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Syria Human Rights Investigation Mired in Politics

  • Jeff Swicord

Human rights groups say they have documented cases of abuse by Syrian government forces against the country's civilian population. These include denying medical attention to wounded prisoners, firing live ammunition at protesters and shelling civilian neighborhoods.

After a week of heavy shelling, there is still no end to the violence in the Syrian city of Homs. The death toll continues to rise, and some human rights activists accuse President Bashar al-Assad's government of crimes against humanity.

"Amnesty International believes that the Assad government and the government of Syria have in fact carried out crimes against humanity," said Sanjeev Bery of Amnesty International. "Of course, this sort of determination has to be made by the International Criminal Court through a formal investigation."

But the International Criminal Court (ICC) is unable to investigate. The United Nations Security Council must make a formal recommendation in order for the ICC to act. And so far, permanent members Russia and China have used their veto power to block any action against Assad's government.

"I think that's also factoring into the consideration of whether we should proceed with an indictment at the International Criminal Court," said Randa Slim with the Middle East Institute in Washington. "So, there is a will, but whether they can act on it…it will depend on whether Russia will go along with it."

Some point to the Security Council action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi as an example of how to proceed with Assad and Syria. But Slim says Libya was different.

"Gadhafi was isolated and he had no allies," Slim noted. "Basically, he was not on anybody's friendship list or allies list. And so it was easy for the committee to come together and agree to referring him to the ICC. It is just going to be difficult to do it here with Russia standing by the side of its long-standing ally."

Russia argues that further isolating Assad is a mistake and will make a negotiated settlement to the crisis more difficult.

Slim says there is some sentiment to that argument in the international community.

"There is now an argument among some Syria watchers, and some Syria analysts, and there is some argument by former U.S. officials here in the states, that by indicting Assad, indicting the senior officers around him, we lessen, we reduce the incentives for him to agree to a negotiated settlement," Slim added.

But human rights activists fear that a negotiated settlement is not in the offing. And time is running out for Syrians caught in the line of fire.