Opinion: now more than ever, we need to make clear that international law provides mechanisms for accountability

The almost daily reports of atrocities being committed in Syria have created an impression that what is happening is somehow a normal part of contemporary conflicts. This premise must be rejected. Furthermore, we cannot allow the indiscriminate attacks and violations of international humanitarian and criminal law to continue or go unaddressed.  

The recent successes of the Assad regime in defeating opposition forces around Ghouta, their last stronghold near Damascus, marks another milestone in the war similar to that of the fall of eastern Aleppo in 2016. It is now apparent that Assad and Russia intended to deal a final mortal blow to opposition forces irrespective of the consequences for the civilian population.  

From RTÉ SIx One News, report on the thousands of people fleeing the Syrian conflict in Ghouta

Since 2011, members of Syria’s armed forces and regime-aligned militias have been accused of committing serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity. This includes war crimes since the beginning of the armed conflict stage in July 2012. Russia and Iran, in addition to providing lethal weapons to the Assad regime, have also been implicated. 

The UN Commission of Inquiry in Syria has documented human rights abuses by armed opposition groups albeit "not comparable in scale and organization with those carried out by the State". In 2012, it observed that human rights abuses perpetrated by armed opposition groups "may be prosecutable as war crimes". Apart from being a failure of international diplomacy and the UN, the current situation is an affront to all humanity.   

 At the heart of the problem with the UN Security Council is the abuse of the veto power of the five permanent member

Nothing demonstrates the need for UN Security Council reform more than the inept response to date. At the heart of the problem is the abuse of the veto power of the five permanent members. These are more often than not central players in all the major armed conflicts around the world. They also happen to have primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security under the UN Charter while being the major arms manufactures of the world. 

This is 2018, not Stalingrad during the Second World War or Grozny in Chechnya. The latter in particular provides a chilling insight into Russia's tactics and ultimate aim. Then, Russia also tried denial and counter claim to deflect attention from the widespread and systematic attacks on the civilian population and protected objects such as medical facilities. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Dr Andrew Cottey, Senior Lecturer at UCC's Department of Government, analyses Russia's involvement in Aleppo

What happened in Aleppo in 2016 and more recently Ghouta provides evidence of the broader strategy. The goal has been to crush all opposition groups in a brutal onslaught on rebel held areas. This is also part of a deliberate policy to drive the moderate rebels into the hands of more extreme elements and will ultimately leave no surviving moderates with which the West can align. 

There must be accountability for the perpetrators of the war crimes and crimes against humanity taking place in order to deter others. There is evidence that this is what many Syrians want. It raises issues related to the so called peace versus justice debate as some argue that in the short term it would mean that those in power will have a greater incentive to fight on. The International Criminal Court is one option, but to date Russia has prevented the Security Council from referring the situation in Syria to the Court. A message must go out to all those involved in the conflict that what has occurred will not be forgotten and that all parties, not just the government forces, will be held to account.  

Any criminal investigation must find its own evidence and build on what others have gathered, often at grave personal risk to local non-government organisations. 

Models of other courts include the Ad hoc tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Sierra Leone or the Extraordinary Chambers for Cambodia.  The latter was established decades later to prosecute those most responsible for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. 

The conflict in Syria will most likely be classified as a non-international armed conflict, albeit with an international dimension. This is because although Russian forces are participating in the conflict, they are there at the request and in support of the recognised government of Syria and this preserves the essential civil war nature of the conflict. The classification has significant implications for the legal framework governing the situation and hence the nature of any investigation and prosecution of alleged perpetrators.  

A lot of evidence has already been gathered on the ground in Syria. The UN commissions of enquiry and similar investigation mechanisms may be able to assist in the process. However, any criminal investigation must find its own evidence and build on what others have painstakingly gathered, often at grave personal risk to local non-government organisations. 

What next for those who've been evacuated from Ghouta and Aleppo?

Unfortunately, there will be no accountability for those states and leaders that have prevented the UN from being effective. Russia and Assad act as if they have nothing to loose from mass killings. Politically and militarily this may be correct, but it constitutes an amoral strategy.  From a legal and ethical perspective, it must not go unchallenged. 

Now more than ever, we need to make clear that international law provides mechanisms for accountability. Like those ultimately held to account before the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, there will be a day of reckoning for those most responsible for the crimes being committed in Syria. Unfortunately, the victims of the Syrian conflict may have to wait some time before this happens. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ