LSA freshman.